"These four men - Methodist George Fox, Presbyterian Clark Poling, Catholic John Washington and Rabbi Alex Goode - willingly gave up their lives so others might live," says Wales. "This remarkable sacrifice was no accident, and gives us a picture of Christ's death on the Cross."
The book is based on the true story of the 1943 sinking of the U.S.A.T. Dorchester. Part of an American convoy crossing the Atlantic, the over-crowded and ill equipped ship was torpedoed by a German submarine only 90 miles from its Greenland destination. Because it was so hot below decks, most of the men on board were not wearing their life jackets and in the rush of the attack they had no time to retrieve them. Eyewitnesses who survived the tragedy say the four chaplains on board gave their life jackets to sailors who had none, sacrificing their own lives as a result.
Wales first heard the story of the four chaplains at age 10 from his father, who was a classmate of Chaplain Clark Poling's at Yale Divinity School. Remembering his father's admonition to never forget the story of the four chaplains, Wales set out to write a novel based on the sinking of the Dorchester. While researching the book he met David Poling, a cousin of the late Clark Poling, and the two agreed to collaborate on a novel.
The first few chapters of "Sea of Glory" give a moving account of the four men and the events of their lives that lead up to World War II. Knowing these brave servants of God are going to die compounds the heartrending aspect of the story. The chaplains, like most men who went off to war in their day, also knew that a tragic wartime death was a real possibility.
Yet they felt God was calling them to minister to American soldiers. They wanted only to be used in service to God and their nation. "Don't pray for my safe return," Clark Poling tells his father in a particularly touching part of the story. "That wouldn't be fair. Just pray that I shall do my duty, never be a coward, and have the strength, courage, and understanding of men. Just pray that I will be adequate."
The story follows the chaplains' arrival and meeting at Camp Miles Standish in Taunton, Mass., as well as their subsequent journey to New York harbor to join their assigned convoy. Once on board the Dorchester, the chaplains meet a Sgt. Wesley Adams. Adams, a jaded man who is angry with God for events in his past, receives a life jacket from Father Washington when the ship is torpedoed. We see part of the story through Adams' eyes, whose life is transformed by the chaplain's sacrifice.
Surprisingly, says Wales, while more than 200 of the ship's 900 men survived the attack, no one who received a chaplain's jacket ever came forward. Wales felt creating Adams (a fictional character) was important to show poignantly the event's impact. A filmmaker at heart, Wales confesses the book tells the story in "a visual way." Wales hopes to produce a film version of "Sea of Glory," and is currently negotiating with two motion picture studios.
But more than merely relaying the events on the day the Dorchester sank, "Sea of Glory" tells of the lives of the four chaplains before providence brought them together. It recognizes the contributions of the chaplains to the men around them in the weeks before the fateful sinking. "There was already a lot of 'life-saving' going on before the ship sank," Wales said. "[The chaplains] showed the sailors and soldiers life lessons and helped them straighten out their lives ... That helps make the chaplains' deaths not in vain."
Wales is saddened by recent World War II stories that intentionally de-emphasize the contributions of spiritual men during the time of crisis. Notable in this way, for example, is the film "Saving Private Ryan." During his research, Wales found that Gen. George C. Marshall, who was a strong Christian, did send someone to tell a Private Ryan that his three brothers were killed in combat and Ryan was being sent home. His name was Col. Ernest Sands and he was an army chaplain.
It is likely that Col. Sands, as an unarmed chaplain, would have been escorted on his mission by a group of soldiers, like Tom Hanks' character was in the Spielberg movie. However, in the movie about this story, the Hanks character is not a chaplain.
"It's a real puzzle how the media, or creative media, excises a character whose main thrust was indeed faith," says Wales.
The United States can be grateful for the sacrifice of its men in uniform. While doing so, Americans must also remember the men who provided our fighting forces with spiritual guidance along the way -- sometimes at the cost of their lives.
Additional reporting by Baptist Press