Recalling a story of incredible sacrifice
World War II is over but not forgotten.
Seventy-nine years to the day after the fact, the story lives on of the faith, courage, calm, devotion to duty and selflessness of four U.S. military chaplains during the war.
On Feb. 3, American Legion Post 127 in Lake Helen remembered the sinking of the USAT Dorchester in the North Atlantic and the loss of hundreds of American lives on that date in 1943.
As it has done for several years — before the coronavirus pandemic — Post 127 paid tribute to the four Army chaplains on the Dorchester, who sprang into action to save others after the ship was torpedoed by a German submarine just before midnight Feb. 2. The lone torpedo struck the ship below the waterline and inflicted extensive damage, including the loss of electrical power. The Dorchester quickly began to sink in the darkness.
The chaplains then moved about the deck, trying to calm the frightened soldiers, sailors and civilian contractors. As well as giving comfort to the dying and injured, the four clergy — two Protestant ministers, a Catholic priest and a Jewish rabbi — handed out life jackets to those abandoning the doomed Dorchester.
When the supply of life jackets was exhausted, each of the four clergymen took off his own life jacket and handed it to a soldier in need.
“We use the word ‘heroes’ a lot. Those four men were heroes,” Post Cmdr. Bill O’Hara said.
Within less than a half-hour after the torpedo hit the ship’s starboard side, the Dorchester slipped beneath the surface of the icy North Atlantic. As they rowed away from the sinking vessel or waited in the freezing waters for rescue, soldiers saw the four chaplains remain on the deck, determined to go down with her.
The survivors told of their last images of the chaplains with their arms locked, and praying for those to whom they had ministered and others as they awaited a cold death in the icy waters.
The Dorchester tragedy was immense: Of 902 men aboard the ship, 670 lost their lives. The loss of life may have been greater without the chaplains and their calm demeanor under the extreme pressure of the moment.
Indeed, 230 lived to tell their story and the story of the four chaplains who had given up their chance to live so that others could live. Despite the death toll, Americans on the homefront were inspired by the courage and self-sacrifice of the chaplains.
As the story spread, there were calls to award, posthumously, the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for courage displayed by members of the armed forces and given by an act of the Congress.
However, though their service rose above the call of duty, military authorities determined they did not technically qualify for the Medal of Honor, inasmuch as their selfless actions were not actually performed under enemy fire.
Years later, in 1960, Congress voted to pay tribute to the chaplains’ valor by awarding to their next of kin a special medal deemed to be equal to the Medal of Honor.
The chaplains whose names and courage live on were: George L. Fox, Me thod ist mini s t e r ; Alexander D. Goode, Jewish rabbi; Clark V. Pol ing, Dutch Reformed minister; and John P. Washington, Catholic priest.