3 February marks the 79th anniversary of the sinking of the SS Dorchester (SC-290583) and the legendary acts of selflessness of four Army chaplains who were aboard. Four Chaplains Day, as U.S. Congress has declared, honors the four chaplains who went down with their ship and gave their life jackets to other passengers.
Four Army chaplains committed the ultimate act of selflessness and courage on Feb. 3, 1943, on a ship in the North Atlantic — an act for which they received the Distinguished Service Cross.
The Chaplains could have jumped into life boats, but they gave their life vests to four stranger soldiers. The Chaplains locked arms and prayed, singing Hymns as the ship went down.
“In one of the most remarkable stories of World War II, the Four Chaplains – 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 – distributed life jackets to their fellow soldiers, and when the ship ran out, gave up their own. They locked arms with each other and sang hymns together as the ship went down. The Navy Memorial honored the memory of these brave men who sacrificed their lives,” Navymemorial.org
The Story From Official Four Chaplains Page: The Story
It was the evening of Feb. 2, 1943, and the U.S.A.T. Dorchester was crowded to capacity, carrying 902 service men, merchant seamen and civilian workers.
Once a luxury coastal liner, the 5,649-ton vessel had been converted into an Army transport ship. The Dorchester, one of three ships in the SG-19 convoy, was moving steadily across the icy waters from Newfoundland toward an American base in Greenland. SG-19 was escorted by Coast Guard Cutters Tampa, Escanaba and Comanche.
Hans J. Danielsen, the ship’s captain, was concerned and cautious. Earlier the Tampa had detected a submarine with its sonar. Danielsen knew he was in dangerous waters even before he got the alarming information. German U-boats were constantly prowling these vital sea lanes, and several ships had already been blasted and sunk.
USAT Dorchester leaving St. John’s Harbor on the way to Greenland in the fall of 1942
The 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 the German submarine U-223 spotted the Dorchester.
The U-223 approached the convoy on the surface, and after identifying and targeting the ship, he gave orders to fire the torpedoes, a fan of three were fired. The one that hit was decisive–and deadly–striking the starboard side, amid ship, far below the water line.
Captain Danielsen, alerted that the Dorchester was taking water rapidly and sinking, gave the order to abandon ship. In less than 20 minutes, the Dorchester would slip beneath the Atlantic’s icy waters.
Tragically, the hit had knocked out power and radio contact with the three escort ships. The CGC Comanche, however, saw the flash of the explosion. It responded and then rescued 97 survivors. The CGC Escanaba circled the Dorchester, rescuing an additional 132 survivors. The third cutter, CGC Tampa, continued on, escorting the remaining two ships.
Aboard the Dorchester, panic and chaos had set in. The blast had killed scores of men, and many more were s
eriously wounded. Others, stunned by the explosion were groping in the
darkness. Those sleeping without clothing rushed topside where they were confronted first by a blast of icy Arctic air and then by the knowledge that death awaited.
Men jumped from the ship into lifeboats, over-crowding them to the point of capsizing, according to eyewitnesses. Other rafts, tossed into the Atlantic, drifted away before soldiers could get in them.
Through the pandemonium, according to those present, four Army chaplains brought hope in despair and light in darkness. Those chaplains were Lt. George L. Fox, Methodist; Lt. Alexander D. Goode, Jewish; Lt. John P. Washington, Roman Catholic; and Lt. Clark V. Poling, Dutch Reformed.
Quickly and quietly, the four chaplains spread out among the soldiers. There 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,” says Wyatt R. Fox, son of Reverend Fox.
One witness, Private William B. Bednar, found himself floating in oil-smeared water surrounded by dead bodies and debris. “I could hear men crying, pleading, praying,” Bednar recalls. “I could also hear the chaplains preaching courage. Their voices were the only thing that keptme going.”
Another sailor, Petty Officer John J. Mahoney, tried to reenter his cabin but Rabbi Goode stopped him. Mahoney, concerned about the cold Arctic air, explained he had forgotten his gloves.
“Never mind,” Goode responded. “I have two pairs.” The rabbi then gave the petty officer his own gloves. In retrospect, Mahoney realized that Rabbi Goode was not conveniently carrying two pairs of gloves, and that the rabbi had decided not to leave the 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 lifejackets in the storage room, the chaplains removed theirs and gave them to four frightened young men.
“It was the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven,” said John Ladd, another survivor who saw the chaplains’ selfless act.
The only surviving life jacket from the USAT Dorchester, located at the U.S. Army Chaplain Museum, Ft. Jackson, South Carolina
As the ship went down, survivors in nearby rafts could see the four chaplains–arms linked and braced against the slanting deck. Their voices could also be heard offering prayers.
Of the 902 men aboard the U.S.A.T. Dorchester, 672 died, leaving 230 survivors. When the news reached American shores, the nation was stunned by the magnitude of the tragedy and heroic conduct of the four chaplains.
Video from the Federal Files. The story of the 4 Chaplains on the 75th Anniversary of the sinking of the USAT Dorchester. MORE OF THE STORY HERE
Monument Recognizes Jewish Chaplains’ Sacrifices
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
ARLINGTON, Va., Oct. 24, 2011 – The sacrifices of 14 rabbis killed on active military service are now recognized on Chaplains Hill at Arlington National Cemetery here.
At an Oct. 24, 2011, dedication ceremony for the Jewish Chaplains Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, Ken Kraetzer tells the audience how the memorial came to be. DOD photo by Jim Garamone
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Many of the rabbis’ family members attended the dedication ceremony on Chaplains Hill, and hundreds attended a larger ceremony at the Arlington Memorial Amphitheater today.
The monument joins two other memorials to chaplains killed in the line of duty. In 1981, a Protestant chaplains’ memorial was dedicated and, in 1989, a similar one was erected to remember Catholic chaplains.
A World War II episode was the driving force behind the memorial. Ken Kraetzler had grown up hearing the story of the four chaplains of the USAT Dorchester. The four men were aboard the Army transport with 900 other soldiers crossing the North Atlantic when German torpedoes smashed into the ship in February 1943.
The four chaplains — two Protestant reverends, a Catholic priest and a Jewish rabbi — strove to keep soldiers calm and helped to pass out life jackets. When they ran out of jackets, they gave their own away. They were last seen as the ship was going down, arm-in-arm, praying together.
Kraetzler, from White Plains, N.Y., visited Arlington National Cemetery. “I went to Chaplains Hill and found the names of George Fox and Clark Poling on the Protestant memorial and John Washington on the Catholic monument, but I couldn’t find the name of Rabbi Alexander D. Goode, because there was no Jewish memorial,” he said.
Kraetzler found out what needed to be done and proceeded to do it. He received support from the Sons of the American Legion, many Jewish war veterans groups and the Jewish Chaplains Council. “Many people donated to make the memorial a reality,” he said.
He discovered that 14 Jewish chaplains from World War II to Vietnam had died in the line of duty.
Alexander David Goode Fried, the Dorchester rabbi’s grandson, attended the unveiling of the memorial and the dedication ceremony. His grandfather’s heroism “was always something I was aware of as a kid,” he said.
“My grandmother always wanted to keep her private life private,” he added. “Only much later in life was she able to talk about it. Before she died, she and a family member of another of the four chaplains — George Fox — worked together to promote the interfaith aspect of the four chaplains’ sacrifice.”
Fried called the ceremony today a “high point,” but not a “culmination” of efforts to highlight the sacrifices of Jewish chaplains. “I hope this doesn’t just end here,” he said. “The cross-faith message of the four chaplains has direct relevance to today’s world. I think the lessons from it are universal, directly applicable and timeless.”
Meeting the families of the other chaplains was interesting to Fried. “We all shared that sense of pride and honor, but also loss,” he said. “We all are proud of their accomplishments, but there is always the sense of what would lives have been like with them in them.”
Chaplain [Maj. Gen.] Cecil Richardson, the Air Force chief of chaplains, lauded the 14 rabbis during his talk at the Memorial Amphitheater. He said he didn’t know the men, but after 35 years as a military chaplain, he knows what drove them.
“They were 14 men who stepped forward as volunteers to provide spiritual care for the men and women in uniform,” he said. “They comforted the wounded, they buried the dead; they supported the faith of all of our troops without regard to race, or ethnicity, or religion.”
The 14 men “walked where warriors walked. They went were warriors go,” Richardson said. “That’s what made them military chaplains. Right now there are over 800 chaplains — Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine — deployed at locations throughout the world in dangerous places. At this moment, chaplains and chaplain assistants are transforming places in the harshest environments into sacred places of worship and hope.”
The West Point Jewish Chapel Cadet Choir sang throughout the event and had the last word in the ceremony, singing “God Bless America” with the audience joining in.
The memorial was dedicated to the following chaplains: Army Capt. Nachman S. Arnoff, Army Lt. Col. Meir Engel, Army 1st Lt. Frank Goldenberg, Army 1st Lt. Alexander D. Goode, Army 1st Lt. Henry Goody, Air Force Capt. Joseph I. Hoenig, Army Maj. Samuel Dodkin Hurwitz, Army 1st Lt. Herman L. Rosen, Army Capt. Morton Harold Singer, Air Force Capt. David M. Sobel, Army Capt. Irving Tepper and Army 1st Lt. Louis Werfel.
Early in the morning 79 years ago, four men of faith put their lives on the line to save passengers aboard a U.S. Army transport ship, the Dorchester, when it was torpedoed while sailing the North Atlantic waterway on a voyage toward Greenland.
Nearly eight decades later, members of the American Legions’ Paul E. Finn Memorial Post 37 and Col. Lewis L. Millett Memorial Post 38, alongside the U.S. Army Garrison Humphreys religious support office, honored the courageous sacrifice of the four chaplains at the Four Chaplains Memorial Chapel Feb. 3.
“This service is a tribute to those courageous chaplains and the 672 brave young men who lost their lives on that fateful night. Further, this service honors all those who have served, and whose courage and faith have sustained our country,” stated Steve Tharpe, the master of ceremony from American Legion Post 38.
Tharpe described how on that cold and icy morning, four men of different denominations came together in solidarity, giving up their life vests so others could live. In the end, they held onto their faith and each other as they linked arms, prayed, and went down with the ship.
“At 12:30 a.m. on February 3, 1943, the bell on the troopship USAT Dorchester rang twice and never sounded again,” recounted Tharpe. “The USAT Dorchester was torpedoed by an enemy submarine, and 672 young men paid the supreme sacrifice. Included in the 672 were four men of God – a rabbi, a Roman Catholic priest, a Methodist minister, and a Dutch Reformed minister – all Army chaplains.”
Four candles were lit in honor of the chaplains, each with story reflecting the life and service of brave priest, pastor or rabbi.
William Scafe, assigned to Post 38, explained that when the war started, Lt. George L. Fox, a Methodist minister from Vermont and veteran of World War I, told his wife, “I’ve got to go. I know from experience what our boys are about to face. They need me.”
Robert Collins, assigned to Post 38, lit a candle for Lt. Alexander D. Goode and told the story of how Goode was an outstanding athlete and scholar who wanted to be a rabbi, like his father. When the war broke out, he joined the Army Chaplain Corps, leaving his wife, his childhood sweetheart, behind.
Scafe explained that Lt. Clark V. Poling, a seventh-generation Dutch Reformed minister, was the youngest of the four chaplains. He asked his father to pray for him when he left for the war.
“Just that I shall do my duty and have the strength, courage, and understanding of men. Just pray that I shall be adequate,” Poling asked.
Collins described how Lt. John P. Washington, a young Irish man, was the leader of the South Twelfth Street gang in Newark, New Jersey, when called to the priesthood.
“He played ball with the boys of the parish, organized sports teams, and when war came along, went with his ‘boys’ into the Army,” said Collins. “His wonderful voice, raised in song and prayer to comfort those around him, could be heard until his final moments on February 3, 1943.”
The four chaplains from different faiths and backgrounds stood with their arms linked together as they went down with the sinking ship, united in the effort to put others before themselves.
“Help us to see, even today, the times that we might stand up for that which is most important, and to do so with more concern for others than for ourselves,” prayed Lt. Col. Terry Cobban, deputy chaplain assigned to U.S. Army Garrison Humphreys. “Help us recognize the times when we might overlook the insignificant differences between people and respond to the needs of someone just because he or she is a person in need.”
Tharpe closed the ceremony by encouraging others to aspire to be like the four chaplains.
“Remember, you must love to be loved. It is better of give than to receive,” said Tharpe. “The four chaplains did. They were only with us for a short time. We will remain forever grateful. May God’s light shine upon you. We miss you and we will never forget.”