February 10th, 2019
A detailed account of the Four Chaplains:
On the evening of Feb. 2, 1943, USAT Dorchester was crowded to capacity, carrying 902 U.S. troops, merchant seamen and civilian workers.
Once a luxury coastal liner, the 5,649-ton vessel had been converted into an Army transport ship. Dorchester, one of three ships in the SG-19 convoy, was moving steadily across the icy waters from Newfoundland toward a U.S. base in Greenland.
Coast Guard cutters Tampa, Escanaba and Comanche escorted the convoy.
Hans Danielsen, the ship’s captain, was concerned and cautious. Earlier, Tampa had detected a submarine with its sonar. Danielsen knew he was in dangerous waters even before he got the report. German U-boats were constantly prowling these vital sea lanes, and several ships had already been sunk.
Dorchester was now only 150 miles from its destination, but the captain ordered the men to sleep in their clothing and keep life jackets on. Many soldiers sleeping deep in the ship’s hold disregarded the order because of the engine’s heat. Others ignored it because the life jackets were uncomfortable.
On Feb. 3, at 12:55 a.m., a periscope broke the chilly Atlantic waters. Through the cross hairs, an officer aboard U-223 spotted Dorchester. After identifying and targeting the ship, he gave orders to fire a fan of three torpedoes. The one that hit was decisive and deadly, striking the starboard side, amidship, far below the water line. Alerted that Dorchester was sinking rapidly, Danielsen gave the order to abandon ship. In fewer than 20 minutes, Dorchester would slip beneath the Atlantic’s icy waters.
Tragically, the hit had knocked out power and radio contact with the three escort ships. Tampa, however, saw the flash of the explosion. It responded and rescued 97 survivors. Escanaba circled Dorchester, rescuing an additional 133 survivors (one died later). Comanche continued on, escorting the remaining two ships.
Aboard Dorchester, panic and chaos had set in. The blast had killed scores of men, and many more were seriously wounded. Others, stunned by the explosion, were groping in darkness. Those sleeping without clothing rushed topside, where they were confronted first by a blast of icy Arctic air and then the knowledge that death awaited. Men jumped from the ship into lifeboats, overcrowding them to the point of capsizing, according to eyewitnesses. Other rafts, tossed into the Atlantic, drifted away before soldiers could get into them. In the midst of the pandemonium, according to those present, four Army chaplains brought hope in despair and light in darkness: Lt. George L. Fox, a Methodist minister; Lt. Alexander D. Goode, a Jewish rabbi; Lt. John P. Washington, a Roman Catholic priest; and Lt. Clark V. Poling, a Dutch Reformed minister. Quickly and quietly, the four chaplains spread out among the soldiers. They tried to calm the frightened, tend the wounded, and guide the disoriented toward safety.
“Witnesses of that terrible night remember hearing the four men offer prayers for the dying and encouragement for those who would live,” said Wyatt Fox, son of Reverend Fox.
One witness, Pvt. William Bednar, found himself floating in oil-smeared water surrounded by dead bodies and debris. “I could hear men crying, pleading, praying,” Bednar recalled. “I could also hear the chaplains preaching courage. Their voices were the only thing that kept me going.”
A sailor, Petty Officer John Mahoney, tried to re-enter his cabin but was stopped by Rabbi Goode. Concerned about the cold Arctic air, Mahoney explained that he’d forgotten his gloves. “Never mind,” Goode responded. “I have two pairs.”
The rabbi then gave the petty officer his own gloves. Later, Mahoney realized that Goode hadn’t been carrying two pairs of gloves, and that the chaplain had decided not to leave Dorchester.
By this time, most of the men were topside, and the chaplains opened a storage locker and began distributing life jackets. It was then that engineer Grady Clark witnessed an astonishing sight. When there were no more life jackets to hand out, the chaplains removed theirs and gave them to four frightened young men. Rabbi Goode did not call out for a Jew, and Father Washington did not call out for a Catholic. Nor did Rev. Fox and Rev. Poling call out for a Protestant. They simply gave their life jackets to those next in line.
“It was the finest thing I have ever seen or hope to see this side of heaven,” said John Ladd, another survivor who saw the chaplains’ selfless act.
As the ship went down, survivors in nearby rafts could see the four chaplains, braced against the slanting deck, arm in arm. They were heard praying and singing hymns.
Of the 902 men aboard Dorchester, 672 died. When the news reached the United States, the nation was stunned by the magnitude of the tragedy and the heroic conduct of the four chaplains. “Valor is a gift,” Carl Sandburg once said. “Those having it never know for sure whether they have it until the test comes.”
That night, Rev. Fox, Rabbi Goode, Rev. Poling and Father Washington passed life’s ultimate test. In doing so, they became an enduring example of extraordinary faith, courage and selflessness.