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Did you know …

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That today was “Four Chaplains Day” in the United States?

No? Well, you’re not alone. The 71st anniversary of that fateful night when four U.S. Army chaplains gave their lives that others might live, caused barely a ripple today. It has come and gone quietly, and largely unmarked … including by yours truly.

chaplainsstampAnd I might have remained ignorant fo the fact were it not for a stop by Wikipedia’s home page, where I perused their “This Day in History” column. A link in that column took me to a Wikipedia page where I learned that, in 1988, the United States Congress established February 3 as “Four Chaplains Day.” And get this … Congress acted unanimously in doing so ….ah, those were the good ol’ days!

The page went on to note that some state or city officials commemorate the day with official proclamations, sometimes including the order that flags fly at half-mast in memory of the fallen chaplains. In some cases, official proclamations establish observances at other times: for example, North Dakota legislation requests that the Governor issue an annual proclamation establishing the first Sunday in February as “Four Chaplains Sunday.”

Notice the frequent use use of some variation or another of the word “some.”

The day is also observed as the “Day of the Dorchester Chaplains” in the lectionary cycle of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America. And there are memorials to the four chaplains – one Catholic, two Protestant, and one Jewish – in a variety of media around the country … stained glass windows, stone monuments, postage stamps, building and chapel names … and wax … at least once upon a time.

I was reminded of a visit my family made to Washington, D.C. back in the sixties, while my father was posted to nearby Quantico, Virginia. One of our stops that day was to the National Historic Wax Museum. I don’t recall the other exhibits … but I remember the one devoted to the four chaplains, their commitment to their faith and their answer to their calling. It was a large exhibit, with the movement and noise that suggested a ship at sea, all set in a pool of water. The display – and the museum itself – is long gone. But I did find a picture … ya gotta love the internet!


It is reported by the Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation (based in your part of the country, in Philly) that during the early morning hours of February 3, 1943, at 12:55 a.m., the USAT Dorchester was torpedoed by a German submarine in the North Atlantic. The torpedo knocked out the Dorchester’s electrical system, leaving the ship dark. Panic set in among the men on board, many of them trapped below decks.

The foundation reports goes on to note that the chaplains sought to calm the men and organize an orderly evacuation of the ship, and helped guide wounded men to safety. As life jackets were passed out to the men, the supply ran out before each man had one. The chaplains removed their own life jackets and gave them to others. They helped as many men as they could into lifeboats, and then linked arms and, saying prayers and singing hymns, went down with the ship.

As I post this, there’s less than five hours left of Four Chaplains Day 2014. Yet there’s something about their story that could be/should be observed, cherished and shared throughout the year. May we never find ourselves in the desperate situation they faced … but may we have at least a small portion of their courage, their love and their devotion for whatever life brings us.

There's a saying around here, something like, "I wasn't born in Texas, but I got here as fast as I could!" That's me. I'm a 'dang Yankee from back-east' who settled in the Lone Star State after some extended stays in the eastern U.S., and New Mexico. I worked as an archaeologist for a few years before dusting off my second major in English, and embarking on a 25-year career in journalism. Since then, I've embraced the dark side of the force, and now work in PR for a community college in Midland, Texas.

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6 Responses to “Did you know …”

  1. I too remember the 4 Chaplains exhibit at the national wax museum…visited there with my parents,

    I was going on 10 yr. old. My father, who remembered well the story of the 4 Chaplains from the mid-1940s when it happened, explained to me what the display was commemorating and honoring,

    The story of the 4 Chaplains has captured my imagination ever since. The nobility and the selflessness at the heart of their story inspires awe and self-reflection. I seem to recall that the exhibit rocked and creaked, to simulate a sinking ship.

    Being Jewish, I took a certain solemn pride in the fact that one of the chaplains was a Jew, like me (and my father).

  2. Do you have any idea what became of the Four Chaplain’s exhibit?

  3. Sorry, Phil, but I don’t. The National Wax Museum occupied three different location over 25 years. If there’s an old Washingtonite out there, reading this, maybe they can tell us what became of its exhibits when it closed for good in the early 1980s.

  4. I seem to remember seeing this exhibit in the Denver, Colorado Wax Museum or one similar to it in the 1960’s.

  5. I also went to that wax museum, and recall my father explaining the context of the display. It made a vivid impression so much that during a recent historical talk when it was mentioned I immediately flashed back to seeing it.

  6. Thanks for the feedback, Glenn! It was the same with me … it wasn’t the only display at the museum, but it was – for me, at least – the most indelible.

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