Honoring Service and Sacrifice in Celebration of Memorial Church Anniversary

November 9, 2017
Names in the Memorial Room

By Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications

Four men, uniquely connected to Harvard University, sacrificed their lives in a tragic moment on the high seas during World War II, but their names are not among the nearly 1,100 carved in stone on the south wall of the Memorial Church Sanctuary.

The Rev. George L. Fox, Rabbi Alexander D. Goode, The Rev. Clark V. Poling and Father John P. Washington were four United States Army chaplains who met at the Army Chaplain School at Harvard in 1942. On Feb. 3, 1943 their troop ship, the SS Dorchester, was torpedoed by a German submarine in the North Atlantic. As the ship sank the four chaplains helped soldiers into life boats and in the end locked arms, prayed, and sang hymns with stranded comrades as the ship slipped under the waves.

"These four gentlemen of different faiths and background met and became great friends at the Army Chaplains School held at our Divinity Campus,” said Thomas Reardon '68, founder, secretary, and director of Harvard Veterans Alumni Organization (HVAO.) “They generously mentored and provided many services throughout the Dorchester for all to attend. The night of their sinking, their leadership, inspiration and hope, through praying, singing and handing out life jackets including, finally, their own, was reported by many of the survivors.”

The Sacrifice in the Memorial RoomThe sculpture entitled "The Sacrifice,' is the work of artist Malvina Hoffman. It was commissioned by Martha Bacon, the wife of Robert Bacon, Class of 1880, the former ambassador to France, who had served on General Pershing’s staff. The Memorial Room honors more than 360 Harvard students, graduates, and faculty killed in World War I. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications

In marking the 85th anniversary of its dedication, the Memorial Church is remembering the service and sacrifice of Harvard’s own this Veterans Day weekend, including the dedication of a new plaque commemorating the lives of the four chaplains, and a rededication of the church originally built to honor the lives lost in the Great War.

The new plaque, a gift from the HVAO, will hang in the sanctuary of Memorial Church, which was dedicated on Armistice Day in 1932. The church itself was a gift to the University from the Harvard alumni in remembrance of the students, alumni, faculty, and staff who died in World War I. And in the subsequent years since the dedication, the church has continued to honor those from the Harvard community who were killed in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.

“In celebration of the 85th anniversary of Memorial Church we are taking up this theme of service and sacrifice and what it means to live a successful life,” said Jonathan L. Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church.  “For too many of our students, who are far removed from the horrors of the battlefield of World War I and World War II, a successful life is about ‘how much will I earn when I graduate from Harvard.’ But we want to send the message that it’s not about earning a living, but rather it’s about living a life that’s worth living.”

Plaque honoring the Four Chaplains is mounted in Memorial ChurchNew plaque honoring the four chaplains is hung in the Memorial Church sanctuary by Nicholas Benson of the John Stevens Shop. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications

Every name on the walls of Memorial Church represents a life with a backstory of sacrifice and  service. Joseph Patrick Kennedy Jr. '38, was on the path toward a Harvard Law degree and possibly a successful political career when the U.S. entered World War II in 1941. But the elder brother of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was killed in 1944 when his plane exploded during a top-secret mission over the English Channel.

Lucy Nettie Fletcher graduated from Radcliffe in 1910 and studied nursing at Massachusetts General Hospital before heading off to France to serve as a U.S. Army nurse. She died in 1918 after contracting meningitis at an Army hospital. She is one of three women from Radcliffe who lost their lives in World War I.

Robert S. Hurlbut Jr. '59 speaks about his father at Morning Prayers on Veterans Day. Video by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications

Dr. Robert Satterlee Hurlbut ’34, was a Naval medical officer on the destroyer, USS Halligan, when it struck a mine just west of Okinawa on March 26, 1945. The blast detonated the Halligan’s forward magazine and the explosion blew off the front of the ship, killing half of the 300-member crew including Lt. Hurlbut, who was 33.

Hurlbut’s son, Robert Jr. ’59, said having his father’s name on the wall of Memorial Church is an honor, but that it is important to remember the human stories connected to those names. Through his father’s colleagues, shipmates and others, Hurlbut learned about his father’s love of the sea and a desire to be a regular line officer so strong that he threatened to resign from the Navy if not reassigned to sea duty. Hurlbut was eight when his father was killed. Two years later he remembers sitting in Memorial Church with his praternal grandmother as the stone tablet with his father's name was added south wall of the sancturary.

“His passion to get into the Navy and to serve was set up against the fact that he had a wife and four children and was well-respected in the (Massachusetts General Hospital) community,” he said. “That really stunned me. The idea that serving above self is something people should hold on to and understand was for real. Those qualities, particularly in the men who died and whose names are on the walls, are human stories.”

World War II Memorial in the Sanctuary

The south wall of the Memorial Church sanctuary lists the names of nearly 1,100 Harvard students, graduates, and faculty killed in World War II. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications.

In marking the 85th anniversary, the church is also exploring the meaning of success and sacrifice in a contemporary setting. A series of events, sermons and Faith & Life programs during the academic year, is focusing on the idea of serving others.

The list of speakers this fall included former U.S. Sen. John C. Danforth, who was placed at odds with his own political party in his support for marriage equality and opposition to the death penalty. Former All-American football player Dr. Myron Rolle, M.D. spoke to the Faith and Life Forum earlier this month about his decisions to delay an NFL career to accept a Rhodes Scholarship, and later leave professional football to pursue his medical degree.

Walton said he is hopeful these stories and others will serve as powerful examples and provide inspiration to students and congregants.

“We are honoring the four chaplains in our sanctuary because they represent and typify the ultimate service and sacrifice —giving their lives to save other people,” he said. “And we hope these kinds of messages inspire all of us to think about what we are contributing to this world in the service of others.”  

A wreath is placed in the Memorial Room Sunday by ROTCA wreath is placed by members of Harvard ROTC in the Memorial Room during services Sunday in remembrance of the war dead. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communicarions

Reardon, who served as an Army infantry officer in Vietnam, said the Memorial Church holds great meaning for many Harvard veterans. Three of his classmates are listed among the 22 names on the plaque honoring those killed during the war in Southeast Asia.

“Memorial Church is a sacred place for Harvard’s many students, alumni, faculty and staff who are Veterans and active duty Military,” said Reardon. “About 425 of them are currently on campus, mostly at our graduate school. When asked about my military service in Vietnam, I have always responded that I value my military service as much as my Harvard degree.”

Read more about the Veterans Day Service in the Harvard Gazette, Harvard Magazine, and the Harvard Crimson.