The Honor of the 40/8
By Joe Casey
On Sunday, February 5th, I had the honor of attending a memorial service to honor the lives of four U.S. Army Chaplains who perished on February 3, 1943, when a German submarine torpedoed their troopship. The nondenominational service told the stories the four chaplains, who were lieutenants in the United States Army: Rev. George L. Fox (Methodist), Rabbi Alexander D. Goode (Jewish), Rev. Clark V. Poling (Reformed Church in America) and Fr. John P. Washington (Roman Catholic). I was there because of the priest, but I was amazed at the stories of all four, all from different faith traditions, brought together by war.
John and the other three clergymen applied for and were accepted into the army chaplaincy in 1942. They met and became close friends during their time at chaplains’ school at Harvard. Rev. Poling stated “We had a special kind of unity” and in that unity they found strength.
In late 1942, the chaplains were transferred to Camp Myles Standish in Taunton, Massachusetts and attended Chaplains School at Harvard University. In January 1943, the chaplains embarked on board the USAT Dorchester at Boston Harbor, which was transporting over 900 soldiers to the United Kingdom via Greenland.
On February 2, 1943 the German submarine U-223 spotted the convoy on the move and closed with the ships, firing a torpedo, which struck the Dorchester shortly after midnight. Hundreds of men packed the decks of the rapidly sinking ship and scrambled for the lifeboats. Several of the lifeboats had been damaged and the four chaplains began to organize frightened soldiers. They distributed life jackets from a locker; when the supply of life jackets ran out, each of the chaplains gave theirs to other soldiers. When the last lifeboats were away, the chaplains prayed with those unable to escape the sinking ship. Twenty-seven minutes after the torpedo struck, the Dorchester disappeared below the waves, with 672 men still aboard. The last site of the four chaplains showed them standing on the deck, arms linked and praying together.
Each of the four chaplains was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the Purple Heart. In 1961, the four chaplains were awarded the Chaplain’s Medal for Heroism, for the giving of their lives in the line of duty. The medal was authorized by an act of Congress on July 14, 1960. The medals were presented posthumously to their next of kin by Secretary of the Army Wilber M. Brucker at Ft. Myer, Virginia on January 18, 1961.
The memorial service on February 5, 2012 was held at United Methodist Church in Berea, Ohio. It was sponsored by the Cuyahoga County Voiture Locale #11 La Societe des 40 Hommes et 8 Chevaux and also the Albert E. Baesel American Legion Auxiliary Unit #91.
The Forty & Eight was formed in 1920 by American Legionnaires as an honor society and from its earliest days it has been committed to charitable aims. Membership is by invitation for members of the American Legion who have shown exemplary service. All Forty & Eight members are thus veterans of congressionally recognized wartime periods via their Legion membership.
The Forty & Eight’s titles and symbols reflect its First World War origins. American servicemen in France were transported to the battle front on narrow gauge French railroads (Chemin de Fer) inside boxcars (Voitures) that were half the size of American boxcars. Each French boxcar was stenciled with a “40/8”, denoting its capacity to hold either forty men or eight horses. This ignominious and uncomfortable mode of transportation was familiar to all who traveled from the coast to the trenches; a common small misery among American soldiers who thereafter found “40/8” a lighthearted symbol of the deeper service, sacrifice and unspoken horrors of war that truly bind those who have borne the battle.