Dan Kurzman received his usual collection of clippings in the mail from his brother-in-law several years ago. In the envelope was a newspaper article about four clergymen (a Jew, a Catholic and two Protestants) who had heroically sacrificed their lives for the sake of American soldiers on a torpedoed troop ship in the north Atlantic in the winter of 1943.
"Wouldn’t this make a great book," Fred Knopf, asked in a note.
Kurzman, a resident of North Bergen, N.J., a veteran journalist and author, a former soldier who had served in Europe at the end of World War II, had never heard of the USAT Dorchester or the men who came to be known as the Four Chaplains.
But he agreed with his brother-in-law.
It took years of discussions with publishers, but Kurzman’s book about the Dorchester and the Four Chaplains, his 16th book, was recently published by Random House. "No Greater Glory: The Four Immortal Chaplains and the Sinking of the Dorchester in World War II" recounts how Rabbi Alex Goode, Father John Washington, and pastors George Lansing Fox and Clark Poling gave up their life jackets, and their lives, when the ship, which had sailed from Staten Island, sank in the frigid waters near Greenland on February 3, 1943. Two thirds of the 900 men on board froze to death before help arrived.
According to survivors’ accounts, which soon became legendary, the Four Chaplains were seen praying on deck, their arms linked, when the Dorchester went under.
Kurzman, who interviewed survivors and relatives of the chaplains and reviewed taped interviews with deceased Dorchester soldiers and did "a lot" of library and archival research, wanted to go beyond the well-known, near-mythic aspects of the story. He relates the slipshod rescue effort. And, of more importance to him, he tells not only what the Four Chaplains did, but why.
"I wasn’t just after the action," Kurzman says.
Kurzman, 72, profiles each of the chaplain’s pre-war lives, their youth and education and motivation for joining the army.
Each volunteered to become a chaplain, knowing the risks involved. Each gave up his life jacket on the Dorchester, knowing he would not survive.
"They knew they were going to die," Kurzman says. He wanted to know, "What makes guys like that? What was in their minds?"
His answer is that in their own ways, the Four Chaplains shared an ecumenical approach to life. "They had little in common," he says, "except for the common love of humanity." Thrown together in the army, ministering to soldiers from disparate religious backgrounds, "they really became brothers," he says.
Which is why Kurzman, once he began investigating the Dorchester story, decided it merited a book. "In a sense," he writes in the preface, "their actions enthrallingly signified a repudiation of all the prejudice and hate that over the centuries have led to so many crimes, even genocide, in the name of God."
"I wanted to write this story for so many years," he says, but publishers weren’t particularly interested.
After the 2001 attacks, in the name of Islam, on the United States, a proposal about a book with an inspiring, interfaith message received a warmer reception.
"This," Kurzman says, "is the ultimate in brotherhood."
"It was a real gamble," he says. He didn’t know which of the Dorchester survivors were still alive. Or which of them would be willing to meet with him.
A former Washington Post reporter and war correspondent, he used his contacts to find the score of still-living survivors. Accompanied by his wife Florence, who transcribes his interviews and edits his writing, he drove to their homes or interviewed them on the phone.
All were glad to talk. Aging, often emotional, "they remember this," the details of that horrible day in 1943, Kurzman says. "The people I talked to were concerned that this might be forgotten."
To keep the memory of the Four Chaplains alive, the American Legion has invited Kurzman to speak about his book at the veterans’ group national convention in Nashville at the end of August.
Kurzman is sure to give credit to his brother-in-law for suggesting the book. Knopf is listed in the acknowledgements. "I put his name in the book," he says.