On Saturday, February 2 - a cold, rainy day in the small Northern California town of Willits (population 4,875) - local American Legion Post 174 conducted a memorial service to honor the “Four Chaplains” who willingly gave up their lives to save others on Feb. 3, 1943. It was deemed vitally important by the local post that these men be remembered in perpetuity.
To this writer's knowledge, it is the “first time ever” that this ceremony has been conducted in Mendocino County, let alone our town.
The main message of the memorial service focused on the Four Chaplains and their sacrificial service, which was given by Pastor Karl Bliese of St. John Lutheran Church. Four local ecumenical representatives, reading biographies of each of the four chaplains, followed the message.
1st Lts. Fox, Goode, Washington and Poling were aboard the transport ship Dorchester with 900 troops headed to Europe when torpedoed by U-233, a German submarine. After the torpedoing of the ship, the chaplains stayed on deck to offer comfort and help to their fellow comrades. These four heroes then gave up their life jackets and places on lifeboats in order to save others. They were last seen praying together on deck as the bow lifted into the air and sank into the sea.
Local post members, the District 1 commander, Sons of the American Legion, other veterans organization representatives and a large contingent from Chapter 96 of the American Legion Riders were in attendance, along with a nearly full chapel of attendees that included county and city dignitaries. Post 174 provided the honor and color guard for the service.
At a reception hosted afterwards by church members, many of the attendees discussed the touching story of the chaplains. Their suggestion is that the community should endeavor to conduct this memorial service each year. We as veterans should never forget the sacrifices of our fellow comrades in arms.