On board were some 900 troops, and four chaplains, of diverse religions and backgrounds, but of a common faith and commitment to serve God, country, and all the troops, regardless of their religious beliefs, or non-belief. The four Chaplains are:
Rev. George Fox (Methodist); Father John Washington (Roman Catholic); Jewish Rabbi Alexander Goode; and Rev. Clark Poling (Dutch Reformed).
At approximately 12:55 a.m., in the dead of a freezing night, the Dorchester was hit by a torpedo fired by German U-boat 233 in an area so infested with German submarines it was known as “Torpedo Junction.”
The engine room was instantly flooded. Crewmen, who were not scalded to death by steam escaping from broken pipes and the ship’s boiler, were drowned.
Hundreds of troops in the flooded lower compartments were drowned, or washed out to the frigid waters, where most would die.
In less than a minute, the Dorchester lost way, and listed on a 30-degree angle. Troops on deck searched for life jackets in panic, clung to rails and other handholds, saw overloaded life boats overturn in the turgid water, leaped overboard as a last desperate hope for life. Many with life jackets drowned when the life preservers became waterlogged.
Of the 900 troops and crew on board, two-thirds would ultimately die; most of those who survived, had lifelong infirmities and pain from their time in the icy waters.
Dorchester survivors told of the wild pandemonium on board when it was hit and began sinking. Many men had not slept in their clothes and life vests as ordered because of the heat in the crowded quarters below. There was panic, fear, terror; death was no abstraction but real, immediate, seemingly inescapable.
The four Chaplains acted together to try bring some order to the chaos, to calm the panic of the troops, to alleviate their fear and terror, to pray with and for them, to help save their lives.
The Chaplains passed out life jackets, helping those too panicked to put them on correctly, until the awful moment arrived when there were no more life jackets to be given out.
It was then that a most remarkable act of heroism, courage, faith, and love took place:
Each of the four Chaplains took off his life jacket, and, knowing that act made death certain, put his life jacket on a soldier who didn’t have one, refusing to listen to any protest that they should not make such a sacrifice.
They continued to help the troops until the last moment.
Then, as the ship sank into the raging sea, the four Chaplains linked hands and arms, and could be seen and heard by the survivors praying together, even singing hymns, joined together in faith, love, and unity, as they sacrificed their lives so “that others might live.”
The few survivors testified to the selfless act of the four Chaplains:
“The ship started sinking and as I left the ship, I looked back and saw the chaplains with their hands clasped, praying for the boys. They never made any attempt to save themselves, but they did try to save the others. I think their names should be on the list of ‘The Greatest Heroes’ of this war,” testified Grady L. Clark.
“I saw all four chaplains take off their life belts and give them to soldiers who had none. The last I saw of them they were still praying, talking, and preaching to the soldiers,” attested survivor Thomas W. Myers Jr.
“It is impressed clearly in my mind that these chaplains demonstrated unsurpassed courage and heroism when they willingly gave their life belts to four enlisted men, who, because of the utter confusion and disorder brought about by the torpedoing, had become hysterical. They helped save the lives of many of the troops,” testified John F. Garey.
These testimonies, taken from author Dan Kurzman’s valuable book “No Greater Glory: The Four Immortal Chaplains and the Sinking of the Dorchester in World War II,” are but some of the sworn statements of grateful survivors upon which Congress awarded the Four Chaplains an unprecedented “Congressional Medal of Valor” in 1961.
Earlier, in 1944, they were awarded Purple Hearts and the Distinguished Service Cross. They did not receive the Medal of Honor because of restrictions limiting that medal to combatants. In 2004, delegates to The American Legion National Convention representing 2.7-million wartime veterans, voted to support making an exception and awarding the Medal of Honor to the Four Chaplains.
The lesson of their lives is as inspiring as is the lesson of their ultimate sacrifice. Information is available from a number of sources, principally by the Immortal Chaplains Foundation, and the affiliated Chapel of the Four Chaplains, which awards the Immortal Chaplains Prize for Humanity, and whose logo is: “That others may live.” (www.immortalchaplains.org.
“This interfaith shrine will stand through long generations to teach Americans that as men can die heroically as brothers so should they live together in mutual faith and good will,” President Truman said.
Ben Epstein, a Jewish survivor who often spoke to audiences about the Four Chaplains, was quoted by author Kurzman as describing the meaning of their sacrifice by putting a question to himself, and, thereby, to all other Americans:
“I ask myself, could I do it? Take my life preserver and give it to someone else? Absolutely not. I don’t think I could do it. I didn’t do it. And I ask you in the audience, how many of you could do it? And I don’t want an answer. That’s why I say their bravery; their heroism is beyond belief. That is one of the reasons why we must tell the world what these people did.”.
The American Legion has been conducting annual Four Chaplains remembrances for almost half a century, publishes material, and has produced a video, “The American Legion Remembers the Four Chaplains,” all of which are available through its Chaplains Program. (Acy@legion.org; The American Legion, Attn: Chaplains Program, PO Box 1055, Indianapolis, IN 46206 (317-630-1212).