Legacy of WWII Chaplains Lives On at Belmont Park

By Bill Finley

The Four Chaplains plaque located at Belmont ParkThe plaque sits inconspicuously on a large rock between the clubhouse and the racing secretary’s office at Belmont Park, largely unnoticed by the thousands who pass by it each year. But is tells a remarkable story of war and heroism, of four chaplains in World War II who sacrificed their lives to help others.

Men of God, they selflessly put others before themselves and, in doing so, saved lives. Their story lives on at least 11 memorial sites around the country.

The four chaplains—Methodist Reverend George L. Fox, Jewish rabbi Alexander D. Goode, Roman Catholic Priest John P. Washington and the Reformed Church of America Reverend Clark V. Poling—were serving the troops aboard the USAT Dorchester.

On the evening of Feb. 2, 1943, the Dorchester was part of a convoy on its way to a U.S. base in Greenland.  While in the area of Newfoundland, Canada, it was fired upon by a German submarine. Hit by the German torpedoes, the ship began to sink, and its captain gave orders to the men who had survived the blast to abandon ship. In the midst of the ensuing panic and chaos, the four chaplains went to work, doing their best to calm the men, help with their wounds and guide them to safety.

"I could hear men crying, pleading, praying," recalled Private William B. Bednar, as reported by the website fourchaplains.org "I could also hear the chaplains preaching courage. Their voices were the only thing that kept me going.”

The chaplains began to distribute life jackets to those trying to flea the ship for the icy Atlantic waters. When there were no more to be found, each one gave their life jacket to a frightened soldier trying to survive the ordeal. Without life jackets of their own, the chaplains were doomed.

They were among the 672 men who died during the sinking of the Dorchester. Only 203 survived.

“I saw the chaplains when I was in the water,” said James Eardley, 86, a Westerlo, New York resident and one of less than 20 living survivors of the tragedy. “The boat rolled on to starboard and then the nose started going down. Then I saw them, up in the skyline, the four of them standing arm-in-arm on the boat. When I turned around again, the four of them were gone and so was the boat. These guys sure had guts. They had to have had a lot of faith in God to do what they did. They must have figured He would take care of them.”

It was a remarkable act in so many ways. At a time of peril, no one cared who was Jewish or Catholic or Protestant or whether or not one group didn’t necessarily like the other. Men of different faiths, the chaplains worked for the common good, a lesson we can all learn from.

“It’s unfortunate that this story is almost lost today because it is so applicable to today’s world,” said Paul Fried, Rabbi Goode’s son-in-law. “If men of different faiths can die together, why can’t we all live together in peace?”

In 1944, the four were awarded the Purple heart and the Distinguished Service Cross. A one-time only posthumous Special Medal for Heroism was authorized by Congress and awarded to the chaplains by the President Dwight D. Eisenhower on January 18, 1961. They have also appeared on a postage stamp.  A movie on their story, tentatively called “Lifeboat 13” is being developed by Michel Shane and Anthony Romano ("I Robot," "Catch Me if You Can").

The Belmont plaque says of the chaplains: “…who gave their life jackets so that four soldiers might live. The Dorchester was torpedoed February 3, 1943, as it sank the four men were linked arm in arm, heads lifted up in prayer.”

The plaque was created by the members of a now-defunct American Legion Post, Robert F. Mangel Memorial Post No. 1781, which represented veterans who worked at the racetrack. According to Mike Passarelli, a Viet Nam veteran and a retired mutuel clerk who was a member of Post 1781, veterans met at the plaque each year on Memorial Day to hold a service, a tradition, he said, that extended back to the old Belmont Park.  Though the post is no longer functioning, a small group of veterans continue to meet each year at the rock for Memorial Day services.

But why did a group of racetrack veterans decide to join those honoring the chaplains? Passarelli said that those who may know the answer have passed on.

There are some connections to the New York area. Goode was born in Brooklyn and Fried recalls that he liked horse racing. However, he doubts he ever went to Belmont Park. John Washington was born in Newark, went to Seton Hall and served at churches in North Jersey. The Dorchester’s voyage began in Staten Island. President Truman appeared at ceremonies in 1947 at Bronx veteran’s hospital, where a therapeutic swimming pool was unveiled and named in honor of the chaplains. Could that have inspired someone at the racetrack?

Or perhaps a racetrack worker survived the Dorchester. Maybe an exercise rider, a trainer, an usher, or a track executive. Maybe one even wound up with a life jacket given to them by the chaplains.

The mystery may linger, but the message endures.