Albuquerque, N.M. It was the hospital chaplain's badge that jolted Willie Stricklin, and his blurted cry after seeing the badge answered 28 years of prayer for the chaplain.
Stricklin, then 47, had been taken to Providence Hospital in El Paso, Tex., in 1971 with a near-fatal heart attack. Paul Poling, a retired minister, stood silent in the hospital room as Stricklin's eyes popped open and saw the name tag: "Chaplain Poling."
The badge carried the former Navy gunner and oil field worker back to 1943 and the torpedoed troop ship Dorchester.
"Stricklin sat straight up like he'd been hit with an electrical shock, and he said, 'I was on the Dorchester with Clark Poling,"' said David Poling, Clark's cousin, who has co-authored a novel about the Dorchester disaster, "Sea of Glory."
Clark Poling, Alexander Goode, John Washington, George Fox were the four chaplains of the Dorchester. They gave up their lifejackets and their lives after a German submarine torpedoed the ship off Greenland. Of 902 soldiers, sailors and civilians aboard, 672 died Feb. 3, 1943.
Stricklin nearly froze, leaping barefoot into the sea. Many lifeboats were frozen to their deck fittings or torpedo-damaged. Extra lifejackets were below decks, under water, as the sea quickly filled the ship. Many passengers had no lifejackets.
The chaplains took their lifejackets off and put them on four who needed them, the recipients' names unknown.
And then the chaplains a rabbi, a Roman Catholic and two Protestants joined hands in prayer as the ship went down.
That's how Stricklin, who died in 1973, remembered last seeing them, says his daughter, Tamara Stricklin Boss, who lives in Alamogordo, N.M.
"He told that story over and over, how they were praying as the ship went down and willingly gave away their lifejackets," she said. "How they didn't try to save themselves over saving other people, when everybody else was worrying about themselves."
That's how Michael Warish, another Dorchester survivor, remembers it, too.
The crew was warned that a German submarine was nearby, said Warish, a first sergeant on the Dorchester. Capt. Hans Danielsen advised everyone to keep lifejackets on, Warish said by phone from Taunton, Mass.
The heavily laden ship became a sitting duck, falling behind its convoy because of storm damage, he said.
"When the torpedo hit, it first was like a crash," Warish said. "Then about one second later, the torpedo exploded. Everything went the lights, the steam pipes and then came the distress whistle, boop-boop-boop."
The explosion drove a bed frame across the room, pinning Warish to the wall. After he worked himself free and made it topside, he said he watched Rabbi Goode give his lifejacket to an injured man, and then the chaplains stood together on deck and prayed.
Then Warish, breathing through his mouth because his nostrils were frozen, plunged into the water.
"I got oil in my mouth, and I started coughing. Then, I thought God was talking to me. Somebody said, 'Pull him up.' It was the lifeboat." Only two of 14 lifeboats hit the water.
Retelling the tale
The chaplains' story has been told before. Congress gave them special posthumous medals. A postage stamp was issued in 1948. A chapel dedicated to them is expected to open this fall at the old Philadelphia Navy Yard.
The novel by Poling and film and television producer Ken Wales focuses on the chaplains' impact on people's lives, much as they affected the authors' own lives. Wales is developing a movie based on the story.
David Shepherd, senior vice president-publisher of Broadman & Holman, which is publishing the novel, says the book was six years in the making. Story elements were fictionalized to facilitate the telling.
"We're taking elements from history and building a story around it in this case, a modern-day parable to underscore the idea of love and the greatest sacrifice of love, the laying down of one's life for one's friends," Shepherd said.
Paul Poling prayed 28 years to meet a Dorchester survivor. Stricklin was the only one he met, his son says. The authors have spoken to about 20 survivors.
David Poling clearly remembers cousin Clark. David was 14 when the chaplain went off to minister to U.S. crews building a top-secret air base, weather station and radar center in Greenland.
He remembers swimming in the family pond in New Hampshire with Clark as lifeguard, and Charlie at the beach being plucked from the sea by Clark after he was flattened by a breaking wave.
"Everybody wanted to be around Clark," David recalls. "He was just one of those graceful, funny, athletic, caring guys and always able to organize games for his younger cousins."
It was natural for Clark to enter the ministry in a family dedicated to Christian service. Family tradition didn't lend impetus, David says; it merely removed imaginary obstructions.
David Poling, former pastor of Albuquerque's 1st Presbyterian Church, represents at least six generations of Poling clergymen. Clark Poling was the Dutch Reformed chaplain on the Dorchester. Washington was Catholic, Fox Methodist.
Wales' father attended Yale Divinity School with Clark Poling and gave his son, Ken, a keen awareness of the chaplains' story.
Wales produced such 1970s movies as "The Tamarind Seed" and "Islands in the Stream," and the short-lived TV series "Christy." He said his father relentlessly encouraged him to write about the chaplains, saying: "Ken, tell this story so that it will never be forgotten."
And Wales remembers promising at age 10: "I will, dad, I will."
"That's been my lifelong commitment," he said.
Since nobody ever identified any of the four lifejacket recipients, the authors fictionalized one the grizzled, scruffy Wesley Adams.
"He's the guy you just didn't want to be around, but God in his great grace reaches out through the chaplains and of course saves the least worthy," Wales says.
Lt. Aubrey Burch is another fictional character, wrongly suspected of spying for Germany.
The suspicions about the presence of spies and feelings of betrayal among those on board, however, is not fiction "It was very real," Wales says.
And as for real survivors, Stricklin, who went to war a teen-ager, came back seemingly on a mission, his daughter says. He would stop and give needy people money or a coat, she said, and never passed up a hitchhiker.
Warish's view of the chaplains: "God's gift, just God's gift."