By LOIS KINDLE
If you were aboard a sinking ship and you had one of a limited number of life jackets, could you give it up to save the life of another?
That’s exactly what Rabbi Alexander D. Goode, the Rev. George L. Fox, the Rev. Clark V. Poling, and the Rev. John P. Washington did Feb. 3, 1943, when the USAT Dorchester was struck below the water line by a torpedo fired by a German U-boat during World War II. The vessel sunk within 20 minutes, and the chaplains perished with 672 other soldiers. About 230 who were originally on board were rescued.
American Legion Auxiliary Unit 246, Sun City Center, will host a Four Chaplains Memorial Service to commemorate the ultimate sacrifices of Fox, Goode, Poling and Washington at 10 a.m. Feb. 2 at Community Hall, 1910 Pebble Beach Blvd. S. The public is invited, and admission is free. Coffee and light refreshments will be provided.
The solemn ceremony will include posting of the Colors by the South Shore Color Guard of VFW Post 6287; recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance; patriotic songs; a performance by the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office bagpiper; candle-lighting ceremony; and more. This year, the Rev. Julian Graham, a retired Army colonel, Dr. David d’Albany, the Rev. Joe Hilton and Father Augustine Mailadiyil will represent the four chaplains during the candle lighting.
“We host this service to commemorate the most selfless act a human can do for another, to give up their life so another can live,” said Dana Schroeder, president of the auxiliary unit. “It’s a beautiful, very moving ceremony.”
Alma Hilton, auxiliary chaplain, agreed.
“I helped out last year, and I was brought to tears the first time I heard the story,” she said. “I felt I was right there when (the sinking) happened.”
The USAT Dorchester was a retrofitted coastal steamer pressed into service as an Army transport. It was filled to capacity as it sailed from New York Harbor toward Greenland across an icy part of the Atlantic Ocean known as Torpedo Junction Jan. 23, 1943. Three Coast Guard cutters, the Tampa, Escanaba and Comanche, were escorts.
A submarine was detected on the sonar of one of the cutters on Feb. 2, and an attempt was made, unsuccessfully, to locate its position. The convoy continued.
Only 150 miles from its destination, the Dorchester was struck shortly after midnight by one of three torpedoes speeding at it. The boat sunk quickly, and hundreds were trapped below deck in the dark without life jackets. Many others drowned when their overcrowded lifeboats capsized.
The chaplains handed out life jackets to those who made it topside, urging the men to be courageous and calm. When they ran out of jackets, each chaplain gave away his own to the next person in line.
According to the online story, www.fourchaplains.org/the-saga-of-the-four-chaplains, survivors in nearby rafts saw the four chaplains, “arms linked and braced against the slanting deck,” offering prayers as the ship went down.
On Dec. 19, 1944, Army Lt. Gen. Brehon B. Somervell awarded Distinguished Service Crosses and Purple Hearts posthumously to the chaplains’ next of kin. A special Medal for Heroism was later authorized by Congress and awarded posthumously by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in January 1961.
For more information, visit www.fourchaplains.org.
Schroeder said folks who come to the service will also have a “good opportunity to see the newly completed Veterans Memorial.”