The United States Army Transport (USAT) Dorchester will always be remembered in the history of the Army Chaplain Corps. Upon this ship, the “Four Immortal Chaplains” (1LTs George Fox, Alexander Goode, Clark Poling, and John Washington) served. Together they saved the lives of Soldiers and Sailors after the doomed ship was torpedoed on February 3, 1943. They did everything to help load panic-stricken men into lifeboats. When there was nothing else, they gave away their coats, gloves, and life preservers to save a final few. Then they locked arm-in-arm and determined to encourage and pray for the dying and go down with the ship.
The testimony of their sacrifice has always served as the chaplains’ “reality check” to get them back on course when they lose sight of their mission and higher calling. Yes, just mention the Dorchester and the heroism of these four chaplains comes to mind.
But this story includes the name of another ship – the USS Escanaba. Both ships started as civilian vessels. After recruitment, the Escanaba transitioned into military service as a Coast Guard cutter. And like the Dorchester, the Escanaba would also meet its doom from a German U-boat torpedo.
Actually, it was the Escanaba which rescued most of the 230 survivors from the Dorchester’s 904 passengers and crew. In fact, its rescue efforts broke new ground in lifesaving. It was one of the first ships to employ rescue swimmers who tied survivors (too cold to grasp a rope) to rescue lines that hoisted them from 34-degree (F) waters to the safety of the ship. This was not the first or last of Escanaba’s lifesaving efforts.
Although its primary mission was to kill u-boats, it saved hundreds of lives and protected dozens of ships. Unfortunately, the Enscanaba had a brief military career. Tragedy struck the ship ony four months after assisting the Dorchester. The Escanaba itself was destroyed by a German torpedo. It sank in less than three minutes. Unfortunately, no ship was there to help the crew of the Escanaba. The delayed rescue resulted in only two of its 103 crew surviving.
The story of the Escanaba reminds me of many people – people who have dedicated their lives to helping and healing others. Yet, when they find themselves in trouble and hurting, no one seems to be available to help them. They feel a profound sense of abandonment. “I was there for others – all my life. But no one was there to help me.”
Many times servicemembers feel this way. This is especially true for those who have sacrificed greatly to accomplish the military’s mission. Then, when their lives are broken, the military seems to direct all its efforts to punishing rather than helping those servicemembers. They feel a profound sense of abandonment. “I was there for the military, but they weren’t there for me.”
Believe me. I sympathize with those who feel this way. I have experienced those same feelings and the fear of abandonment. But I need to remind myself that the outcome and rewards for the good which I do in this present life will probably not return to me until the life to come.
The concept of “Karma” – the idea that the good or bad that we do to others will come back to bless or curse us – is deep in our culture. But I’ve got to realize that this life is for service, service to God and to my fellow human beings. That’s why we chaplains are in this business. This life is not the place for rewards. Heaven is the place where God will reward my faithfulness to Him and to others. In this life I must measure my success on how faithfully I use my days, hours, and resources for the advancement of God’s Kingdom and for the betterment of others.
If a kindness I perform is someday returned to me, fine. But if not, I must always look to my heavenly Father as the One I serve and strive to please. And I must look to Him as the One who will reward me in eternity. “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil for the Lord is never in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).
Dear Heavenly Father, when I receive less from others than I give or when evil is returned for the good I have shown, help me to remember that, at those times, I am most like You. For, as the Scripture says, “He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men” (Luke 6:35). Amen.