|Vietnam Veterans of America|
In the decommissioned World War II building housing the Chapel of Four Chaplains at the former Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, a large mural depicts four unlikely heroes who gaze back at the viewer in their officers caps and neckties: Rabbi Alexander Goode, the Rev. George Fox (Methodist), the Rev. Clark V. Poling (Dutch Reformed), and the Rev. John P. Washington, a Roman Catholic priest. Vietnam Veterans of America and Sen. Corey Booker (D-N.J.) are working to ensure that their legacy is protected.
The Chapel of Four Chaplains was formally established on February 3, 1951, by President Harry S Truman. It was conceived by the Rev. Daniel A. Poling, the pastor of Grace Baptist Church at Temple University in Philadelphia, whose son was one of the four chaplains. In 1947 the elder Poling offered the basement of his 4,000-seat church for a chapel, and the Kresge Foundation donated $65,000 to convert it into a handsome hall of arched limestone.
The Chapel commemorates an event that took place at Torpedo Junction, the U-boat infested, icy water of the North Atlantic. On January 23, 1943, the U.S. Army Transport Dorchester, an old coastal steamer, left New York Harbor bound for Greenland. The Dorchester was long past the age of retirement. But, in the turmoil of World War II, she, like many others of her vintage, had been pressed into active military service. Her assignment: to transport troops through the North Atlantic and deliver them safely to the shores of Greenland. She never made it.
Survivors of the sinking tell of their last sight of the four valiant chaplains: Their arms were linked as they knelt together on the slanting deck, their heads were bowed in prayer. It was, said one witness, “the finest thing l have ever seen, or hope to see, this side of heaven.”
In the years immediately afterward and throughout the 1980s, the story of these four men of God who had given up their life jackets to save others became well known. The Four Chaplains became a national symbol of heroism and sacrifice. The U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp in 1948; memorial services were held all over the nation; and the Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation was formed to promulgate the interfaith values the chaplains exemplified. The mission of the Foundation is to promote interfaith cooperation and selfless service by telling the story of those four chaplains. Each year, donations are collected by veterans service organizations through Four Chaplains ceremonies and other events to support Foundation programs.
MOVING THE CHAPEL
But that interfaith chapel at Grace Baptist Church, intended to stand “through long generations,” eventually was forced to move. When the church’s congregation relocated to Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, in 1974, Temple University acquired the building but abandoned its upkeep after the city refused to let it be demolished. In 1991 the university informed the Four Chaplains Foundation that the space was unsafe and the Chapel would have to move.
For a decade, the Foundation rented space in a Pottstown, Pennsylvania, mall and tried to raise $5 million for a chapel on a donated site near Valley Forge. Zoning problems, neighborhood opposition, and a lack of money, however, killed the Valley Forge plan. In 2001 the Foundation took out a long-term lease on a semi-abandoned chapel at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, where it hosts about 15 weddings a year. But, with rental costs of $8,000 a year and a staff of two paid employees, the endowment has dwindled rapidly in recent years.
Since 1998 Vietnam Veterans of America has commemorated the Four Chaplains’ memory by holding annual recognition ceremonies and raising funds honoring VVA and AVVA members, prominent contributors to the community, and others whose acts of selfless service—some stretching over decades—are recognized.
A bill soon will be introduced in the U.S. Senate by Sen. Booker. A small contingent of VVA members, including Texas Chapter 670 member Bob Baker, have worked for nearly 14 years to get this legislation introduced. They finally found a sponsor in Sen. Booker, who is lining up a Republican senator as the bill’s prime co-sponsor. Once that is secured, the bill will be introduced. A House sponsor also is being recruited.
The proposed legislation would require the Secretary of the Treasury to mint coins in commemoration of the continuing legacy of The Four Chaplains.
Based on sales of similar commemorative coins by the U.S. Mint, it is projected that the proceeds to the Chapel of Four Chaplains over ten years would amount to more than $3.5 million. Those funds would replenish the endowment fund, increase annual income, and cover the costs of needed building repairs and program enhancements.
Only a limited number of coin bills can be enacted in any year, and both 2021 and 2022 are already committed. But it’s important to get this legislation introduced now so that it can be passed during the 117th Congress and signed by the President. Then there will be a firm commitment to 2023 for production and sale of the commemorative coin by the U.S. Mint.
“2023 would be perfect,” Chapel Executive Director Bill Kaemmer said. “It would be the 80th Anniversary of the February 3, 1943, sinking of the U.S.A.T. Dorchester and the Four Chaplains’ story.”
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