Good morning! Good morning, and welcome to Sunday Griot! I’m glad you could all make it today, what with everything that’s going on right now.
Today I wanted to take a bit of a break from All Katrina, All The Time to tell a story about courage, and service, and four men who literally gave everything they had for others. It’s a story many of us have heard before, but it’s the kind of story that bears telling again.
The USAT Dorchester had seen better days.
Once a luxury liner ferrying wealthy passengers up and down the US Atlantic coast, it was pressed into duty during World War II as a troop transport. The men on board felt anything but pampered. Despite the freezing Arctic air outside, belowdecks it was stifling hot. Most of the men slept in their shorts, disobeying direct orders to sleep in uniform with their lifejackets on.
No doubt Captain Danielson, the Dorchester‘s skipper, was aware of the infractions, but certainly he had some sympathy for the men, and in any case there was little he could do. The Dorchester and her Coast Guard escorts were entering a section of the Atlantic known as Torpedo Alley. He could only pray that they would make it through to dawn, when the Dorchester would be within 100 miles of their destination — Greenland — and fighter cover could escort the ship and its cargo safely into port.
Another captain was traveling those waters that night. Running silent beneath the dark waters of the North Atlantic, Captain Wächter of the German submarine U-223 tracked the Dorchester through his periscope. As long as they kept their engines off there was little chance they would be detected in the dark water until it was too late. Quietly he gave the order for the torpedo officers to ready their weapons, and on his call of “Feuer,” five torpedoes sped toward the Dorchester.
An explosion reverbrated throughout the Dorchester. The engines died and the lights went out. One hundred of the 902 men aboard were killed instantly. Panic set in as ice-cold water flooded the ship. Those who had disobeyed the order to sleep in their lifejackets now found themselves in pitch black, without their clothes or any way to find them. Many perished below decks.
Four of the officers who had obeyed Captain Danielson’s orders rushed up to the deck. These four had met at Harvard while preparing for their assignments as chaplains. Lt. George Fox had served in World War I as an assistant in the medical corps, then re-enlisted as a Methodist chaplain when war broke out against the Axis. Lt. Clark Polling was the son of a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church who followed in his father’s footsteps as a chaplain. Lt. John Washington was a former gang leader who took up holy orders in the Roman Catholic Church. And Lt. Alexander Goode, a rabbi, had started his service in the National Guard, then enlisted in the Regular Army.
The four men had hit it off in Chaplain’s School and had stayed together, discussing their religions, praying together and comforting the frightened soldiers who had been farm boys and drugstore clerks just weeks before. Their skills had been put to the test aboard the Dorchester when seasickness and an uncertain future in combat were thrown into the mix. Now the four men did their best to keep order on deck, help the soldiers into lifeboats and pass out the lifejackets that hadn’t already been assigned. The lifejackets were scant help against water that was barely above freezing — anyone who’s ever watched Titanic can tell you what happens when you fall into 34-degree water — but not to have a jacket meant certain death. At least with a lifejacket there was a chance of being rescued by the Coast Guard vessels hurrying to the scene of the attack.
The Dorchester was sinking fast. The lifeboats were overcrowded, and as the water rose toward the deck, the last lifejackets were handed out. Then the four chaplains looked at one another, coming to silent agreement on what they needed to do, and gave their own lifejackets to four men standing nearby, even though it eliminated their own hopes for survival.
Less than 30 minutes elapsed between the time the Dorchester was torpedoed and the time it finally slipped below the surface of the Atlantic. Of the 902 men aboard when it was torpedoed, 230 men survived. Some of the survivors later said that the last thing they saw before the ship went down was the four chaplains, arms linked, leaning into each other for strength, praying and singing.
“Our Father, who art in Heaven . . . “
“Nearer, my God, to thee . . . “
“Shema Yisrael, Adonai elohainu, Adonai ehad . . . “
One survivor called it “The finest thing I have ever seen this side of Heaven.”
In 1948 Congress passed a special bill authorizing a postage stamp commemorating the Four Chaplains, bypassing the law that normally requires a person to be dead for ten years before their likeness can appear on a stamp. In 1960 Congress created a Congressional Medal of Valor, a singular honor awarded to the next of kin of the four men. There is a Chapel of the Four Chaplains at Temple University in Philadelphia. But surely the greatest memorial to the heroism of Reverend Fox, Reverend Polling, Rabbi Goode and Father John Washington is the lives of the men they helped save that night, and the lives of their descendants.