Loss and heroism on the North Atlantic

To the Editor:

The 3rd of February will mark a small, but notable incident. By 1943, the Battle of the Atlantic was still ongoing since 1939. While the Kriegsmarine (German Navy) still possessed surface warships, the biggest threat to Great Britain's maritime trade were the U-boats of Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz. Defending the Allied Merchant Marine were the United States Navy, Royal Navy, and the Royal Canadian Navy.

With President Franklin Roosevelt's primary focus on Germany, the US had been busy ferrying men and supplies to Great Britain. One of these ships was the S.S. Dorchester. Formerly a liner of the Merchants and Miners Transportation Company, she had been requisitioned in 1942 as a United States Army Transport (U.S.A.T.). Equipped with a mix of anti-aircraft and naval guns, she could carry slightly over 900 men fully loaded. From 1942, she completed five voyages from the U.S. A. to Greenland. In late January, she left in a convoy from New York. Fully loaded, she had four Army Chaplains aboard. They were Father John Washington (Catholic), Reverend Clark Poling (Dutch Reformed), Rabbi Alexander Goode (Jewish), and Reverend George Fox (Methodist).

Around midnight, the convoy was 100 miles from Narsarssuak, Greenland. The stillness was shattered, as the ship was rocked by a torpedo. Although the explosion was muffled, the wound was mortal. Almost immediately, Dorchester lost power, and began listing to starboard (right). As the ship went down by the head, the crew started the 'abandon ship' signal with the fog horn, but ran out of steam before completion. While the ship had enough lifeboats, only two were lowered successfully due to a number of circumstances. It took only 25 minutes for the Dorchester to sink, having listed to nearly 90 degrees starboard. The survivors (numbering around 229 on life rafts and boats) spent a few hours on the water before being rescue by Cutters of the US Coast Guard. The remainder (ranging from 660 to 690) went down with the ship.

Survivors testified that there was no panic during the sinking. In particular, they noted the bravery of the Army Chaplains. They were seen to pass lifebelts out to the men, even their own. The chaplains also offer prayers for the men, and appeared calm, even as Dorchester slipped beneath the calm waters. May we give a small moment of silence for those lost on that frigid night, and the bravery of 'These Immortal Chaplains'.

Austin Sullivan

Danville, Vt.


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