On February 3rd, 1943, a small convoy named SG-19 was making its way across the Atlantic to Greenland from New York. It consisted of the United States Army Transport Dorchester and two smaller merchant vessels, the SS Lutz and the SS Biscaya, escorted by three Coast Guard cutters: Tampa, Escanaba and Comanche. Somewhere off the coast of Newfoundland at about 12:55 AM that morning, a German submarine torpedoed the Dorchester, knocking out her power as well as opening up her hull to the sea. Below decks were hundreds of young American servicemen, many of them on their first ocean voyage. They had been instructed to leave their life preservers on in case of attack, but the heat of the ship’s boilers and engines led many of them to take the jackets off. And with the loss of power they were all suddenly in the dark.
Among the personnel on board were four Army Chaplains, all First Lieutenants: George Fox (a Methodist); Alexander Goode (Reform-Rabbi); Clark Poling (Dutch Reformed); and John Washington (a Roman Catholic priest). The four had become fast friends at the Army Chaplains School on the Harvard University campus, right here in Cambridge.
The four men helped organize the men during the twenty-five minutes that it took the ship to sink. They assisted the wounded, helped men find life jackets, and when they ran out they gave away their own. When they did all they could, they linked arms together and prayed aloud in English, Hebrew and Latin as the ship went under. Of the approximately 900 men on board, 230 survived. The water temperature was close to freezing, as was the air above it. So many who survived the sinking died of hypothermia. In terms of deaths, it was the third-worst sinking of the entire war for the United States.
The day is now a feast day in the Episcopal church.
Years ago my father received an award honoring the Four Chaplains for his efforts in promoting interfaith community and cooperation. And in a Southern state that is no small feat, to be blunt.
Anyway, I think of them every February 3rd.
P.S. There is a story that Jack Kerouac, who was a crewman on the Dorchester, missed the trip because he was recruited by the coach at Columbia University to play football. I honestly don’t know if the story is true, but I do know that he served on the ship early in the war.