Holy Joes

He sat alone in a breakfast joint. He was old, wearing wrinkled clothes, with white stubble on his chin, like he forgot to shave. He was doing a crossword puzzle.

When I am old, I will forget to shave and do crosswords.

He wore a Navy ball cap with scrambled-egg embellishments on the bill, his reading glasses on his nose.

Buck Owens was overhead singing “Together Again.”

I pulled up a stool beside him. Socially distanced, of course. We micro-smiled at each other. The waitress handed me a menu, I gave it back and replied, “Three eggs, sunny, and bacon, please.”

The old guy and I exchanged another formal grin. Minutes went by. He broke the ice first. “Where’s home, fella?”

When I am old, I will call strangers fella.

I jerked a thumb behind me. “About three hours that way. You?”

He laughed. “Nineteen hours in the other direction. On vacation with my kids in Crawfordville this week.” He looked at me over his readers. “Had to get outta the condo, my granddaughters were driving me insane.”

The waitress refilled his mug. The man used six packets of sugar in his coffee.

I will someday use six packets of sugar.

The inscription on his ballcap caught my eyes, it read: “Navy Chaplain Corps.”

I pointed to his hat. “Bet I can guess what you did for a living.”

The man smiled. “Yep. I’m an inactive chaplain—there’s no such thing as a retired chaplain.”

“So, how’d you get into the business of saving Navy souls?”

He laughed again. “Well, I didn’t save’em. I just listened to a lot of’em talk.”


He added, “My daddy was a preacher. But that ain’t what made me wanna be a Holy Joe.”

“What did?”

“Oh, lotta things.” He looked at me with eyes of slate blue, the color of dungarees. “You ever hear of the SS Dorchester?”

I shook my head. “Was that your ship?”

“No way. The Dorchester was back during the War Against Hitler, in ‘43. I was busy filling diapers in ‘43. You weren’t even a glint in your grandfather’s eye.”

I will also tell youngsters they weren’t glints in their grandfathers’ eyes.

“The Dorchester was a troop transporter, carrying 904 passengers. They were in a three-ship convoy in the North Atlantic when they sank.”


“Sank.” He nudged his cap backward and acknowledged a young waitress who had joined our little conversational soirée. I got the feeling the old preacher didn’t get captive audiences like this anymore.

“How’d it sink?” asked the waitress.

“Torpedoed.” He clapped once. “The Dorchester got attacked by a German sub, middle of the night, just off Newfoundland. Enemy fire knocked out the electrical system, left 904 folks in the pitch dark.”

He leaned forward and lowered his voice for effect.

The waitress leaned in too.

“You wanna talk fear, fella? Try being stuck in the North Atlantic in the dark.”

He let the melodrama breathe for a few moments, then pretended to work on his puzzle again. He was probably waiting for us to beg him to keep talking.


“So what happened?”

The Holy Joe shrugged. “Panic. Suddenly, the crew was going ape, screaming. The ship was going down. Crewmen were trapped below deck. Game over. No hope.”

By now, another young waitress had joined storytime circle.

“So,” the old man went on, “guess who helps organize an orderly evacuation, guess who calms everyone down and keeps 900 people from losing it?” He thumped his hat. “Chaplains. There were four of’em on the Dorchester.”

He placed four fingers on the bartop. “George Fox, Alex Goode, John Washington, and Clark Poling—a Catholic priest, a rabbi, and two old-school preachers.”

The waitress interjected. “I’m Methodist.”

Everyone paused to look at the young woman with confused but polite smiles.

“Well, I am,” she said quietly.

I attempted to bring us back on track. “So they sank?”

“I’m getting to that part. See, these four chaplains were in charge of getting the panicked and wounded to safety, but first they had to pass out life jackets to everyone—in the dark, mind you—and that’s when it all hit the fan.”

He froze to add more tension. This guy was a showman.

“So what happened?” said the professed Methodist.

“What happened is they ran outta life jackets, and without those, you’re dead. Lotta men died.

“Survivors said the only thing you could hear that night were prayers in Hebrew, English, and Latin, filling the air—it was the voices of the chaplains. The chaplains never quit praying. There were 674 lives lost at sea.”

“Wow,” muttered the waitress.

I looked downward at my coffee and thought about brave men I never knew.

The old man’s voice hushed. “Survivors were swimming away from the wreckage, dog paddling through 34-degree water. Some said they looked at the ship behind them, in the glow of the emergency flares, and you know what they saw?”


“The four chaplains were removing their own life jackets and giving their jackets away to save others, while the ship was going down.”

The old man had glazed eyes now. “Last thing anyone remembers seeing was one priest, one rabbi, and two preachers, holding hands, linking arms with crewmen, and singing hymns. The waves crashed in, swallowed everyone whole, killed’em. And those four chaplains went down singing.”

He turned back to his crossword. “That’s what made me wanna be a chaplain.”


  1. Penn Wells - May 8, 2021 7:26 am

    Over the years, you’ve given us some pretty amazing history lessons (my favorite was Lincoln @ Gettysburg, written while you were on a bike ride). But they’re all good. This one, especially.

    • Te Burt - May 8, 2021 11:14 am

      Mr Wells, I am another devoted follower of Sean, and I agree, Gettysburg has stuck with me since I read it. And Ellie Mae. I was his forever at “bloodhound.”

  2. Deborah Blount - May 8, 2021 7:52 am

    I hope you told him how much you appreciated hearing his witness. My guess is that dear gentleman was a wonderful cleryman, because he can still captivate an audience. He certainly had me waiting for the end of the story. You captured the conversation beautifully. Thank you.

  3. Bob Brenner - May 8, 2021 8:56 am

    All I can say is wow! The faith and courage of those four chaplains, unbelievable! Your story touched my soul. Thanks, Sean ✝️

  4. Barry Surratt - May 8, 2021 9:48 am

    I recently retired from serving as a chaplain at a Veterans Home and outside the chapel was a picture of the 4 chaplains of the Dorchester. Gives you hope doesn’t it – that in some circumstances people of differing faiths could work together for the common good?

    • Susan Parker - May 8, 2021 9:20 pm

      Amen, Brother Barry. Amen.

  5. Edward Tracy - May 8, 2021 10:13 am

    Wow. As a retired military officer I’ve read about this incident numerous times but I’ve never heard it told in such a moving way. I say “heard” because when I read your writings I’m not just reading, it’s as if I’m sitting near you hearing you speak.

  6. Sandi. - May 8, 2021 10:37 am

    This is a tearjerker, but I wish I could’ve been there to hear the Navy Chaplain telling it in person.

  7. Melanie - May 8, 2021 10:47 am

    God rest their brave souls 🙏🏻 And may many repeat this and all stories of sacrifice so that we never forget and remain humble and grateful.

  8. Bar - May 8, 2021 11:07 am

    Dang, Sean … made ME want to be a chaplain.

  9. Te Burt - May 8, 2021 11:11 am

    Good one. Got me. I love your parenthetical inserts. Have to figure out what those are for old ladies cause I qualify. “Listen heah, young lady, . . .” Naw. Hope your vacation is good.

  10. J. L. Mcloud - May 8, 2021 11:23 am

    Wow… how do you face death in the “eye”…???

  11. Bonnie Stewart - May 8, 2021 11:27 am

    Sean: I email you occasionally. You have been in Franklin County on vacation. I live in Apalachicola. Welcome. Please let me know how I can make sure you see my emails.

  12. Ann - May 8, 2021 11:54 am


  13. Suzi - May 8, 2021 12:04 pm

    You’ve done it again Sean, left me in tears and feeling humble. Thanks for introducing us to a Holy Joe and the Dorchester.

  14. Earl A. Gregory III - May 8, 2021 12:17 pm

    Reminds me of the Navy Hymn:

    “Eternal Father, strong to save,
    Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
    Who bidd’st the mighty ocean deep,
    Its own appointed limits keep.”

    We sang this at my Dad’s funeral a few months ago. An old sailor & aviator who was a young quartermaster on the USS Rockbridge in 1962 when nuclear arms threatened to end life as we all knew it.

    “Oh hear us when we cry to Thee,
    For those in peril on the sea! Amen.”

    Wish I’d been a Navy Chaplain, too.

  15. Tammy S. - May 8, 2021 12:19 pm

    I was “leaning in” the whole time while reading this one. Thanks for sharing this amazing story of our American history, Sean!!

    The biggest Thank You to all men and women who have served and those who currently serve active duty military for our United States of American. We will never know all the stories, of big and small moments, of so many heros! But now we know this one. Keep them coming. We always need to know and understand that our freedom, it’s not free!

    As a pastors daughter, I also loved the inside story of this American story of 4 men, of great faith, linked together for a common cause for Christ, to be on that ship to encourage, pray with and even die with those soldiers. I’d love to have had a small glimpse of their evening coffees together just talking, maybe of home, theology and faith, and sharing laughs over simple stories or encouraging one another in their combined ministry to the men on that ship. They understood that faith also involves freedom, through knowing Jesus Christ, and that was also a freedom that was not free. And along with many of those Navy men, that night, they met the One who paid that price. So powerful that image of them going down, life-jacketless, arms linked, singing to the One who had set them completely free.

    • Christine - May 9, 2021 7:56 pm

      Thank you Tammy S. Your thoughts are my thoughts too. Hallelujah and Praise God for these 4 brave clergy who helped many men enter into eternal life on that dark night.

  16. Glenda Busby-Fowler Hinkle - May 8, 2021 12:25 pm

    Thank you, Sean. I am going to try to post this on facebook. I hope I can. Every self centered teenager needs to read the sacrifices that these men made for them to be able to enjoy life and think their world revolves around them, their comfort and support and their “hurt” feelings. How I wish teachers would share these tales of heroism with youngsters to teach them humility.

  17. Jan - May 8, 2021 12:32 pm

    Wonderful history lesson and even better life and faith lesson! I have read about those chaplains before but this story told by you and your chaplain friend is the very best telling ever! Thank you, Sean. Thank you to all of our military, chaplains, police, emergency workers and pastors. Each of them protect us in their own special ways!

  18. confusing - May 8, 2021 12:38 pm

    Awesome. Sometimes we never know if anyone is listening or how we will respond in any situation. But God does.

  19. Rich Owen - May 8, 2021 1:03 pm

    This one grabbed me, Sean. The images conjured up from a war of the Greatest Generation (my dad included) are vivid. I am also a former US Navy submariner. The things you have to do in war.

  20. Heidi - May 8, 2021 1:08 pm

    Wow. I felt like I was sitting in that cafe with you waiting on every word. Thank you for introducing us to the Chaplain, another National treasure.

  21. Debbie g - May 8, 2021 1:13 pm

    Inspiring. !! Thank you Sean for amazing story

  22. Nancy Kirby - May 8, 2021 1:16 pm

    You can visit the Field of Four Chaplains at Fort Benning, GA. While there, be sure to visit the Infantry Museum.

  23. stephenpe - May 8, 2021 1:23 pm

    You killed it. Only in one short like that can I cry and laugh with so much enthusiasm

    The waitress interjected. “I’m Methodist.”

    Everyone paused to look at the young woman with confused but polite smiles.

    “Well, I am,” she said quietly.”

  24. PattiJ - May 8, 2021 1:25 pm

    Never heard that one before – Thank you for passing it on, with all of the chaplain’s colorful touches.
    I don’t comment all that often, but just want to say again that I deeply appreciate your efforts at spreading hope and decency! It matters!

  25. Sonya Tuttle - May 8, 2021 1:37 pm

    Brings tears to my eyes and a lump in my throat. God welcomed them all.

  26. Chasity Davis Ritter - May 8, 2021 1:51 pm

    You got me again. This was beautiful and more people should know stories like this. I’m gonna share it on fbook and maybe others will too. Thanks Sean. And God bless those brave Chaplins

  27. Sharon Brock - May 8, 2021 1:55 pm

    I have chills all over. What a moving story. Thank you Sean.

  28. Nedra Tucker - May 8, 2021 2:51 pm

    God Bless America, it’s Military and the Chaplains that were there comforting others in the worst of situations.

  29. Sheri K - May 8, 2021 3:09 pm

    I agree with Mr Tracy, I was hearing you tell this story, not reading it. You, and the “inactive” chaplain, captivated my imagination. Praise God for such selfless men and women and thank you to every person who is or has served our country so bravely! Thanks for sharing, Sean.

  30. Shirley - May 8, 2021 4:47 pm

    Sean, I am so glad that you leave home every now and then, always finding these wonderful people and great stories to share with us. I choose to believe that God puts you in the right place at the very right moment. You, my friend, are a national treasure.❤️🙏

  31. Christina - May 8, 2021 4:48 pm

    The Angels of Dorchester

  32. elizabethroosje - May 8, 2021 5:13 pm

    Amazing story, beautiful how they gave hope and calm to a dire situation where they gave up their lives for others. Beautifully told, thanks for this.

  33. Susan Wold - May 8, 2021 5:46 pm

    Thank you Sean, for going out there and meeting people like this man. We are all richer for it.

  34. Linda Moon - May 8, 2021 5:55 pm

    Why wait ’til you’re old to do some things, fella? You look unshaved in your photo, so you’ve got a head start on that. I have nothing to say publicly here about condo-vacationing with granddaughters, except that I managed to keep my sanity. Chaplains and regular people listen to other people, Sean. A good listener is a gift and so is survival in any form. Storytimes from Sean of the South posts are gifts, too. They help me be a more grateful person who listens to LIFE’s music like these four holy men did.

  35. Harriet - May 8, 2021 6:14 pm

    Oh my gosh. That was wonderful. Sean you can tell a story. I felt like I was standing between you and the Chaplin listening.

    • joan moore - May 8, 2021 6:55 pm

      I love it when God gives us Devine appointments, and when you have one, you create one for us,too.

  36. Harriet - May 8, 2021 6:15 pm

    Now I’m going to re- read your Gettysburg…

  37. MAM - May 8, 2021 9:08 pm

    You and the “inactive” chaplain made a great pair in telling and retelling this story. Thank you, Sean! Definitely brought tears to my eyes, but also knowledge that God can save this world from the mess we seem to have put ourselves in.

  38. Paul Alge Moore - May 8, 2021 9:14 pm

    I cut hair for almost 50 years and heard more shit than a rest stop commode But Sean you have me and the bartender beat. Loved the tale.

  39. Norman Davis - May 8, 2021 9:39 pm

    This story is the reason that Civitan International observes Clergy Appreciation Day. Thanks, wonderful post!

  40. Christopher Spencer - May 8, 2021 10:05 pm

    If you ever want to read the entire story I highly recommend this book. Never forget.

    No Greater Glory: The Four Immortal Chaplains and the Sinking of the Dorchester in World War II


  41. Sue Cronkite - May 8, 2021 11:45 pm


  42. Dell Allison - May 9, 2021 12:22 am

    I am so glad their story is still being shared. These men were truly brave, men of courage, saving lives and souls. To God be the glory!

  43. Mari Bonomi - May 9, 2021 1:21 am

    I attended Temple University, and I remember visiting the Chapel of the Four Chaplains regularly when it was located in the basement of the Baptist Temple… I know this story well and it has always moved me.

  44. Katherine D Jones - May 9, 2021 2:01 am

    THIS COLUMN GAVE ME CHILLS! Thank you, Sean! Keep it up!

  45. Pat D. - May 9, 2021 6:42 pm

    If only these facts were taught in our schools so kids could realize just how many sacrifices have been made so they can live the life they are living.
    We need teachers to step up and see that our history is not forgotten. That the brave men and women of our military are not forgotten.
    What could be more important?
    Thanks for story.

  46. "Charlie Chaplain" - May 9, 2021 8:14 pm

    I am a retired Navy chaplain and have always appreciated and shared this story. On Feb 3, 2018 (the 75th anniversary of the event), I posted it on my Facebook page. It wasn’t the motivating factor for my being a chaplain (God did that); but it did serve as an inspiration for me during my nearly three decades as a Navy Chaplain.

    • Larry Wall - May 24, 2021 4:33 pm

      Thank you for your 30 years of devoted service, Chappy. Service members don’t always show it, but we always wanted to know the chapel and the chaplain were available. Any mostly for pretty good reason.:-)

  47. Lisa Riley - November 8, 2021 1:28 am

    Rocked me to the core, again. Sean, thank you for sharing the Dorchester story. My computer is throwing them at me way, way out of order, but apparently God thinks I need them this way.

  48. Wendy S - November 8, 2021 5:25 am

    My dad was on a ship in the Atlantic in 1943 and his ship was torpedoed. It sank. He was reported as missing, family was notified, and for two weeks he floated in a life raft with a few others until they were rescued. He never would talk about it, and I can only imagine what it might have been like. The only thing he would say about it was, “water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink.”


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