This year marks the 80th anniversary of the sinking of the SS Dorchester (SC-290583) and the legendary acts of selflessness of four Army chaplains who were aboard. Four Chaplains Day, as U.S. Congress has declared, honors the four chaplains who went down with their ship and gave their life jackets to other passengers.
It was known as Torpedo Junction, the U-boat infested, icy waters of the North Atlantic during World War II. On Feb. 3, 1943, the USAT Dorchester, an old coastal steamer converted to warship with 902 American servicemen and civilian workers aboard, was slowly making its way through those waters bound for Greenland.
Most of the men were seasick. Because they were in submarine waters, the captain directed the men to keep outer gear and life jackets on at all times. Moving among them were four Army chaplains: George Fox (Methodist), Alexander Goode (Jewish), Clark Poling (Dutch Reformed) and John Washington (Roman Catholic). The chaplains talked with and listened to the men -- soothing apprehensions, offering encouragement or sharing a joke. By their concern, their camaraderie with the men and one another, and their very presence, they brought solace.
An enemy submarine, stalking the ship undetected, fired a torpedo toward the ship's stern. The missile exploded in the boiler room, destroying the electric supply and releasing suffocating clouds of steam and ammonia gas. Many on board died instantly. Some were trapped below deck. Others jolted from their bunks and stumbled their way to the decks of the stricken vessel. Taking on water rapidly, the ship began listing to starboard.
Because security reasons prevented the use of distress flares, escort vessels, still close enough to assist, pushed on into the darkness unaware that the USAT Dorchester was sinking. Overcrowded lifeboats capsized. Rafts drifted away before anyone could reach them. Men clung to the rails, frozen with fear, unable to let go and plunge into the dark, churning water far below.
The four chaplains calmed the frightened men, got them into the spare lifejackets and urged them over the side. The supply of extra jackets ran out with men still waiting. Having decided to remain with the sinking ship, the four chaplains either gave to or forced upon frightened servicemen their own lifejackets.
Too quickly, no more lifeboats could be launched and many men were left aboard, but there was more for the chaplains to do. When last seen, they were standing together on the deck leading the men in prayer. With arms linked in friendship and heads bowed in prayer, they sank beneath the waves.
Only 230 men survived the sinking of the Dorchester, making it one of the worst naval tragedies for the Americans in World War II.
The self-sacrifice of the four chaplains was a heroic act. It was not the only heroic act aboard the Dorchester. But it was the identity of these four young men, representing three great faiths of the American people that adds symbolism to their sacrifice.
Stirred by witness accounts of how the men gave up their life jackets, the government in 1944 posthumously awarded each chaplain the Distinguished Service Cross and a Purple Heart. In 1948, a postage stamp was dedicated in their honor. In 1988, Feb. 3 was established by a unanimous Act of Congress as an annual “Four Chaplains Day.”