Tragic Loss, Astonishing Heroism Remembered on Anniversary of SS Dorchester's Sinking

USS Dorchester Four Chaplains
When the U.S. Army Transport Dorchester was struck by a German submarine, Feb. 3, 1943, four Army chaplains spread out among the soldiers, calming the frightened, tending the wounded and guiding the disoriented toward safety. They were Lt. George Fox, a Methodist; Lt. Alexander Goode, a Jewish Rabbi; Lt. John Washington, a Roman Catholic Priest; and Lt. Clark Poling, a Dutch Reformed minister. (U.S. Army)

Wreaths Across America on Wednesday is retelling the tragic yet inspiring story of the World War II sinking of the troop ship Dorchester, the heroic sacrifice of the "Four Chaplains" aboard, and the bravery of the Black Coast Guard steward who gave his life swimming through icy seas to rescue a shipmate.

The 368-foot steamship Dorchester, operated by the War Shipping Administration, was part of a convoy that left New York in January 1943 bound for the Army Command Base at Narsarsuaq in southern Greenland.

After midnight Feb. 3, 1943, the Dorchester was torpedoed by a U-boat in the Labrador Sea off Greenland and went down in 20 minutes, according to official records.

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A total of 675 of the 904 aboard drowned or died of hypothermia in the frigid waters in what was believed to be the worst single death toll for a U.S. convoy during WWII.

On Wednesday, the 78th anniversary of the Dorchester's sinking, Wreaths Across America will pay tribute to those who died with a special Facebook Live event beginning at noon Eastern from the Balsam Valley Chapel in Maine.

The Dorchester's loss is remembered most for the sacrifice of the "Four Chaplains" -- two Protestants, a rabbi and a Catholic priest. They were all Army first lieutenants who went down with the ship.

When the torpedo hit, the chaplains guided men below decks to the lifeboats and handed out life jackets. When the supply ran out, the chaplains gave away their own life vests to four men who had none, survivors said. They then linked arms, offered prayers and sang hymns as the ship went down.

"I could hear men crying, pleading, praying and swearing. I could also hear the chaplains preaching courage to the men. Their voices were probably the only things that kept me sane," survivor William Bednar said in a 1997 interview with The Baltimore Sun.

Survivor John Ladd recalled the chaplains giving away their life vests, according to the Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation. "It was the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven," he said.

Lt. George L. Fox, a Methodist minister from Pennsylvania; Lt. Alexander D. Goode, a Reform rabbi from New York; Lt. Clark V. Poling, a Reformed Church in America minister from Ohio; and Lt. John P. Washington, a Catholic priest from New Jersey, were each posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and Purple Heart.

There were attempts in Congress to award the four chaplains the Medal of Honor, but the efforts did not succeed under the strict guidelines for awarding the medal.

Instead, a Special Medal for Heroism was authorized by Congress and awarded by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1961.

When the Dorchester was going down, the Coast Guard cutter Comanche ignored the threat of another U-boat attack and raced through heavy seas to pick up survivors.

The Comanche lowered a cargo net, but many of those in the lifeboats were too weak and numbed by the cold to climb aboard.

Steward's Mate 1st Class Charles Walter David Jr., 26, of New York City, known for his fierce loyalty to his ship and shipmates despite the second-class status afforded Blacks during World War II, jumped into the lifeboats and began hoisting the survivors aboard.

In the course of the rescue mission, Lt. Langford Anderson, the Comanche's executive officer, slipped and fell into the frigid waters. Without hesitation, David dove into the icy sea and swam to Anderson's rescue and brought him to the net.

After helping the last survivors scramble aboard, David went up the net himself to the Comanche's deck, but his friend, Storekeeper 1st Class Richard 'Dick" Swanson, could make it only halfway up, after being in the freezing water, according to an account by Dr. William H. Thiesen, the Coast Guard's Atlantic Area historian.

From the Comanche's deck, David shouted encouragement: "C'mon Swanny, you can make it." But Swanson couldn't move. David went down the net again and lifted Swanson to safety.

Several weeks later, David died of pneumonia at a hospital in Greenland from the hypothermia he suffered during the rescues.

"Despite his secondary status in a segregated service, Charles Walter David Jr. placed the needs of others before his own. For his heroism, David was posthumously awarded the Navy & Marine Corps Medal and, in 1999, was recognized with the Immortal Chaplains Prize for Humanity," Thiesen wrote.

In 2013, the Coast Guard named a Sentinel-class fast response cutter the Charles Walter David Jr. in honor of his exemplary service.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at

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