BY DUANE ALLEN VACHON, PH.D. Am going to put Hoosier heroes on hold until next week. On February 3rd it will be the 72nd anniversary of four acts of selfless courage by four of my favorite heroes.
On January 23, 1943, in the early morning, the Dorchester left New York, it was en route to Greenland, carrying approximately 900 soldiers, among these were four chaplains. The Dorchester was part of a convoy of three ships (SG-19 convoy). The convoy was escorted by Coast Guard Cutters Tampa, Escanaba, and Comanche.
The Dorchester was a 5,649 ton civilian cruise ship, 368 feet long with a 52-foot beam and a single funnel, originally built in 1926 by Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company, for the Merchants and Miners Line, operating ships from Baltimore to Florida, carrying both freight and passengers.
The ship was converted for military service in World War II as a troop transport, and renamed United States Army Transport (USAT) Dorchester. The conversion was done in New York by the Atlantic, Gulf, and West Indies (AGWI) SS Company, and included additional lifeboats and liferafts; guns (a 3 inch 50 caliber gun forward, and a 4 inch 50 caliber gun aft, in addition to four 20mm guns); and changes to the large windows in the pilot house so that they would be reduced to slits to afford more protection. A liner designed for 314 passengers and 90 crew would now be able to carry slightly more than 900 passengers and crew.
During the early morning hours of February 3, 1943, at 12:55 a.m., the vessel was torpedoed by the German submarine U-223 off Newfoundland in the North Atlantic.
The torpedo knocked out the Dorchester ’s electrical system, leaving the ship dark. Panic set in among the men on board, many of them trapped below decks. The chaplains sought to calm the men and organize an orderly evacuation of the ship, and helped guide wounded men to safety. As life jackets were passed out to the men, the supply ran out before each man had one. The chaplains removed their own life jackets and gave them to others. They helped as many men as they could into lifeboats, and then linked arms and, saying prayers and singing hymns, went down with the ship.
In 20 minutes the Dorchester had sunk into the ocean. What occurred in those 20 minutes is something we still revere today.
I marvel at the selfless act of courage during the sinking by Rev. George Fox (Methodist), Jewish Rabbi Alexander Goode, Rev. Clark Poling (Dutch Reformed) and Father John Washington (Roman Catholic). Each of these men demonstrated tremendous acts of courage. Each man demonstrated service before self in a time of crisis. The chaplains calmed the crewmen, comforted the injured, directed others to safety and distributed life jackets. When there were no more life jackets, the four chaplains removed theirs and gave them to four crewmen.
Pvt. William Bednar recalled floating in oil-laden water surrounded by dead bodies and debris. “I could hear men crying, pleading, praying,” Bednar said. “I could also hear the chaplains preaching courage. Their voices were the only thing that kept me going.”
As the Dorchester disappeared under the waves, the Four Chaplains stood praying arm-in-arm.
February 3 will mark 72 years since the sinking and the display of bravery by these four chaplains. These brave men died to save men of all faiths.
The information in this article was sourced from a variety of sources both internal and external. Every effort was made to ensure that the information is current and correct. These articles are presented to honor the heroes hey are written about.
If you can read this, thank a teacher. If you can read this in English, thank a veteran.
Duane A. Vachon PhD is a psychologist and a Secular Franciscan. He has several books published and has had hundreds of articles on social justice and spiritual issues published. His Doctoral thesis on ethics has set the standard at many universities. Reach Dr. Vachon at Vachon.firstname.lastname@example.org.