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John Paradis: Remembering four true heroes of World War II

But as I stood on the cold pavement outside the chapel at the VA medical center in Leeds, I was no longer thinking of football. Here, as I watched more than 35 veterans from around the region move in a procession carrying flags of honor in tribute to four fallen chaplains, my definition of hero changed.

The occasion was the Four Chaplains Memorial Service, conducted annually on the first Sunday in February at the VA, in memory of four clergymen who gave their lifejackets to crewmen when the troopship Dorchester was torpedoed by a German U-boat during World War II off the Newfoundland coast.

Sunday was the 70th anniversary of the sinking of the Dorchester. Of about 900 on board that day, 627 were killed.

Among the dead on the Dorchester were two Protestant clergymen, George Fox and Clark Poling; a Catholic priest, John Washington; and a Jewish rabbi, Alexander Goode. They helped others board lifeboats and forfeited their life jackets when the ship’s supply ran out. According to survivors, the chaplains locked arms, prayed and sang hymns as the Dorchester disappeared into the bitterly cold North Atlantic.

For nearly four decades the VA has held a service here, and, since 1988, the day has been commemorated nationally. Still, veterans say the four chaplains are unknown to most people. They are certainly not as well-known as Tom Brady or Ray Lewis. It’s not even close — and that bothers them.

During a televised sporting event, we’ve all watched as someone will inevitably use a cliché to describe physical or mental toughness. A player will be praised for perseverance or perhaps for performance under pressure.

There’s no cliché to describe what the four chaplains did.

“It’s important that today’s children know what they did and what we were fighting for,” said one veteran wearing a service cap of the American Legion, which each year is the host and sponsor for the service in Leeds and several others across the state. He said more houses of worship should honor the four chaplains and remember Americans who have died in all wars.

To the veterans in attendance, it doesn’t matter that this first Sunday in February is now Super Bowl Sunday. What matters is that we all remember the message of the four chaplains.

For it is an enduring one, they say. It’s a message about standing up for a principle and sacrificing for a belief. Few are ever called upon to prove their sincerity by making that ultimate stand, that ultimate sacrifice.

At the core, it’s about that moment when beliefs of a lifetime come directly in conflict with self-preservation. Those few who are truly heroic rarely hesitate to opt for what they have always believed. And that, to me, is the message of the four chaplains.

So as I entered the chapel and looked at a stained glass window recalling the four men, I wondered: How many people today would go down with the ship to save others? That’s a hard one to answer.

On the biggest day of American marketing, advertising and consumption, during an era of celebrity obsession, be it professional sports or Hollywood, veterans in the Valley each year travel to Leeds to remember four chaplains of different faiths and to thank the men and women who paid with their lives so that we could all have the privilege to live in freedom.

Seldom is anyone challenged to live up to the biblical observation: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Seventy years ago this week, four Army chaplains provided us with such a lifelong lesson in love and also a lesson in commitment, courage and selflessness.

This past Super Bowl Sunday, I was reminded that the most powerful character education does not come from a game, but from a life. In the case of Feb. 3, 1943, four lives.

We live in age where we focus on the individual, and, too often and sadly, the celebrity. The story of the four chaplains emphasizes that it is often ordinary people such as soldiers, firefighters, police officers and teachers, rather than sports gods and rock stars, who accomplish the extraordinary.

In an era where we have seen our nation’s wartime burdens shouldered by a relatively small segment of society, the service honoring the chaplains each year grounds me on what is truly important.

A hero is someone who behaves selflessly, usually at personal risk and sacrifice, to comfort or empower others and to make the world a better place. I may admire Tom Brady and all my favorite New England sports athletes for what they do on playing fields, but for true heroes, we need look no further than George Fox, Clark Poling, John Washington and Alexander Goode.

John Paradis, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, lives in Florence and writes a monthly column that appears on the second Friday. He is the public relations manager for the VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System.

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