I read that Feb. 3 marks the 75th anniversary of the sinking of the S.S Dorchester. What was so significant about that?
I was only five and a half years old in February 1943 when my grandmother related to me this particular news; the sinking of the S.S. Dorchester with the four chaplains who served on board. I was emotionally moved by the story then, and for the past 75 years have made it a point to re-tell of the heroism of those four chaplains. After you read this, I pray you too will be moved to tell others so that the memory of these brave men will never be forgotten.
By 1943, the S.S. Dorchester which once had been a luxury cruise liner, accommodating 314 cabin passengers in style and opulence had been guttered and refitted into a troop ship. This trim little coastal steamer seemed too small and too slow for hazardous duty, but with Nazi submarines sinking Allied ships faster than they could be replaced, every available craft had to be pressed into service.
On Jan. 22, 1943, 904 soldiers boarded the Dorchester to be berthed in below deck bunks stacked four-high. Among them were four Army chaplains, Lieutenants Fox, Goode, Poling and Washington. For Lt. George Fox, it was the second time around.
George Lansing Fox was not old enough when President Wilson called the nation to arms back in the spring of 1917, but Fox tells officials he is 18. He is assigned to an ambulance company and served in every major American campaign. Two days before Armistice, Fox is caught in an artillery barrage. His back is riddled with shrapnel and he is decorated with a Silver Star, a Purple Heart and the French Cross.
He returns to civilian life and gets a job as an accountant in his native state of Vermont, feels a call to preach and enrolls in a Bible Institute in Chicago. He meets his future wife; they marry and have two children. At age 34, he is ordained by the Methodist Church and rides the circuit of half a dozen villages that are too small to afford their own pastor. He is content until the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor. Now past 40, he volunteers for the Corps of Chaplains.
On Saturday, Jan. 23, the Dorchester joins a convoy of freighters, troopships, tankers and naval escorts steaming east through the swelling gray-green seas. After seasickness, the most compelling preoccupation was guessing where the ship was bound. “Hey come on Rabbi,” someone called to Lt. Goode, “Tell us where we are going.” Pledged to secrecy, Goode replied, “What! And spoil the surprise?”
Three years to the day after the Armistice that ended WW I, on Nov. 11, 1921, a hush fell over Arlington National Cemetery. Ten-year-old Alexander David Goode stands at the edge of a crowd and watches a soldier laid to rest. No one knows his name, he is America’s Unknown Soldier whose name is known but to God. Tears filled young Goode’s eyes as his heart swells with love for his country.
In high school, Goode joins the National Guard. His father is a rabbi, as was his father, and his father. And so, Alex Goode becomes a rabbi too. He marries his childhood sweetheart. When WW II breaks out he is leading the temple in York, PA. Goode joins the Corps of Chaplains and puts in for overseas duty.
On the following Saturday, Jan. 30, when the Dorchester stopped for fuel in Newfoundland, the soldiers no longer doubted their destination. As the Dorchester left Newfoundland three Coast Guard cutters escorted it. Two patrolled its flanks, while the third, the Tampa, was 3,000 yards out front. They were entering the dangerous waters where dozens of ships had been blasted to the bottom by German U-boats.
It turned bitterly cold. The sea rose and smashed against the ships. Ice began building up on the decks slowing the Dorchester to 10 knots through gale-force winds.
Clark Poling’s family had a long tradition in the ministry in the RCA, dating back seven generations. As a young man, Clark tells his father Daniel Poling (a noted clergyman and editor of the RCA’s Church Herald) that he is going to break family tradition and become a lawyer.
At Hope College in Holland, Mich., Clark gets into mischief, and his grades suffer. During his sophomore year he tells his father, “Dad, I am going to preach. I can’t deny the calling.” Clark enters Yale Divinity School, is ordained in 1938, and is called to the First Reformed Church in Schenectady, NY. When WW II comes, Clark is married, has a two year old son and his wife is expecting. “Don’t pray for my safe return,” he tells his father, “Pray that I do my duty.”
On Tuesday, Feb. 2, the Tampa dropped back and swept the periphery but failed to detect a German sub’s position.
Aboard the Dorchester, Capt. Hans J. Danielson ordered the men to sleep in their clothing with life jackets close at hand. They were only 150 miles from their destination and with daylight there would be cover from the American base.
All four chaplains are summoned to pierce the gloom that is growing among the men. Lt. Washington jokingly announced that God was prepared to forgive the poker players for raising the stakes from pennies to quarters. One soldier slyly asked him to bless his hand. Father Washington looked at the cards and stated loudly, “Bless a measly pair of deuces?” The men began laughing and the tension broke.
John Washington was the first of seven children born to Irish immigrant parents in Newark, N.J. The family doesn’t have much, but like others in the neighborhood, join hands and celebrate: baptisms, first Communions, marriages and childbirths. At age 12, John is stricken with a severe throat infection and when the doctors have done all they can, the parish priest administered the last rites. But John survived and tells his sister, Anna, “God must have something special He wants me to do.”
John becomes a Roman Catholic priest, and in 1937 is assigned to St. Stephen’s in Arlington, N.J. He has served there five years and when the Second World War comes, Father John applies for a chaplaincy. He now knows what God wants of him.
On Wednesday, Feb. 3, it was just after midnight. Few of the men were asleep and even fewer were wearing their clothes despite the orders. Down in the hold it was just too hot.
At 12:55 a.m., a German U-boat caught the Dorchester in its cross hairs. The Dorchester was torpedoed. Men poured up out of the gangways, stunned and disoriented. The wound to the Dorchester was mortal; the ship took on water rapidly and began listing to starboard.
Without power, the radio was silenced. No one thought to send up a distress flare. The escort vessels pushed on into the darkness, unaware that the Dorchester was sinking. Overcrowded lifeboats capsized. Rafts drifted away before anyone could reach them.
The men milled around the deck. Many had come up from the hold without life jackets; others wearing nothing but underwear, felt the arctic blasts and knew they had only minutes to live.
The testimonies of the survivors tell us that the sole order in that ferment of struggling men, that the only fragment of hope, came from the four chaplains who suddenly appeared on the sloping starboard side. Calmly they guided men to their boat stations, opened a storage locker and distributed life jackets. They coaxed men, frozen with fear, over the side.
One of the survivors, Coast Guard CPO John J. Mahoney (a Catholic) realized he had forgotten his gloves and started back to his cabin. He was stopped by Rabbi Goode, “Never mind,” Goode said, “Take these; I have two pairs.” Later Mahoney realized the truth. A man preparing to abandon ship doesn’t carry extra gloves. Chaplain Goode had already decided he was not leaving the Dorchester.
Another survivor, Engineer Grady Clark saw the chaplains coolly handing out life jackets until there were no more left. Then he watched in awe as they gave away their own. By now the rail was awash and Engineer Clark slipped into the frigid water. Looking back as he swam away, he saw the chaplains standing, their arms linked, braced against the slanting deck. They were praying in Hebrew, in Latin and in English.
Of the 904 men aboard the troop carrier, 605 were lost. Those who lived will never forget the chaplains’ heroism. By vote of Congress on Jan. 18, 1961, a Special Medal of Heroism, the only one ever given, was posthumously given to the four chaplains. Feb. 3 became Four Chaplains Observance Day and that is why this day is most significant.
The heroism of these four chaplains continues to speak to something deep in our hearts. Father Washington did not call out for a Catholic when he handed over his life jacket, nor did Rabbi Goode for a Jew, nor did Fox for a Methodist, nor did Poling for a Reformed Calvinist. They gave them to the next soldier in line, and then stood shoulder to shoulder in mutually supporting faith. “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.” That is what the four chaplains gave us; that is what they volunteered to do.