David J. Conrad
World War II was in its fifth year when United States Merchant Marine and United States Navy/Army troop carriers were sending war material and men over to the British Isles in the buildup to the eventual European invasion and the ultimate victory over Hitler’s Third Reich. They were opposed by the Nazi Wolf Packs, groups of submarines that hunted allied shipping engaged in The Battle of the Atlantic, which was the longest battle of WW II, lasting from the first day until the last. The cost was staggering. Over 36,000 U.S. sailors and 30,000 United States Merchant Marines were killed on the 3,500 merchant ships and 175 warships that were sunk by the German Navy. Merchant Marine losses were so great, President Franklin Roosevelt kept that information from the American public in order to keep a steady flow of volunteers.
On February 3, 1943, the U.S. Army Transport Dorchester was one of three ships in a convoy, under steam in the Atlantic, sailing from Newfoundland to an American base in Greenland, en route to Great Britain. The Dorchester, a converted luxury liner, was crowded to capacity, carrying 902 servicemen, merchant seamen and civilian workers. Included among them were four Army Chaplains--Lt. John P. Washington, a Catholic Priest; Lt. Alexander D. Goode, a Jewish Rabbi; Lt. George L. Fox, a Methodist; and Lt. Clark V. Poling of the Dutch Reformed Church, all friends who had met in Chaplains’ school at Harvard University.
The Dorchester was 150 miles from Greenland when shortly after midnight the German submarine U223 spotted it. The Dorchester’s Captain was aware of U-Boat activity in the area so he ordered all personnel to sleep dressed and in life jackets. In the hot, crowded conditions many ignored the order. The submarine fired a spread of three deadly torpedoes, one striking the ship below the water line. The initial blast killed dozens of men and seriously wounded many more. Those still alive on the ship were stunned by the explosions, which knocked out the electrical system and left them groping in darkness. Panic and chaos took over the green troops and personnel. Men were yelling, crying and frantically trying to get off the ship and into lifeboats. The ship sank rapidly, going down in around twenty-three minutes.
Through the chaos, the four Army Chaplains calmly and deliberately spread out among the soldiers--calming the frightened, tending the wounded and guiding the disoriented toward safety. Fighting the bitter cold winds howling down from the Arctic, Father Washington was also administering last rites to the dying men. Quickly and quietly the Chaplains, seeming to be everywhere, worked to bring calm to the men. As soldiers began to find their way to the upper deck of the ship, many were underdressed. There they were confronted by the bitter Arctic wind. The Chaplains opened storage lockers that held the ship’s life jackets and passed them out to the men until they ran out. Then the Ship Engineer, Grady Clark, witnessed an astonishing sight. He later said, “When there were no more lifejackets in the storage room, the Chaplains simultaneously removed theirs and gave them to four frightened young men. When giving their life jackets, Rabbi Goode did not call out for a Jew, Father Washington did not call out for a Catholic, and Pastors Fox or Poling did not call out for a Protestant. They simply gave their life jackets to the next in line.” One survivor who witnessed their act would later say, “It was the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven.” The Four Chaplains had no chance of surviving the sinking of the Dorchester. In those latitudes in winter, a man in the water would freeze to death in less than ten minutes. They went down with over 600 other men for whom there were inadequate lifeboats.
As the transport slipped under the cold Atlantic Ocean survivors in nearby rafts could see the four Chaplains – arms linked and braced against the tilting deck. Their voices could be heard praying as they met their deaths in the brutal North Atlantic Ocean. Only 230 men survived out of the 902.
All four Chaplains were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and Purple Heart. A posthumous Special Medal for Heroism was authorized by Congress and awarded by the President on January 18, 1961. The medal was intended to be equal to the Medal of Honor. The award read, “They gave up their life jackets on a sinking Army transport in the North Atlantic so that others might live.” The medal was never given before and will never be given again.
By: Randal L. Hoyer, PhD, Professor Emeritus Michael W. Marihugh, MA, Adjunct Assistant Professor Department of History Madonna University – A Catholic, Franciscan University