By LOIS KINDLE
Many acts of heroism have been recounted over the years by those who fought in and survived World War II. All of them are inspiring but few as compelling as the story of four chaplains who perished aboard the USAT Dorchester in February 1943 while bringing hope and solace to hundreds of men doomed to go down with the sinking ship.
At 10 a.m. Feb. 3, American Legion Auxiliary Unit 246 in Sun City Center will host a Four Chaplains Memorial Service to commemorate the ultimate sacrifices of George L. Fox, Alexander D. Goode, Clark V. Poling and John P. Washington in Room 3 at Community Hall, 1910 Pebble Beach Blvd. S., Sun City Center. The public is invited, and admission is free. Coffee and light refreshments will be served.
The ceremony will include the posting of Colors, patriotic music, moment of silence and more. Representing the four chaplains, Rabbi Carla Freedman, Father Anthony Giannamore, the Rev. Sue Meixner and the Rev. Hal Jeffery will perform a special candle-lighting service. Washington was a Catholic priest; Goode, a rabbi; Poling a Reformed Church in America minister; and Fox, a Methodist minister.
“I learned about the story as I was reading the American Legion District Chaplain Year-End Report, and it suggested doing a Four Chaplains service,” said American Legion Auxiliary Unit 246 Chaplain Nelda Ledet. “I had no idea who they were until then. After reading about them and the USAT Dorchester, I felt it was a call from God. So I asked our commander, Janet Taylor, if we could hold a service, and told her I had received all the necessary information and volunteered to coordinate it.
The USAT Dorchester was a former coastal steamer that had been retrofitted and pressed into service as an Army transport. The ship was filled to capacity with more than 900 servicemen, merchant seamen and civilian workers, as it sailed from New York Harbor Jan. 23, 1943, across an icy part of the Atlantic Ocean known as Torpedo Junction toward Greenland. Three Coast Guard cutters, Tampa, Escanaba and Comanche, provided escort.
On Feb. 2 one of the cutters detected the presence of a submarine on its sonar and an attempt was made to locate its position. Unsuccessful in its attempt, the cutter rejoined its companion ships and continued to lead the convoy.
Only 150 miles from Greenland, The Dorchester was being followed by a German U-boat, and shortly after midnight the deadly stalker fired three torpedoes. One of them struck the ship starboard, deep below the waterline.
The Dorchester took on water so fast that it sank within 20 minutes. During that time 230 souls were rescued, many drowned when their overcrowded lifeboats capsized and many were trapped below deck in the dark without their life jackets.
The chaplains handed out life jackets to those who made it topside, all the while urging them to be courageous and calm. When there were no more, each chaplain gave his own life jacket to the next person in line.
“As the ship went down, survivors in nearby rafts could see the four chaplains, arms linked and braced against the slanting deck,” reads a portion of the website story, www.fourchaplains.org/the-saga-of-the-four-chaplains. “Their voices could also be heard offering prayers.”
Six-hundred-and-seventy-two men perished that night, including the four chaplains.
On Dec. 19, 1944, Distinguished Service Crosses and Purple Hearts were awarded posthumously to the chaplains’ next of kin by Army Lt. Gen. Brehon B. Somervell. A special posthumous Medal for Heroism was later authorized by Congress and awarded by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in January 1961.
For more information, visit www.fourchaplains.org.