By Rebecca Price Janney, Feb 8 2018 08:10PM
Everyone knows I love a good story. One of the very best I ever heard happened 75 years ago this month.
The time was World War II, the setting, the icy North Atlantic. Four U.S. Navy chaplains accompanied some 900 personnel aboard the U.S.A.T. Dorchester, a luxury ocean liner-turned transport ship. They were traveling from Newfoundland to an Army base in Greenland and the captain, Hans J. Danielsen, was especially vigilant. He knew German U-boats were lurking like a constant, roaring lion looking for someone to devour.
He ordered his men to sleep with their life jackets on, just in case. Many did not. The jackets were bulky, and those occupying berths in the hold were already overheated.
At 12:55 a.m. a German torpedo suddenly blew through the Dorchester’s starboard side, killing scores of men as they slept. One of three escort ships saw the explosion and managed to rescue 97 men, followed by a second ship, which picked up 132 others. On board there was panic among those who’d lived through the blast, with many men plunging into the water, trying to climb into lifeboats or rafts.
According to survivors, the four chaplains calmly prayed for the dying and encouraged the living. When Rabbi Alexander Goode asked a petty officer why he was trying to return to his cabin, he learned the man had forgotten his gloves. “Never mind, I have two pairs,” Goode said. He took his off and gave them to the officer, who later realized the rabbi did, in fact, have only one pair.
The four chaplains opened a locker storing life jackets and immediately started distributing them. There were not, however, enough to go around. That’s when the men of God removed their own life jackets and gave them to others.
As the Dorchester began slipping beneath the waves twenty minutes after the explosion, survivors witnessed another poignant scene. Rabbi Goode, Lt. George L. Fox, Lt. John P. Washington, and Lt. Clark V. Poling were standing together, arms linked, offering prayers as the Atlantic Ocean claimed their lives.
A survivor, John Ladd said of the Four Chaplains’ sacrifice, “It was the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven.”