It’s been 70 years since Army Chaplain Clark Poling felt the shock of a German torpedo striking the side of the USS Dorchester.
A full lifetime has passed since he gave his life jacket to a soldier and went down with the ship, praying and singing hymns all the way.
But time hasn’t faded the memory of his sacrifice for the First Reformed Church of Schenectady, Poling’s last congregation.
On Sunday afternoon, the Poling Chapel at First Reformed was filled in his honor and the memory of three other chaplains who also gave their lives on the Dorchester.
“We are defined by the stories we tell each other,” said the Rev. Bill Levering, starting off the memorial service.
And it’s quite a tale. Local storyteller Joe Doolittle recounted how the young pastor of First Reformed, newly married with one baby and another on the way, felt a call to serve the soldiers during World War II.
“Before he shipped out he wrote his father, ‘Pray for me, but don’t pray for my safe return. That wouldn’t be fair. Pray that I would be adequate.’ ”
Poling wound up on the Army transport ship Dorchester with three other chaplains: a rabbi, a Catholic priest and a Methodist minister. The four men met and became friends at pre-deployment divinity school, anticipating some hard months together helping a crop of fresh-faced American farm boys beat back the Germans.
“There was a long, skinny boat out on the north Atlantic with 60 Germans in it,” Doolittle said. “Their job was to sink ships.”
On the cold night of Feb. 3, 1943, the Dorchester filled with Atlantic seawater from a torpedo blast and sank.
Poling and the other chaplains found the life jacket locker and handed them out, “and when the locker ran out they gave their own,” Doolittle said.
Many men died with the chaplains, but many lived through their efforts. Sunday’s event not only honored the men of God, but the whole idea of unity through sacrifice.
Each of the chaplains came from a different denomination — sections of the faith that haven’t been on speaking terms for sizable periods of history.
On a sinking ship, denomination simply doesn’t matter.
In the spirit of interdenominational unity, U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, was on hand to present the Four Chaplains Humanitarian Award to the Rev. Anthony Sidoti, a local Catholic priest who died at the age of 90 in 2004.
Sidoti racked up a heavy lapel of military honors as a chaplain during World War II, including two Silver Stars and a Purple Heart, earned for a knuckle-sized piece of shrapnel buried deep in his right knee.
His second cousin Mark Frye accepted the award, remembering Sidoti for his ever-present dog named G.I. and for smoking big cigars.
“He was a regular Joe,” he Frye said. “He had a drink sometimes and used colorful language for a priest.”
He said Sidoti’s service, though nonlethal, was worthy of the four chaplains’ memory.
Levering called for the community to work together like the chaplains, though now is technically a time of peace.