NAVARRE — It’s only recently that Phil Williams, chaplain of American Legion Post 382, heard the story of the four military chaplains aboard the Dorchester, a U.S. Army transport ship, in World War II.
But now that he’s heard it, Williams is doing his best to ensure the story is heard, repeated and remembered. And that’s why Post 382, at 1850 Luneta St. in Navarre, is hosting its first memorial for the four chaplains at 1 p.m. Sunday.
"The Fort Walton Beach has done it each year," said Williams, as have any number of other posts in the area and across the state. Last year, Post 382’s commander asked Williams to look into the possibility of the post hosting its own memorial for the four chaplains.
Briefly, this is their story: On Feb. 2, 1943, the U.S.A.T. Dorchester was carrying more than 900 servicemen, merchant seamen and civilian workers from Newfoundland to an American base in Greenland. Early on the morning of Feb. 3, a German submarine torpedoed the Dorchester, and the captain gave the order to abandon ship.
As the Dorchester sank, the four chaplains on board — Methodist Lt. George Fox, Jewish Lt. Alexander D. Goode, Roman Catholic Lt. John P. Washington and Dutch Reformed Lt. Clark V. Poling — worked to calm frightened troops, tend to the wounded and guide passengers toward safety.
As the ship continued to sink, the chaplains began handing out life jackets from a storage locker. When the supply of life jackets ran out, the four chaplains gave their own to four other young men.
The chaplains went down with the Dorchester, arm in arm and offering prayers. All four were posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the Purple Heart, along with a one-time-only honor, the Special Medal for Heroism — intended to have the same importance as the Medal of Honor.
On Sunday in Navarre, the American Legion Post 382 memorial for the four chaplains will include the Navarre High School Navy Junior ROTC, the retelling of the story, prayers and the performing of "Amazing Grace" and "Taps," Williams said.
From now on, Williams added, it‘s likely that Post 382 will remember the four chaplains each year.
"I have a feeling we will," he said.