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VA honors World War II chaplains at Four Chaplains service

Jan. 26, 2013

The Milwaukee VA Medical Center will hold its annual Four Chaplains Memorial Service, 3 p.m. Feb. 3, in the main chapel.

The non-denominational event, held in honor of four military chaplains who gave their lives in World War II after giving their life vests to other soldiers, is open to the entire community.

The chapel is located on the first floor of the medical center, 5000 W. National Avenue, in Milwaukee.

“We had about 200 people at last year’s service, and it’s something I always look forward to because it really demonstrates the unselfish nature of military chaplains and truly represent service above self,” said The Rev. Norm Oswald, a Catholic priest and chief of chaplains at the Milwaukee VA. “Just like the four chaplains were all of different faiths, so are we at the Milwaukee VA, and we offer spiritual services for everyone.”

This is the 70th anniversary of the chaplains’ death, and is held in honor of The Revs. Clark Poling from the Reformed Church of America; John Washington of the Catholic faith; George Fox of the Methodist faith; and Rabbi Alexander Goode of the Jewish faith.
All four were first lieutenants in the Army and part of a U.S. troop transport on the USS Dorchester, Feb. 3, 1943, when a torpedo struck the ship’s flank as it sailed through the icy seas of Greenland.

According to historical accounts, most of the troops were asleep at the time, but the four chaplains calmly led 800 soldiers to the boxes of life jackets and passed them out. When the boxes were empty, the chaplains slipped off their own life jackets, put them on four soldiers and told them to jump.

The Dorchester went down 25 minutes later. Some 600 men were lost, but the chaplains heroic efforts are credited with saving 200 lives. They were last seen on the slanting deck of the ship, with their arms linked in prayer.

The Milwaukee VA chapel service features posting of the colors from the American Legion, 5th District, patriotic and choral music, as well as Taps and an honor guard from the Milwaukee Firefighters Post 426.

What the four chaplains did was more than just courageous, said The Rev. Scott Orth, an ordained minister through the Evangelical Covenant Church, and a VA chaplain, who will lead the Feb. 3 service.

"Back then, it was truly unheard of to have people of different faiths -- a priest, a rabbi and ministers -- work together and advocate for one another," Orth said. "That paved the way for ecumenical and interfaith efforts that began and continue to make the military a better place.

"They showed that the things that unite are so much stronger than those that divide, and there's only one God."

Orth said he feels a special kinship since he was a Navy chaplain for eight years.

"I honestly hadn't heard the story then, but when I did, it just blew me away."

The four chaplains, he said, represent how all the chaplains in the VA try to operate.

"We try to emulate the example of the four chaplains. We are here to care for all, and ours is a ministry of listening to peoples stories and validating their experieinces," he said. "Whether a person is religious or not, we are not here to proselytize.

"I think, for me, that is what makes the story of the four chaplains so moving. I'm not aware of any other story that combines a faith in God, ecumenical and interfaith camaraderie and teamwork, along with a selfless devotion to others."

For more information on the Four Chaplains service, call the chapel at 414-384-2000, ext. 42160.

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