Life Vests and Torpedoes
By Steve Beard –
Some of the most emotional moments broadcast on television are when deployed military parents return unexpectedly to surprise their kids coming home from school, during a musical recital, or at a graduation. Sheer joy boils over and you can almost feel the tight squeeze of the bear hugs. Tears of happiness cascade down the faces of the unexpected with unreserved elation. In a perfect world, those moments would last forever.
A few years ago, I joined my family at the Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial in San Diego to honor my grandfather, Harold L. DuVal, a veteran of World War II. For the families gathered at the site near the Pacific Ocean, it is a breathtaking experience. Those leaving flowers or touching plaques want to make sure that their loved ones are not forgotten. Walking the grounds gives a good opportunity to reflect on the service and sacrifice of men and women in uniform.
While Memorial Day in May is specially designated to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice during military service, Veterans Day in November is an opportunity to show gratitude for all current and former members of the Armed Forces.
February 3 is designated as a special day to honor four specific heroes from World War II (1939-1945) and recognize their acts of self-sacrifice during a fateful night off the coast of Greenland in an area the Navy dubbed as Torpedo Alley – a treacherous stretch of the North Atlantic filled with Nazi submarines. The U.S. Army transport ship U.S.A.T. Dorchester was a cruise ship that had been repurposed to serve during wartime. It carried more than 900 military personnel, merchant marines, and civilians.
At one o’clock in the morning on February 3, 1943, a German torpedo tore a massive hole in the ship. The ship went completely dark. Sleeping soldiers woke up in a whirl of disorientation. Survivor Michael Warish described the scene in No Greater Glory: “The lights went out, and steam pipes broke, and there was screaming. Then the bunks, three to five decks high, went down like a deck of cards. Shortly after, there was a very strong odor of gunpowder and of ammonia from the refrigeration system.”
Those who were awake scrambled to upper levels to reach a lifeboat. In Bloodstained Sea, survivor Walter A. Boeckholt remembered, “I was thrown against the ceiling and then landed on the floor. By the time I was recovering my senses, the ship was already tilting. I grabbed for the door, which hadn’t jammed as of yet, and walked out on deck, realizing I didn’t have my life preserver, I went back into the room to get it. As I returned to the deck, they all seemed to be yelling, crying, and trying to get to their lifeboats. Most of the lifeboats were frozen solid or broken in the process of trying to get them loose.”
On board were four chaplains, all lieutenants. Only a few months previous, the Rev. George L. Fox (Methodist), Rabbi Alexander D. Goode (Jewish), Father John P. Washington (Roman Catholic), and the Rev. Clark V. Poling (Reformed Church in America) had become friends and ministerial colleagues during military chaplaincy training.
In the whirlwind of panic on the ship, the four chaplains from divergent faith traditions handed out life vests to the terrified young men. Refusing to take places on the lifeboats, they helped as many soldiers as they could to escape the sinking ship. As the supply of life vests ran out, each of the chaplains gave their own to four soldiers who were without.
Tragically, only two of the fourteen lifeboats were successfully deployed. The Dorchester sank in less than 20 minutes.
Witnesses report that the chaplains said prayers and sang hymns as they linked arms as the ship was sinking. “When she rolled, all I could see was the keel up there,” recalled Dorchester survivor James Eardley. “We saw the four chaplains standing arm-in-arm … like they were looking up to heaven, you might say. Then the boat took a nosedive. It went right down, and they went with it.”
Another survivor had a similar recollection. “As I swam away from the ship, I looked back. The flares had lighted everything,” engineer Grady Clark testified. “The bow came up high and she slid under. The last thing I saw, the four chaplains were up there praying for the safety of the men. They had done everything they could. I did not see them again. They themselves did not have a chance without their life jackets.”
Of the 902 passengers, only 230 survived.
There is no way to adequately measure what the efforts and sacrifices of the four chaplains meant on that night. Pfc John Ladd, a survivor, said that seeing their selfless actions was “the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven.” For nearly eight decades, the story has been a symbol of counterintuitive sacrifice, faith-based cooperation, and remarkable love.
In 1944, the U.S. government posthumously awarded each chaplain the Distinguished Service Cross and a Purple Heart. In 1948, a postage stamp was released in their honor. In 1960, the U.S. Congress authorized the unique creation of the Four Chaplains’ Medal and awarded those four men posthumously with the recognition.
In 1988, a unanimous Act of Congress established February 3 as an annual “Four Chaplains Day.” There are numerous stained glass memorials, plaques, paintings, and sculptures to their courageous act found at places such as the Pentagon and West Point.
One of the deceased clergymen was the Rev. George L. Fox – the Methodist chaplain. Prior to the fateful night, he had valiantly served in World War I. As an Army ambulance driver, he gave his gas mask to a wounded French soldier. In addition to other commendations, Fox was honored with the French Croix de Guerre, or Cross of War. After the war, Fox became a Methodist minister. Despite having lung damage from World War I, Fox volunteered for service again after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. “I have to go,” he told his wife. “I know what those boys are up against.”
For Fox and his fellow chaplains, devotion to God manifested itself as selfless service to those in need.
Floating in the freezing Arctic water after the explosion on the Dorchester, Private William B. Bednar heard “men crying, pleading, praying. I could also hear the chaplains preaching courage. Their voices were the only thing that kept me going.”
“To take off your life preserver, it meant you gave up your life,” said survivor Benjamin Epstein in the Pioneer Press. “You would have no chance of surviving. They knew they were finished. But they gave it away. Consider that. Over the years I’ve asked myself this question a thousand times. Could I do it? No, I don’t think I could do it. Just consider what an act of heroism they performed.”
Amazing grace for survivors. Through the efforts of David Fox, the nephew of the Methodist chaplain on the Dorchester, the memory of the story of the Four Chaplains has been preserved. In 1996, Fox rented a video camera and attempted to interview as many Dorchester survivors as possible. He ended up meeting 20 of the 28 known survivors. According to Fox, the first sergeant of the ship, Michael Warish, reported that the four chaplains had a remarkable camaraderie: “These men were always together.”
“Remember, this was 1943. Protestants didn’t talk to Catholics back then, let alone either of them talk to a Jew,” Fox told America in WWII. “And yet here they were, always together, and they loved each other. The men said it didn’t matter which service they went to, that the chaplains always made them feel welcome and cared for. They were remarkable for 1943, way ahead of their time.”
Through contacts in Germany, Fox also reached out to the three remaining survivors of the German submarine U-223 that had fired the torpedo. “When I was interviewing the U-boat crew, they just would cry,” Fox recalled. “The men had never told their families this story. They realized that when they hit that ship, there were men dying. They cheered the first moment, and then it just got very silent, and they felt terrible after that. These were Germans – they were not Nazis – young boys, 17, 18, 19 years old, forced to do it or they would have been shot, pretty much like in the movie Das Boot. The U-boat crews did what they had to do, but they didn’t like it very much.”
Through a notable reconciliation effort by Fox and the Immortal Chaplains Foundation in 2000, survivors of the Dorchester met with the surviving crew of the German submarine. The men from U-223 had also known loss. The German submarine was sunk a year after the Dorchester attack.
Remarkably, two surviving German veterans arrived in Washington D.C. for a 2000 memorial ceremony and they wept openly after visiting the Holocaust Memorial Museum. The small group of both the American and German survivors were invited to the nearby home of Theresa Goode Kaplan, the then 88-year-old widow of Rabbi Alexander D. Goode who had died on the Dorchester.
“She shook the Germans’ hands, and accepted their expressions of regret for her husband and for her suffering,” reported The New Yorker. “When the room was silent, Gerhard Buske (U-223’s executive officer), produced a harmonica, raised his hands to his mouth, and blew out a slow, warbling rendition of ‘Amazing Grace.’ Everyone clapped. Then the room lapsed back into silence.”
Buske returned to the United States in 2003 to speak at a ceremony on the sixtieth anniversary of the Dorchester’s sinking. “We the sailors of U-223 regret the deep sorrows and pains caused by the torpedo,” he said. “Wives lost their husbands, parents their sons, and children waited for their fathers in vain. I once more ask forgiveness, as we had to fight for our country, as your soldiers had to do for theirs.”
Buske concluded by imploring the gathering to follow the example of the four valiant chaplains. “We ought to love when others hate; we ought to forgive when others are violent,” he said. “I wish that we can say the truth to correct errors; we can bring faith where doubt threatens; we can awaken hope where despair exists; we can light up a light where darkness reigns; that we can bring joy where sorrows dominate.”
Steve Beard is the editor of Good News. This article originally appeared in the January/February 2022 issue of Good News. Readers can learn more about this story from the Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation at www.fourchaplains.org.