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Sacrifice at sea

In 1948, 12 years after he graduated from the Yale Divinity School, Clark Vandersall Poling’s name was carved in one of the marble tablets that line the walls of the war memorial adjacent to Woolsey Hall. Poling is among the 514 Yale alumni who died in World War II, and though his name is not well known today, his wartime sacrifice as one of the “Four Chaplains” was mourned throughout America in 1943. In February of that year, Poling and three other pastors—a rabbi, a Catholic priest, and a Methodist minister—were sailing for Greenland on the troop ship Dorchester when it was torpedoed. Without hesitation the clergymen gave their life jackets to four servicemen, and, praying together, the four chaplains went down with the ship.


On February 3, 1943, a torpedo fired by a German U-boat tore a gaping hole in the Dorchester.

Clark Poling '36BD was the son of Rev. Daniel Poling, a nationally known religious leader and writer. Born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1910, the younger Poling graduated from Rutgers in 1933 and from the Divinity School three years later. Poling represented the seventh generation of ordained ministers in his family and served two congregations in Connecticut before being appointed minister of the First (Dutch) Reformed Church in Schenectady, New York, in 1938. He married Elizabeth Mane that same year; they had two children.

In late 1942, Poling’s church granted him a leave of absence to enter the army. After completing chaplain’s training in Mississippi he reported to Camp Miles Standish in Taunton, Massachusetts. Poling quickly became friends with three other chaplains who were awaiting overseas transport: Rabbi Alexander Goode, Father John P. Washington, and the Reverend George L. Fox.

On January 23, 1943, the four chaplains sailed from New York. The Dorchester, a troop ship carrying 904 men in all, was 23rd in a 64-ship convoy. On February 3, a little before 1:00 a.m. and just 90 miles from Greenland, a torpedo fired by a German U-boat tore a gaping hole in the Dorchester. There were not enough lifejackets and only minutes left to jump in darkness into the lifeboats or the icy water. Of the 904 on board, 678 were lost.

“Transport Victims Froze at Their Oars” read the headline of a New York Times account of the tragedy. Details of the four chaplains' heroism emerged as survivors recovered and were interviewed. One of the 226 survivors was Engineer Grady Clark, who had been standing close to Chaplain Poling. Clark said: “They quieted the panic, forced men 'frozen' on the rail toward the boats or over the side, helped men adjust life jackets, and at last gave away their own.”

Clark spoke of Chaplain Poling’s contagious laugh, and continued, “I swam away from the ship and turned to watch. The flares now lighted everything. The bow came up high, and she slid under. The last I saw, the chaplains were up there praying for the safety of the men. They had done everything they could. I did not see them again.”

In December 1943, the Army awarded the Distinguished Service Cross to the families of each chaplain. “The manner of their dying was one of the most noble deeds of the war,” said Brigadier General William R. Arnold. “Men of all faiths can be proud that these men of different faiths died together.”

The Four Chaplains have been memorialized in many ways. In 1944, Rev. Daniel Poling dedicated a book, Your Daddy Did Not Die, to his son’s children. In 1948 he gave up the pulpit of the largest Baptist church in Philadelphia to become chaplain of the Chapel of the Four Chaplains—a shrine dedicated to people of all faiths. More recent commemorations include Sea of Glory, a novel; No Greater Glory, a nonfiction account; and Four Chaplains, a documentary. In 1997, relatives of the four men founded the Immortal Chaplains Foundation in Minnesota to perpetuate their legacy and to “honor those who have risked all to protect others of different faith or race.”

At Yale, Poling’s family established the Clark Vandersall Poling Memorial Scholarship in May 1945. His Divinity School classmates, in their 1943 newsletter, dedicated to Poling the following testament: “Clark had more life than any other member of the Class. It is perhaps fitting that he should be the first to move ahead into the adventure of the life beyond. Yet his going is the keenest personal loss to all who knew him and loved him. His place can never be filled by anyone else. His sacrifice makes vivid the tragedy of war, that the price war extracts is the best of human life.”  





In all, 388 Yale Divinity School alumni, representing the classes of 1916-1946, served in the military in World War II. One other graduate of the Divinity School serving in the Chaplain Corps died during the war: Earl Mack Criger '24, who died in California of illness in March 1942. Two Army chaplains who were alumni of other Yale schools died in the war, both as prisoners of the Japanese. Frederick Bingham Howden Jr. '25 died in a Japanese prison camp in Mindanao in December 1942. Edward John Nagel, who attended the Graduate School until 1939, survived two years in Japanese prison camps in the Philippines and the bombing of two different Japanese ships on which he was held prisoner. He died in Japan in February 1945.


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