Eighty years ago, on a frigid night in the North Atlantic, a torpedo from a German submarine struck the US Army transport Dorchester as it headed toward a base in Greenland.
The torpedo ripped a hole below the ship’s waterline, and the Dorchester quickly began to sink shortly after midnight on February 3, 1943. Dozens died in the explosion and the ensuing rush of cold water. Hundreds more began a fight for survival.
In the chaos of abandoning ship, four men began to take charge—chaplains who had joined the army after the United States had entered World War II.
One of them, Rabbi Alexander Goode, spotted a man on deck who was returning to his cabin. “Where are you going?” Goode asked.
“To get my gloves,” the man replied.
Goode quickly offered his own, saying he had two pair, although it isn’t clear if he really did. He and the other chaplains—Protestants George Fox and Clark Poling and Catholic John Washington—elected to help organize the evacuation instead of save themselves.
“The only thing that kept me going”
William Bednar, a survivor thrown overboard in the explosion, floated in the ocean, surrounded by bodies and debris. He could hear men crying, pleading, and praying as the chaplains tried to rally them.
“Their voices were the only thing that kept me going (PDF),” Bednar said.
The ship’s captain had tried to prepare the men for such a disaster. A submarine had been following them through “Torpedo Junction,” an area of the ocean where the Germans had been sinking one hundred Allied ships a month.
The captain had ordered all aboard to wear their clothes to bed, with their life jackets either on or close by, but many did not because of the heat below deck.
So after the torpedo struck the Dorchester, many men emerged on deck dressed in their underwear.
“The finest thing I have seen”
Most of the lifeboats could not be deployed because of ice or because the ship listed so badly. The chaplains opened a storage locker and began distributing life jackets. When they ran out, they gave their own life jackets away.
“It was the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven,” John Ladd, another survivor, said.
As the ship went down, other survivors could see the chaplains—standing with arms linked, braced against the slanting deck—and hear them praying. The ship sank in less than thirty minutes, and the chaplains went down with it.
Coast Guard vessels traveling in a convoy with the Dorchester began picking up survivors—230 of the 902 souls that had been on board. Only God knows how many survived because of the chaplains’ heroism.
The “Four Chaplains,” as they are often known, have received many honors and words of praise over the years. But President Harry Truman perhaps said it best:
“They obeyed the divine commandment that men should love one another. They really lived up to the moral standard that declares: ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’” (John 15:13 KJV).