February 3rd, 1943
The SS Dorchester was carrying over 900 men to the Army Command Base at Narsarsuaq in Southern Greenland to begin their service in WWII. The Dorchester was a coastal passenger steamship that was allocated to the U.S. Army as a troop transport ship for wartime use. Aboard the ship were four chaplains of different religious views, Father John Washington of Catholic beliefs, Rev. Clark Poling of the Reformed Church, Rabbi Alexander Goode of Jewish beliefs, and Rev. George Fox of Methodist beliefs. The ship was traveling in a convoy with a few escort vessels and was entering an area of calmer waters.
The convoy had spotted a German submarine following them in the days previous, and the Captain of the ship even announced to the men that they needed to sleep in full clothing and life jackets, in case the ship was attacked in the night. As they approached about 100 miles off the coast of Greenland, just after midnight, the Dorchester was hit with a torpedo, ripping a hole in the starboard side of the ship near the engine room. Within moments of the attack, more than 1/3 of the men had died either in the initial explosion, or by drowning as a wave of cold water entered the ship. The ship was quickly filling with water and it was clear that it needed to be evacuated. Many of the soldiers had not acted on the captains warning, and they scrambled to find their clothes and life vests, among other items.
The four chaplains made their way to the top of the ship and began assisting the frantic soldiers. The men cried out for help and for their lives to be saved. The chaplains attempted to calm the men and direct them to the lifeboats that were available, handing out life jackets as they went. They also preached out words of courage and strength in hopes of relieving the men. One of the soldiers recalls witnessing a man frantically cry out, “I can’t’ find my life jacket!” Chaplain Fox stopped the man and pulled his own life jacket off, and handed it to the soldier. When the life jackets ran out, the other three chaplains pulled theirs off and handed them out to men in need as well. A Navy Lieutenant by the name of John Mahoney came by cursing himself for forgetting his gloves. Chaplain Goode stopped him, and handed him his pair of gloves. Mahoney attempted to give them back, but the chaplain explained that he had another pair and sent him on his way. It was later that Mahoney realized that a man abandoning ship would likely not have two pairs of gloves on him at the ready. One of the men, Private First Class Charles Macli, urged Father Washington to join him in jumping overboard, but Washington refused to leave the men still evacuating the ship.
The chaplains did their best to get every soldier off the sinking vessel and fill the life rafts as quick as possible. When they had done all they could, and the ship was in its last moments above the water line, the four chaplains came together at the edge of the ship. It was told that the four men joined arm to arm and began praying together. These men of different faiths and different backgrounds, came together in their last moments and accepted their inevitable fate. In this ultimate show of self-sacrifice, they were able to assist in saving over 230 lives. After a short time, the Coast Guard arrived to pull the survivors out of the freezing water.
For their brave actions and undaunting will to save their fellow brothers, the chaplains were each awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. Their story was well known for a few years in the US, but they have now been largely lost in time. These men deserve to be remembered and honored.
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