We stand together in muffled silence on the slanting deck. The four of us. Two Protestant ministers, a Catholic priest, and a Jewish rabbi. We are brothers in service.
My fellow chaplains are as anxious as I am for the 900 lives on this torpedoed ship, yet their expressions beam with confidence. It’s not the hope for our miraculous rescue, it’s the hope for an everlasting peace in a heavenly home. A trust in our loving Father. Their enthusiasm is contagious and my countenance warms on this frigid night on the North Atlantic.
I notice a young man in only pants and olive-drab T-shirt staring at the empty storage locker with sad eyes. He hesitates to ask so I answer for him. “We gave out all the life jackets. There’s never enough, I’m sorry.”
He slowly turns in a daze and I grasp his arm.
“Wait. Take these, I’ve got an extra pair.” I pull off my gloves and put them on his shaking hands. I hold both his hands and gaze into fear-filled eyes. “You will be okay. You’re gonna’ make it.”
He jerks his head in the direction of men screaming as a lifeboat crashes onto the water and capsizes. He draws back.
“Take mine,” I say as I untie my life jacket.
“No Padre. I won’t do that.” He pulls away, slips on the sea-sprayed deck, and falls to his knees. He reminds me of a begging orphan and with renewed determination I take off the heavy vest and put it on him, one arm at a time. He struggles to stop me but I prevail.
“Please, I insist. I’m a good swimmer.”
He cries. We both know I just signed my death warrant. Without the life jacket the body succumbs to hypothermia quicker and my arms and legs will stop moving before the escort ships arrive. With a gentle smile, I help him up, pat him on the shoulder, and point him toward a departing lifeboat…
The fortunate ones rowed away from the sinking vessel in lifeboats and saw something extraordinary in the early morning hours of February 3, 1943. They could see the four chaplains clinging to each other on the steeply sloped deck. Each of them had given away their life jacket. They were braced against the railing, arms linked together and their heads bowed in prayer.
One survivor, Private William Bednar, floated in oil-smeared water surrounded by corpses. “I could hear men crying, pleading, praying,” Bednar recalled. “I could also hear the chaplains preaching courage. Their voices were the only thing that kept me going.”
Another eyewitness exclaimed, “It was the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven.”
* Petition: O’Lord, these men of different faiths died to save men of all faiths. May we practice such noble virtue in the land of the living.