Life Vests and Torpedoes

A postage stamp was issued on May 28, 1948, to honor four chaplains who sacrificed their lives in the sinking of the U.S.A.T. Dorchester. The chaplains —George L. Fox, Clark V. Poling, John P. Washington, and Alexander D. Goode — are pictured above the sinking ship. The chaplains, who represented Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish faiths, gave up their life vests to other soldiers and went down with the ship. National Postal Museum.  

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.

While Memorial Day in May is specially designated to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice during military service, Veterans Day celebrations this weekend are an opportunity to show gratitude for all current and former members of the Armed Forces.

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.

On occasions such as Veterans Day, I am mindful of a story from World War II (1939-1945) that took place 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 Nazi torpedo tore a massive hole in the ship. Lights on board went out. The ship went completely dark. Sleeping soldiers woke up in a whirl of disorientation. Those who were awake scrambled to upper levels to reach a lifeboat. Tragically, only two of the fourteen lifeboats were successfully deployed. The Dorchester sank in less than 20 minutes.

On board were four chaplains, all lieutenants. Only a few months previous, the Rev. George L. Fox (Methodist), Rabbi Alexander D. Goode, 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 off the sinking ship. As the supply of life vests ran out, each of the chaplains gave their own to four soldiers who needed them.

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. For nearly eight decades, however, the story has been a symbol of counterintuitive sacrifice, ecumenical cooperation, and remarkable love. In 1944, the U.S. government posthumously awarded each chaplain the Distinguished Service Cross and a Purple Heart. In 1960, the U.S. Congress authorized the unique creation of the Four Chaplains’ Medal and awarded those four men posthumously with the recognition.

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.”

“I ask myself, ‘Could I do it? Take off my life preserver and give it to someone else?” Absolutely not!” survivor Benjamin Epstein is quoted as saying in the Los Angeles Times. “And I ask you in the audience: How many of you could do it?…That’s why I say their heroism, their bravery is beyond belief. That’s why we must tell the world what these people did.”

Amazing grace for survivors

Through a notable reconciliation effort by the Immortal Chaplains Foundation in 2000, survivors of the Dorchester met with survivors of the German submarine U-223 that had fired the torpedo. The submarine crew had also known loss. U-223 was sunk a year after the Dorchester attack. Remarkably, two surviving German veterans arrived in Washington D.C. for a 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 chaplains. “We ought to love when others hate; we ought to forgive when others are violent,” he said, according to the Covenant Companion. “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.

“That is what we should do in this time of human conflict, where hate and revenge will never create peace.”

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