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Celebrating

This month we choose to celebrate one of the more extraordinary acts of heroism during World War II that occurred in the icy waters off Greenland after a U.S. Army transport ship was hit by a German torpedo and began to sink rapidly. When it became apparent there were not enough life jackets, four U.S. Army chaplains each removed theirs, handed them to frightened young soldiers, and chose to go down with the ship.

In February 1943, the U.S. Army transport ship Dorchester was filled to capacity, carrying 751 passengers, 130 crew members and 23 naval personnel on a journey from Newfoundland to an American military base in Greenland. The 5,649-ton ship was built in 1926 and originally served as a luxury coastal liner. And so by 1943, the ship clearly had seen better days and most of the troops had been quite uneasy boarding such a "lousy old freighter." 

The Dorchester was one of three transports in a small convoy, accompanied by three U.S. Coast Guard cutters. Seas were rough and the Dorchester rode the waves poorly, dipping and swaying, bouncing and shuddering as it plowed through the blackness of a cold winter's night. 

Throughout the voyage, the four chaplains; George L. Fox, Alexander D. Goode, Clark V. Poling and John P. Washington, helped to soothe the nerves of the 700 young draftees and enlisted men on board by walking among them. They laughed, joked and even put on amateur floor shows every night. The chaplains also held regular religious services which at first were poorly attended. However, attendance increased with every mile the ship sailed further away from home. 

To reach Greenland, the convoy had to pass through U-boat infested waters where numerous transports already had been sunk. On the evening of February 2nd, one of the Coast Guard cutters detected a submarine on its sonar and blinked the warning "we are being followed" to Dorchester's Captain, Hans J. Danielsen. An urgent radio call then went out requesting anti-submarine patrol planes. But the response came back that the planes were patrolling "elsewhere." The ships would have to go it alone. By now, they were only about 150 miles from their final destination and hopes were high they might make it to port without trouble. But as a safety precaution, Captain Danielsen ordered all of the men on board to sleep in their regular clothing and wear life jackets. Many of the men deep in the ship's hold ignored this order due to the sweltering engine heat and the uncomfortable bulkiness of the life jackets. 

At one o'clock in the morning of February 3rd, the ship's bell struck twice. It would never sound again. The periscope of German submarine U-223 poked through the water's surface and spotted the ship in its cross hairs. A German officer gave the order to fire torpedoes. 

The Dorchester was blasted on its starboard side near the engine room, far below the water line, killing a hundred men and knocking out all power and radio contact. Captain Danielsen was then informed his ship was rapidly taking on water. He gave the order to abandon ship. 

Panic now set in among the men below decks as they groped around in the darkness, struggling to get topside. Many had no life jackets or clothing. Those who made it up onto the listing deck immediately realized they were about to die in the Arctic air and frigid water. Lifeboats quickly became overcrowded to the point of capsizing. Rafts were tossed into the sea but drifted away before anyone could get into them. Only two lifeboats out of 14 were successfully launched. 

Amid the disorder, the four Army chaplains quietly spread out among the soldiers, preaching courage to the frightened, offering prayers to the wounded, and guiding the disoriented. After most of the survivors had struggled up on deck, the four chaplains opened a storage locker and began handing out life jackets. Soon they ran out.

 "Padre," a young soldier hollered, "I've lost my life jacket and I can't swim!" One of the four chaplains, it is not known which, removed his and said, "Here, take mine. I won't need it. I'm staying." The other three chaplains followed his example. "It was," an eyewitness later recalled, "the finest thing I have ever seen or hope to see this side of heaven." 

Now, just 27 minutes after the torpedo struck, the ship was about to go down. The four chaplains locked arms together and braced against the deck with its heavy starboard list. They prayed, each in the tradition of his own faith, as the water reached their knees. A wave swept over the ship, then another, and another. The Dorchester fought to right herself but failed and plunged into the seething ocean. 

Of the 902 men aboard, 675 died, leaving just 227 survivors. News of the tragedy and the heroic conduct of the four chaplains caused a sensation in America. On December 19, 1944, the Distinguished Service Cross for "extraordinary heroism" and the Purple Heart were awarded posthumously to the chaplains' next of kin. In 1961, Congress authorized a Special Medal for Heroism which had never been given before and is never to be given again.

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