The Four Chaplains: More Musings

As described to the TU in last Monday’s story, the Four Chaplains were arm in arm on top of the keel right before the boat went down.

“When I looked, the only thing that was showing was the keel,” said Eardley, a private who had reached the safety of a raft. “And there were the four chaplains on top of the keel, arm in arm with each other.”

He turned back, and the boat was gone.

It’s a very striking image: The four of them, standing with arms linked on the keel of a capsized ship, calmly awaiting death.

But then logistical questions started intruding. How did the four of them, in the press of fearful soldiers, manage to scramble from the deck onto the upturned keel? Were they tossed into the water? If so, how could it be possible that all four made it back, and managed to stay there standing as the boat went down? Why those four only, out of more than 600 soldiers who drowned that day? Or perhaps they weren’t alone. Perhaps others were gasping and trying to hold on, while somehow their faith and calm enabled them to do what others couldn’t.

The answer, of course, is that the soldier who spoke in Albany last week got it wrong. Remembered it wrong, embroidered the story, something. The boat tipped and slipped under the water; at the end, they were seen standing on deck, braced against the slant, arms linked. See The Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation website. So what seemed like a budding legend resolved itself into just as powerful reality.

Their story is incredible because they gave away their life jackets, but it turns out that they did a lot more than that. They helped confused soldiers get oriented, offered encouragement, tended the wounded, and even comforted the dying.  Somehow this seems amazing, the soon-to-be-dead comforting the dying.

Did they say anything when they took their life jackets off? Perhaps the first one to do so said, “Here, soldier, take my life jacket” — perhaps to alert the others to what could be done — but after that, would the others say anything? Or just recognize that it was the thing to do, shuck off the jacket, and hand it out as if it were part of the supply? Because to say something would be to create obligation, guilt, doubt in the recipient.

There’s a story on the memorial website about one who had exactly this kind of concern:

Another sailor, Petty Officer John J. Mahoney, tried to reenter his cabin but Rabbi Goode stopped him. Mahoney, concerned about the cold Arctic air, explained he had forgotten his gloves. “Never mind,” Goode responded. “I have two pairs.” The rabbi then gave the petty officer his own gloves. In retrospect, Mahoney realized that Rabbi Goode was not conveniently carrying two pairs of gloves, and that the rabbi had decided not to leave the Dorchester.

Why linked arms? Because they were afraid after all. Not of death, but of the dying: Of the thrashing around trying to keep your head above water, to avoid inhaling that first lungful. Linked arms helped them stay calm and true to their intention.

And by using their arms to hold on to each other, instead of to grab onto the doomed ship, they refocused their attention, or at least part of it, on being alive. They could feel the press of another body at their side, and they knew they weren’t alone.