Last weekend, I preached on the importance of loving our neighbor. And if you want to
see how this is lived out, every day among us are people who personify this virtue,
namely our veterans who have served our country and give so much to preserve our
While stories of sacrifice abound, one of the ones that has struck me the most was the
story of what happened on a transport ship during World War II. I shared this story back
during the Easter Season in one of my homilies.
On February 2, 1943, a United States troop ship was crowded to capacity. There were
902 service men, merchant seamen and civilian workers on board. The ship was in a
convoy, moving across the waters from Newfoundland toward an American base in
Greenland. It was a dangerous path to take, as German U-boats were constantly going
through the sea lanes, and several ships had already been sunk.
The Dorchester was now only about 150 miles from its destination, but the captain
ordered that the crew sleep in their clothing and to keep their life jackets on. Some
unfortunately disregarded the order because of the heat of the engines, or chose not to wear the jackets as they were uncomfortable.
At 12:55 a.m., a periscope from U-223, a German U-Boat, breaks the surface, and
spots the ship. Three torpedoes are fired, and one hits striking well below the water line.
Water began to flood the ship, and the captain gave the order that everyone abandon
the ship. It had 20 minutes left before it would be sunk.
On board, panic began to set in. A number of the sailors were killed in the initial blast.
The survivors began piling into the lifeboats and rafts, but some were so over-crowded
that they capsized; other rafts drifted away before the sailors could get into them.
However, through the pandemonium, four Army chaplains brought hope in despair and
light in darkness. Lt. George Fox, a Methodist Minister; Lt. Alexander Goode, a Jewish
Rabbi; Fr. John Washington, a Catholic Priest, and Lt. Clark Poling, a Dutch Reformed
minister. They tried to calm people down, and help the wounded, and guide those who
were disoriented to safety. The rabbi even gave a sailor his pair of gloves when he tried
to go back to get his pair, as he knew the sailor had to get off the boat. According to one
witness, “I could hear the chaplains preaching courage. Their voices were the only thing
that kept me going.”
As the minutes passed and the sailors got topside, the chaplains began giving out the
life jackets. The problem was as they were distributed, they ran out. And with no more
lifejackets in the storage room, each of the chaplains removed theirs and gave them to
four terrified young men. Survivors in nearby rafts reported that as the ship went down,
the four chaplains could be seen linked together arm by arm, and were braced against
the slanting deck of the sinking ship, offering prayers.
One of the survivors, John Ladd, said “It was the finest thing I have seen or hope to see
this side of heaven.” In an article written on the event the author stated: “Ladd’s
response is understandable. The altruistic action of the four chaplains constitutes one of
the purest spiritual and ethical acts a person can make. When giving their life jackets,
Rabbi Goode did not call out for a Jew; Father Washington did not call out for a
Catholic; nor did the Reverends Fox and Polling call out for a Protestant. They simply
gave their life jackets to the next man in line.”
These four brave chaplains, like so many of our veterans, have so much to teach us.
For one, our vets show us the importance of sacrifice. Loving God with our whole heart,
mind and soul and our neighbor as ourselves as we heard last week, entails giving.
How far are we willing to go to serve our families, our country, our parish and those in
Vets also show us the importance of unity. As I mentioned last week, sometimes we can
be so polarized and divided. The four chaplains were all of different faiths, but were
united in bringing hope to a dark place. It’s important to stand for what we believe in, but
can we work for greater unity in our Church and country? Can we strive to bring people
together rather than be divisive?
So too to vets teach us humility. I’ve never met a veteran who wanted to boast of what
they did in the service. When you meet veterans, it’s not about themselves, it’s about a
greater good. And you see them continuing to serve too quietly in so many ways even
after they leave the service through their volunteering and continued dedication to our
This Sunday, we honor all of our vets. But while this is a holiday once a year, I think
every day we can pray for our veterans. When we see a person who served or who is in
active duty, we can thank them. And we can look to them and remember what it truly
means to serve something greater than ourselves.
You also might have noticed our new honor wall, which will be blessed after our 8:30
Mass Sunday. A group of Saint Joseph’s parishioners who are veterans have been
working on this since last spring, meeting and coming up with ideas and then putting
those ideas into motion to make our Veterans Wall a reality. This wall bears names of
any parishioners who have served in our military dating all the way back to the Civil
War. It will continue to have names added in future years as well. Please stop by and
take a look, and keep all of our vets in your prayer.
Edmund Burke, the Irish politician, famously said: “All that is necessary for evil to
triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Thank God for the men and women who do
something to stand up to evil, to fight for truths that matter, and for our great country.
May God bless them and keep them in His loving embrace, and may we never forget
the great sacrifice all those who serve and have served make.