Ed Van Buren: Honoring the sacrifice of four chaplains
Published: Monday, January 30, 2012 at 9:30 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 30, 2012 at 9:30 a.m.
It was known as Torpedo Junction, the U-boat infested, icy water of the North Atlantic during World War II. On January 23, 1943, the USAT Dorchester, an old coastal steamer quickly pressed into military service, left New York Harbor bound for Greenland. The Dorchester was escorted by three Coast Guard cutters. Two patrolled the flanks, the third, the Tampa, was 3,000 yards out front.
Most of the men were seasick and green with nausea. The weather was bitterly cold with gale-force winds. Ice began building up on the decks, slowing the Dorchester to ten knots.
Moving among them were four Army chaplains; a rabbi, a priest, and two ministers. Their names were George L. Fox, Alexander D. Goode, Clark V. Poling and John P. Washington. The Chaplains talked with and listened to the men; soothing apprehensions, offering encouragement, sharing jokes. By their concern and their camaraderie with the men and one another, they brought solace.
On February 2, 1943, the Tampa's sonar detected the presence of a submarine; she dropped back and swept the periphery of the convoy, but failed to fine the sub's position. That evening, the Tampa returned to the patrol area up front and the other two ships followed. The captain ordered the men to sleep in their clothing with life jackets close at hand. They were only 150 miles from Greenland. With daylight, there would be air cover from the American base.
It was just after midnight on February 3, 1943. An enemy submarine fired a torpedo toward the Dorchester's aging flank. The missile exploded in the boiler room, destroying the electric supply and releasing suffocating clouds of steam and ammonia gas. Many on board died instantly; some were trapped below deck. Others, jolted from their bunks, groped and stumbled their way to the decks of the stricken vessel. Taking on water rapidly, the ship began listing to starboard.
Over-crowed lifeboats capsized; rafts drifted away before anyone could reach them. Men clung to the rails, frozen with fear, unable to let go and plunge into the dark burning water far below.
The testimony of survivors tells us that the sole order and the only fragment of hope in this chaos came from the four chaplains, who calmly guided men to their boat stations. They opened a storage locker and distributed life jackets. Then they coaxed men, frozen with fear, over the side. Soon the supply of life jackets was exhausted. Several survivors report watching in awe as the four chaplains either gave away or forced upon other young men their own life jackets.
These four men of God had given away their only means of saving themselves in order to save others. The chaplains gathered together and led the men around them in prayer and a hymn. They linked their arms together as the slant of the deck became severe. And, just that way, with their arms linked in brotherhood and their heads bowed in prayer, they sank beneath the waves
It was a heroic act. It was not the only heroic act aboard the Dorchester, but it was especially significant because of the identify of these four young men: two Protestants, a Catholic, and a Jew. “It was,” said one witness, “the finest thing I have ever seen, or hope to see, this side of heaven.”
Of the 902 officers, servicemen and civilian workers on board, 688 went to an unmarked, watery grave. Today we honor their memory and encourage the continuation of selfless service from all Americans.
Ed Van Buren,
40 & 8 Voiture 1388 (military veteran honor society)