Seventy-six years after one of the most inspiring stories of self-sacrifice for others played out against the backdrop of World War II, American Legion Post 255 in Deltona honored the memory of four U.S. Army chaplains who gave of themselves and paid the ultimate price so that others could live.
Post Cmdr. Loren King recalled that the clergy aboard the USAT Dorchester were of different religious backgrounds — two Protestant ministers, a Catholic priest and a Jewish rabbi — but they “were united in their love of God and their service to men.”
More than 200 people took the time to attend the program that has become a tradition in Deltona.
The Legionnaires’ program honoring the courage and devotion of the clergy aboard the USAT Dorchester took place at Deltona Lakes Baptist Church Saturday evening, Feb. 2.
On that date in 1943, shortly before midnight, a German submarine torpedoed the Dorchester.
The single torpedo that struck the Army transport on the starboard side below the waterline caused damage so severe that the ship went down within 20 minutes after the explosion.
Of the 902 men aboard the Dorchester, including soldiers, sailors and civilian workers, the death toll was horrendous.
“Only 230 survived, and many of those who survived owe their lives to the leadership of the chaplains,” King told the audience. “Six hundred seventy-two young men lost their lives that night.”
The death toll might have been even higher, had the clergy not risen to the occasion.
The torpedo blast knocked out the electrical power aboard the ship, and the darkness compounded the panic of the victims. Some of the passengers jumped into lifeboats, which became overcrowded and capsized in the sea.
The chaplains worked to allay the confusion, caring for the injured, comforting the dying, and speaking encouraging words to the frightened men around them.
The chaplains were Protestant ministers George Fox and Clark Poling, Catholic priest John Washington and Jewish rabbi Alexander Goode.
“The chaplains opened the storage lockers and began distributing life jackets,” Post Chaplain Al Kirt said. “When there were no more [life jackets], the chaplains removed theirs and gave them to others.”
In that moment, the urgency of saving lives took priority over personal differences.
“The Protestant chaplains did not call out for a Protestant; the priest did not call out for a Catholic; and the rabbi did not call out for a Jew,” Kirt continued. “They simply gave their life jackets to the next man in line.”
As the water-laden Dorchester was just minutes or seconds away from sinking into the icy waters of the North Atlantic, witnesses said, the four chaplains remained on the deck, locked arms and prayed for the men whose lives they had helped save.
When the story of the chaplains’ heroism and compassion reached their homeland, Americans were both proud of and touched by their example.
The chaplains were posthumously given the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Service Cross.
There were calls to award each of the chaplains the Medal of Honor. However, military authorities concluded the chaplains’ actions, though well above the call of duty, “did not technically qualify” them for the high honor, because they had not been under enemy fire at the moment they acted to save others.
The story of the Dorchester chaplains became widely circulated and an inspiration to others, and the story lived on. Still seeking to confer special recognition on the chaplains, the Congress approved a medal that was supposed to be equal to the Medal of Honor.
The special medal was given to the chaplains’ surviving family members Jan. 18, 1961.
The American Legion, including the members and Auxiliary of Post 255, pause each year on or near the anniversary of the Dorchester’s sinking to pay tribute to the courageous clergymen on board.
The Legionnaires are determined to pass the story to the up-and-coming generations of Americans; youngsters may otherwise not know about the wartime sacrifices of previous generations and specific examples of courage and selfless service.