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
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
"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.
IN LOVING MEMORY OF LEONARD S. ALBERT
JULY 7, 1898 - FEBRUARY 3, 1943