It was just before 1 a.m. on Feb. 3, 1943 when the torpedo struck, beginning one of the most inspirational stories of the Second World War.
Most of the 904 men aboard the USAT Dorchester were in their bunks, although probably not asleep because of the rough seas and fears of a submarine attack. The Dorchester, a luxury ocean liner converted into a U.S. troop transport ship, was just off Greenland when the torpedo exploded amidships, disabling the ship and causing it to list heavily to starboard.
The torpedo was fired from U-223, a German submarine prowling the North Atlantic for ships carrying enemy troops and supplies.
Many men on the Dorchester died immediately and many others were wounded. There was chaos as men fought to get through passageways and up stairs onto decks. Four Army chaplains, a Rabbi, a Catholic priest and two Protestant ministers, helped wounded, disoriented and desperate men to get to decks where there was some chance of survival.
Those who reached the decks found that some lifeboats could not be launched because of damage and heavy ice coating their ropes. Men flung themselves into the freezing sea hoping to reach one of the few lifeboats afloat, small life rafts or pieces of debris. The ocean temperature was one degree Celsius.
On one deck, the four chaplains opened a locker and distributed life jackets. The locker emptied quickly and there were not enough life jackets for everyone. One chaplain removed his own life jacket and gave it to the next man in line. The other three chaplains immediately gave away theirs.
One survivor, John Ladd, said later: “It was the finest thing I have ever seen or hope to see this side of heaven.”
Fewer than 30 minutes after being torpedoed, the Dorchester went down. Survivors reported seeing the four chaplains on deck, arms linked, praying and singing hymns as the ship slipped beneath the icy waves.
The four chaplains were: Rev. George L. Fox, Methodist; Rabbi Alexander D. Goode; Rev. John P. Washington, Catholic; and Rev. Clark V. Poling, Reformed Church in America.
They were four of 677 men who died in the Dorchester sinking. Only 227 were rescued.
Clark Poling was the last of seven unbroken generations of clergy in his family. He was one of my family’s distant cousins.
The selfless action of the chaplains was not the only story of courage from that night.
The Dorchester was travelling in a small convoy that included the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Comanche, which set about rescuing survivors. Nine Comanche crewmen and three officers volunteered to jump overboard, tie ropes around floating survivors and help pull them from the icy waters.
One volunteer was one of the lowest ranking men on Comanche - Charles Walter David Jr., 26, an Afro-American Mess Steward. As a black man, Charles David was not allowed to eat in the same restaurants, or watch a movie in the same theatre, as white people.
He and the other Comanche volunteers risked their lives to save 93 men from the Dorchester.
One of the men David saved was the Comanche’s executive officer, another volunteer rescuer. He was succumbing to hypothermia and could not get back onto the Comanche. Mess Steward David went back into the water and dragged him up a cargo net to safety.
David, who had a wife and three-year-old son, also suffered hypothermia working in the freezing wind and water. He came down with pneumonia and died after the Comanche reached Greenland.
There is an interesting epilogue to the Dorchester story. The Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation in Philadelphia held a special anniversary ceremony in 2000 and brought in two special guests from Germany. They were German sailors who were aboard U-223 that tragic night.
The foundation’s view was that even former enemies must be included in a world of peace and brotherhood.
The courage displayed on that night on the North Atlantic 73 years ago remains a timeless example of brotherhood and service to others.
“Valor is a gift,” American writer Carl Sandburg once said. “Those having it never know for sure whether they have it till the test comes.”