While driving through Clark County, we drove into the town of Dorchester. Coming upon a small park, we could see an American flag flying, from atop what from a distance appeared to be a carefully arranged pile of stones. After getting closer it became obvious that this was a memorial, one that looked like a naval memorial. Little did we know that we were about to learn a piece of history not widely known.
November 16, 2005
Earlier this month, during a ride through Clark County on the way back to Wausau, we drove into the town of Dorchester. It's a pretty little town, population about 800. While weaving through the town we came upon a small park, and over at one end we could see an American flag flying, at kind of an angle from atop what from a distance appeared to be a carefully arranged pile of stones. After getting closer it became obvious that this was a memorial, one that looked like a naval memorial. There is part of a black anchor lying on the ground, a plaque inset into the stone, and above the plaque, more of the anchor mechanism. What would a naval memorial be doing in the middle of the US?
Little did we know that we were about to learn a piece of history not widely known.
This was a memorial to the USS Dorchester. Actually, she was called a US Army Transport, USAT. The abbreviation "USS," which stands for US Ship, is reserved for US Navy ships. The Dorchester had once been a luxury liner, but was no longer very luxurious and, in any event, was stripped of all non-critical amenities.
USS Dorchester, presented by Vermont Living
During World War II, in February 1943, the Dorchester left New York, packed to the limit with soldiers bound for war. She joined convoy SG-19 at St. John's, Newfoundland. SG-19 left St. John's bound for the Army Command Base at Narsarsuaq in southern Greenland. SG-19 consisted of six ships: Dorchester, two merchant ships leased by the United States from the Norwegian government-in-exile, D/S (Diesel Ship) Lutz, and D/S Biscaya. They were escorted by three small United States Coast Guard cutters: Comanche (WPG-76), Escanaba (WPG-77) (both 165 feet), and Tampa (WPG-48) (240 feet).
On the night of February 3, 1943, the ship was torpedoed by U-223, a German U-boat submarine, about 150 miles from Greenland. The damage was severe, and Dorchester sunk in the frigid North Atlantic in under 15 minutes, taking about 675 men with her out of a total crew of 902. The area through which the ships passed was known to many as "Torpedo Junction," and sure enough, one of the Coast Guard escorts was getting sonar of a possible sub in the area throughout the day. The Dorchester's captain took the sonar seriously, and instructed all men aboard to sleep in their clothes and life vests. Quarters were cramped and hot, and many men chose not to follow those instructions.
The torpedo struck mid-section and exploded in the boiler room. Many died instantly. Some were trapped below deck. The ship took on water rapidly, and began listing to starboard. Lifeboats were overcrowded, and some sunk. Because of security requirements, the ship's crew was not allowed to employ distress flares. After learning of the event just minutes after it occurred, the captain of one of the escort ships ordered his crew to prepare for a rescue operation. But the overall escort commander chose not to launch a rescue, fearing his ships might become vulnerable to more U-boat attacks. A rescue operation finally was sent out about 48 minutes after the attack.
Coast Guard Cutters Commanche and Escanaba launched off searching for the U-boat, but to no avail. In the process, they rescued 230 men from frigid waters at night. We have read accounts that sayd both cutters disobeyed the orders of the escrot commander and went out on their own.
This is U-251, a Type VII-C German submarine similar to U-223 that sunk the Dorchester. In this photo, U-251 is returning to Narvik after an Atlangtic patrol, June 1942. The Type VIIC formed the workhorse of German U-boats during World War Two. Presented by German U-Boat.
U-223 was a VII-C class German submarine built in Kiel during 1941 and launched during 1942. She had five 533mm torpedo launchers, a 88 mm gun, and a few machine guns. She could dive to about 150 meters. She was a type XB, which meant she she was designed to lay mines abroad. U-223 apparently spent considerable time off the coast of Nova Scotia engaged in that mission.
One of the lasting stories that would receive considerable attention in the US had to do with four chaplains who were aboard the Dorchester on this voyage. They were:
Left to right: George L. Fox, a Methodist minister; Alexander D. Goode, a Jewish rabbi; Clark V. Poling, a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church, and John P. Washington, a Roman Catholic priest.
The chaplains followed instructions. They had their life vests and they were clothed when the ship was struck.
Joseph E. Schmitz, Inspector General, US Department of Defense, told the story that followed to the XVI INternational Military Chaplains Conference held on February 9, 2005 in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Mr. Schmitz told it this way:
"On February 3, 1943, the USS Dorchester would become another statistic in the 'ships-lost-at-sea' column, but unlike others before it, what took place on deck of the Dorchester would live on forever. At about 1 a.m., the USS Dorchester, a troop transport with over 900 service members aboard on it way to Greenland, was hit by a torpedo fired by a German submarine and was sinking in the icy waters of the North Atlantic. Many on board died instantly, while others were trapped below the deck.
"Chaos ensued – fire, smoke, and the screaming of the wounded. Fear filled the air. Some men panicked and jumped into the waters without life jackets; others were frozen in fear and refused to leave the sinking vessel. Taking on water rapidly, the ship began listing to starboard. Overcrowded lifeboats capsized, and rafts drifted away before anyone could reach them.
"In the midst of the confusion and terror, four chaplains – Protestant Ministers George Lansing Fox and Clark Poling, a Catholic Priest, Father John Washington, and Rabbi Alex Goode – moved about the ship, exuding composure while calming frightened men, directing bewildered soldiers to lifeboats, and distributing life jackets with calm precision. Soon, the supply of jackets was exhausted, yet four young soldiers, afraid and without life vests, stood waiting.
"Without hesitation, the chaplains removed their own life jackets and gave them to the young soldiers. Then, according to one survivor, the four chaplains joined some of the other men trapped onboard for prayers that “sounded like a babble of English, Hebrew and Latin.”
"These four men of faith had given away their only means of saving themselves in order to save others. Men rowing away from the sinking ship in lifeboats saw the chaplains clinging to each other on the slanting deck. Their arms were linked together and their heads were bowed as they prayed to the one God whom each of them loved and served.
"The Dorchester sank beneath the icy waters of the North Atlantic, carrying with it the four chaplains and some 675 servicemen."
Chaplains on the USS Dorchester, by druidart, presented by webshots druidart
We were pleased to learn that two US Navy destroyers took care of business with U-223 on July 5, 1944. The USS Baker DE 190 and USS Thomas DE-102 made sonar contact with an unidentified submarine about 200 miles from the Sable Islands in the North Atlantic. The Baker conducted two full depth charging patterns and the bow of a U-boat broke water at a sharp angle, only 1200 yards from Baker and in view of Thomas. The Baker opened fire, as did Thomas. Baker then crossed the U-boat's bow twice, firing at close range, and laying a full pattern of depth charges. Thomas was in position to ram the U-boat, and slammed into her starboard side 20 feet abaft the conning tower. That ended the battle. U-223 sank beneath the Thomas. Twenty German Prisoners of War were taken.
In 1960, Congress created a special Congressional Medal of Valor, never to be repeated again, and gave it to the next of kin of the "Immortal Chaplains." The loss of the Dorchester and her men was the third largest loss at sea of its kind for the US during WWII. Each chaplain posthumously received the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Service Cross. The Chaplains Award for Heroism was authorized in 1961 and posthumously presented by the President of the United States to the families. This medal was authorized for these four alone, and is a commemorative decoration not to be worn on a uniform. It does not appear on any military awards charts. All that said, it is considered and intended to rank just below the Congressional Medal of Honor, this nation's highest medal for valor. It could be awarded again by the US Congress, for chaplains only.
Stained glass window at the US Military Academy, West Point, New York. Presented by The Immortal Chaplains Foundation.
Stained glass window from the Chapel at Fort Snelling, Minnesota. Presented by The Immortal Chaplains Foundation.
The Four Chaplains stamp commemorates an act of bravery during World War II which stands today as a foremost example of interfaith courage and bravery in action in the United. States. It was designed by Louis Schwimmer. head of the Art Department of the New York City branch of the U.S. Post Office Department. Presented by "The Story of the Four Chaplains Stamp."
The Immortal Chaplains Foundation & The Immortal Chaplains Prize for Humanity: Perpetuating the legacy of the four 'Immortal Chaplains' whose example of love for others, without regard to race, religion or creed, acknowledges the potential for human compassion.
By Ken Wales and David Poling. A saga of faith, adventure, and sacrifice in the U-boat infested North Atlantic at the Height of WWII. Click on cover to learn more.
The sinking of the troop carrier Dorchester in the icy waters off Greenland was one of the worst sea disasters of World War II and the occasion of an astounding feat of heroism. Riveting and inspiring, this is a true story of heroism, of goodness in the face of disaster, and of faith that transfigures even the horror of war. Click on cover to learn more.
"The Four Chaplains: Sacrifice at Sea" is a documentary available in VHS or DVD that was played on the Hallmark Channel on November 10, 2004. Click the cover to learn more.