Terror And Death On The High Seas ~ Courage And Valor Never To Be Forgotten

Real Estate Agent


Our country is deeply embroiled in two wars far from home.  We hear stories of heroism and sacrifice.  Men and women who lived ordinary lives stateside are transformed into the stuff heroes are made from. In the blink of an eye they think not of themselves, nor the life they are about to forfeit, but only of others. 

  • Throughout our history we can read about incredible acts of bravery under the most dire of circumstances. One such story is generations old. Four men who without a second thought sacrificed their own chance of survival to save others.   

It's one of many tragic disasters that become long lost, except to historians and those who keep the flame alive.


While I know the story well, I was stunned one Sunday when my local priest devoted his homily to this incredible act. 

The U.S.A.T. Dorchester was once a luxury coastal ship.  It was converted to an Army transport ship during World War II.  On the evening of February 2, 1943, it was loaded to capacity, carrying 902 service men, merchant seamen and civilian workers.

  • The Dorchester was part of a convoy of 4 ships traveling steadily across the icy waters from Newfoundland toward an American base in Greenland.  It was escorted by Coast Guard Cutters Tampa, Escanaba, and Comanche. The weather turned ghastly and the Coast Guard Cutters were ill equipped to handle the tons of ice forming on them.  At times they had to stop and break formation to deal with the ice build up.

Earlier in the night the Tampa had detected a submarine with its sonar.  German U-boats were constatnly patrolling the area and had already sunk many ships.  It was a dangerous crossing. Being at war those on board were aware the crossing was not without potential peril.

  • The Dorchester was only 150 miles from port.  From reports everyone on board was relieved they were so close to their destination. The ship traveled under "black out " conditions so it would be difficult to spot.  Port holes and windows were covered in black heavy fabric.  Perhaps some got a little lax when they knew port was only hours away. 

The Captain ordered the men to sleep in their clothes with life jackets on.  Many ignored the order due to the stifling heat in the lower part of the ship.

On February 3, 1943 at 12:55 am, a German submarine surfaced and stalked the ships.  From later reports it was determined that the cover on a door leading into the main lobby area had become dislodged.  As the door opened and closed, light was briefly emitted. The sub was able to identify the ship from the intermittent light as the door opened. 

  • Once the sub got a fix it fired 3 torpedos.  One of the 3 hit the ship and it was deadly. It penetrated the starboard side amid ship, far below the water line.

The Captain gave orders to abandon ship within minutes of the hit, as it was taking water on rapidly. The ship began to list and life boats could only be launched from one side. In less than 20 minutes the ship would sink into the icy Atlantic.

  • The torpedo knocked out power and radio communications The Dorchester was unable to contact the other ships.  While the convoy observed the flash they did not know the Dorchester was hit because there was no Mayday. They passed by without realizing what had taken place.

There was panic aboard the Dorchester and chaos quickly set in.  Scores of men had been killed or badly wounded by the blast. Men who were asleep below deck rushed topside without clothes.  They were greated by the icy Artic blast and knew death would be imminent.

  •  Men in panic jumped into life boats capsizing them.  Other life boats were thrown into the water and drifted away before the men could board them.

On board were 4 Army chaplains:

Lt. George L. Fox, Methodist;

Lt. Alexander D. Goode, Jewish;

Lt. John P. Washington, Roman Catholic;

Lt. Clark V. Poling,Dutch Reformed. 


The four Chaplains quickly tried to comfort the men and restore calm.  They tended to the wounded and directed others to safety.

  • Witness's told of the 4 chaplains offering prayers for the dying and encouraging those who were living.

Private William B. Bednar was afloat in the icy oil slicked water, surrounded by dead bodies. He heard other men crying in despair.  Above the turmoil he heard the prayers of the Chaplains.  He credited those prayers with giving him the courage to keep on fighting to remain alive.

Petty Officer John J.Mahoney, tried to return to his cabin to get his gloves.  He was stopped by Rabbi Goode.  Rabbi Goode took off his own gloves, gave them to Petty Officer Mahoney, and told him, he had two pair.  Later Mahoney realized Rabbi Goode did not have two pairs of gloves.  Rabbi Goode had already made the decision he was not leaving the Dorchester.

  • The Chaplains opened a life jacket storage locker and began distributing life jackets to the panicked men.  Eye witness Engineer Grady Clark recounted an astonishing sight.  When the life jackets ran out, all four Chaplains removed theirs and gave them to 4 frightened soldiers.


Those who witnessed the Chaplains saw the highest act of selflessness a human being can display.

As the ship went down, survivors in nearby rafts and in the water could see the four chaplains--arms linked and braced against the slanting deck. Their voices could be heard offering prayers as the ship slipped below the surface of the icy Atlantic and they disappeared from view.


The Distinguished Service Cross and Purple Heart were awarded posthumously
December 19, 1944, to the next of kin by Lt. Gen. Brehon B. Somervell,
Commanding General of the Army Service Forces, in a ceremony at the post chapel
at Fort Myer, VA.

On May 28, 1948, the United States Postal Service issued a special
stamp in honor of the Four Chaplains


Immortal Chaplains

A one-time only posthumous Special Medal for Heroism
was authorized by Congress and awarded by the President Eisenhower on January 18, 1961. Congress attempted to confer the Medal of Honor but was blocked by the stringent requirements that required heroism performed under fire.


The special medal was intended to have the same weight and importance as the Medal of Honor.

A more detailed account of how this tragedy occured and more details can be found in this article. U.S.A.T.Dorchester

Visit the Four Chaplains Memorial Site

Visit the Immortal Four Chaplains Sanctuary - Queen Mary, Long Beach, Ca.

"We, the sailors of U-boat 223,
regret the deep sorrow and pain
caused by our torpedo. 
Never again should be such a murderous war....
We should all live as these Immortal Four Chaplains -
To love where others hate..."

Gerhard Buske, First Officer, German U-boat 223;
address to Dorchester survivors,
Reconciliation Ceremony, Washington DC, Feb 2000

902 men were aboard the Dorchester.  672 died.  230 were rescued.  The news shocked America at the magnitude of the loss.

My Grandmother and Mother were among those relatives of the 672 souls who perished that night.  It has been 67 years since this horrible tragedy. The heroic deeds of those four Chaplains should never be forgotten nor their memory allowed to die. 



               OUR GRANDFATHER

JULY 7, 1898 - FEBRUARY 3, 1943

             U.S.A.T. DORCHESTER


Leonard S Albert



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Kevin Robinson
Twin Falls, ID
Fractional Developer

Excellent story Bonnie. I have enver heard it before but am going to do some research on it with the links you presented. Thanks.

Feb 01, 2010 12:01 AM #1
Bonnie Vaughan
Scranton, PA
CNE SFR - Buyers/Sellers - Lackawanna & Surroundin

Kevin,  As you can see this story is very personal to me.

The ship left New York and stopped at Newfoundland on January 30 to refuel.  My mothers birthday was February 1st.  My Grandfather sent her a birthday present from Newfoundland.  On the night of the 3rd my mother awoke after having a nightmare that he had died.  She always claimed he spoke to her in that dream.

Because of slow communications the relatives were not notified for almost two weeks.  The day they were notified my mothers birthday present arrived from her father.  It was a bottle of her favorite perfume. For her entire life, we could never give her perfume as a gift for any occasion.

One of the details in this story - is not published any where else.  My Grandmother and mother heard the account about the lights giving away the location of the sub from survivors they met.  There was almost zero visibility that night so the sub would not be able to see the outline of the ship on the horizon.  The door opening and closing gave them away.

Feb 01, 2010 12:17 AM #2
Mike Saunders
Lanier Partners - Athens, GA

Bonnie - I am familiar with this story, my thoughts to your family. Here is another link for you. There was a U.S. postal stamp issued, I had many of them at one time when I collected stamps as a boy. This is the story of how the stamp was released less than 10 years after these heroes died, something that does not often happen, and certainly rarely happenned before them.

Feb 01, 2010 05:43 AM #3
Bonnie Vaughan
Scranton, PA
CNE SFR - Buyers/Sellers - Lackawanna & Surroundin

Mike,  I did get some of the stamps when I started collecting memorabilia from the tragedy.

Many of the civilians who were aboard that ship could not find work in the US.  My Grandfather was a butcher and at that time meat was rationed.  He had been to Greenland one other time working at the base.  When he was lost he was the sole support of the family.  I remember that many of the widows became life long friends as a result of this disaster.  At that time there was no welfare so people had to scrape by the best they could.  My Mother paid another Dorchester widow to babysit me when she went to work.

Did you know there is a foundation that is collecting personal photos, biographies and mementos of those lost?  I am a member of the foundation and they wrote to me asking for anything I wished to donate that belonged to my grandfather.  Since I have very little that was his personally I've held off doing that.  The only personal article I have is his humidor with his initials engraved on it.  Some day I will see that it resides with them.

At one time Temple University had a chapel dedicated to the Four chaplains in Philadelphia.  My mother took me there when I was young.  There was a placque with each persons name on it who was lost that night.  I was almost sure the stained glass window that is now in Washington had been in that Chapel.

The first southbound rest stop on the NJ Turnpike has a bronze marker about 5' high just out side the restaurant.  It was dedicated to Rabbi Goode. Ironically, the New Jersey turnpike turned out to be the place his only daughter was killed in an auto accident.  The marker was in place long before she was killed.

Feb 01, 2010 06:06 AM #4
Ron Brown NMLS #270845
NMLS ID: 40831 - Federal Way, WA

Bonnie, Wonderful post, these are the kinds of actions our country was built on.  God Bless.

Feb 01, 2010 06:45 AM #5
Bonnie Vaughan
Scranton, PA
CNE SFR - Buyers/Sellers - Lackawanna & Surroundin

Ron,  Thank you.  These men were incredible.  They were ministers not even truly soldiers.  No greater love does one have but to lay down their life for another,

Feb 01, 2010 07:12 AM #6
John Walters
Frank Rubi Real Estate - Slidell, LA
Licensed in Louisiana

I remember this story when I was in grammar school.  I never knew anyone so close to this kind of a tragedy.  The people of this country are so blind, spoiled etc. have no idea of past sacrifices of our ancestors that enable them to live their life of comfort.

Feb 01, 2010 12:14 PM #7
Bonnie Vaughan
Scranton, PA
CNE SFR - Buyers/Sellers - Lackawanna & Surroundin

John,  I'm grateful the story was passed along when you were a student.  I've met few people who ever heard of it.  A story that should be passed to our children and grandchildren.

While it happened before I was born, it continued to take a toll on my Grandmother and Mother for years.  So many families lost their husbands and fathers that night.  I know Rabbi Goode had a wife and children. I'm not sure about the two ministers who were not Catholic. 

The lady who was my babysitter had 3 teenage children.  She had no work skills what so ever.  She supported them by scubbing floors and doing laundry from her apartment.  She would wash and iron till the wee hours of the morning.  No one had a washing machine in those days.  It was all done by hand.

In todays society, who would think of working their fingers to the bone that way?  They'd collect welfare.  I have to admire so many of the women including my Grandmother who had to go to work during wartime at any menial job they could find.

Feb 01, 2010 03:59 PM #8
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Bonnie Vaughan

CNE SFR - Buyers/Sellers - Lackawanna & Surroundin
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