On a cold winter’s night, near the Arctic Ocean, a United States Army troop transport ship with tons of foods and medicine headed for the European front was torpedoed by a German submarine. The survivors told of the chaotic moment  before the Dorchester sank into the sea, there were four men standing side by side on the deck, praying, and singing hymns.

Lucky survivor

Before dawn on February 3, 1943, Sgt. Michael Warish almost gave up hope of survival when he had a 20-minute dip in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic. Just a few minutes before, he and 900 other men on the USAT Dorchester had approached safe waters when its engine room was torpedoed by a German submarine.

In addition to some minor injuries, his throat was burning from swallowing oil-fouled saltwater. Warish felt death imminent but he overcame his fear when he remembered the brave and selfless actions of the four chaplains he witnessed before leaving the ship.

Amid the panic of the troops, the four young chaplains remained calm enough to distribute life jackets, guide  others to lifeboats, and comfort those who had resigned themselves to the fate of the ship. Moreover, they even gave their life jackets, gloves, and boots to others, which meant they were giving up tenuous opportunities for survival in the cold sea.

The four young chaplains became close friends when they met on the Dorchester in January 1943. Credit: Wikipedia

Despite their different cultural backgrounds, the four men became close friends when fate brought them together on the Dorchester in January 1943. They were all first lieutenants and chaplains—John Washington was a Catholic priest, Alexander Goode was a rabbi, and George Fox and Clark Poling were Protestants.

After the Pearl Harbor tragedy in 1941, each wanted more than anything else to serve God by ministering to men on the battlefield. Little did they know that God had other plans. However, during the final moments of the Dorchester, they did not hesitate to put the lives of others before their own. And bravely faced the fact that their chance for survival had slipped away.

Silent mission

On January 29th 1943, the Dorchester quietly departed from the port of St. John’s (Newfoundland, Canada) for its fifth trans-Atlantic cruise. The weather was gloomy, with the heavy gusts of wind when the Dorchester slowly entered the open sea.

The Dorchester was one of the Army transport ships in the SG 19 transport convoy with the mission  of transporting equipment, food, and medicine to the European battlefield. The Dorchester carried 909 troops and over a thousand tons of cargo and its skipper was Merchant Marine Capt. Hans Danielsen and commander of the troops was Preston S. Krecker Jr. and Warish worked as a senior officer aboard.

The Dorchester was responsible for transporting equipment, food, and medicine to the European battlefield. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Dorchester’s route was kept secret, however the Nazis discovered that on convoy SG-19’s route to Europe it would first come to Greenland, an island located between the Arctic Ocean and Atlantic Ocean.

Therefore, four Nazis U-boat submarines waited to ambush the Dorchester. One of the U-boats was the U-233 commanded by a 26-year-old First Lt. Karl-Jürg Wächter. On February 3rd 1943, in the dense fog and darkness, U-233 emerged from the water. And the commander looking through binoculars found convoy SG-19 some distance away.

Earlier, the U-233 survived an attack by convoy SG-19 escorts when American ships detected traces of the submarines. This time, the U-233 applied cross ambush: When underwater, it may be detected by radar. But by rising to the water surface, the SG-19 escorts would be “blind” to its presence. As a result, U-233 commander Karl-Jürg Wächter took advantage of the fog and darkness to silently keep pace with convoy SG-19.

All the ships of the convoy were informed of a U-boat in the area. In the face of an anticipated threat from the German submarines, the Dorchester troops were required to remain dressed and wear their life jackets even in bed. However, many of the soldiers in the hatchway near the engine room weren’t wearing life jackets because, the temperature on the lower deck was quite high. All of them hoped to have a peaceful night in the open sea until they came under the protection of Blue West One and coverage from the air the following morning.

To those onboard, that night was a long and stressful one.

The four army chaplains whose names were John Washington, Alexander Goode, George Fox, and Clark Poling went throughout the ship reminding the men to wear their boots, gloves, and life jackets even to bed as instructed earlier by Danielsen.

Three of the four chaplains walked around the ship in an effort to raise the spirits of the troops who were downright anxious. Meanwhile, John Washington held a prayer service with the troops of many various faiths in an incredibly silent space.

At midnight, the commander’s warning was repeated: “This is the most dangerous moment in our mission. The Dorchester is overcoming a cold storm and we are now entering peaceful waters. And they can really find us now.” Finishing the warning, the commander did not forget to remind the troops to abide by wearing life jackets. It was extremely stressful on the Dorchester. 

A critical hit

As the clock showed past midnight, many of the soldiers gave a sigh of relief because they believed that the Dorchester was approaching safe waters. And it would soon be protected by the squadron based on Greenland.

At the same time, they could not have predicted that the U-233 commander was preparing to launch three torpedoes. Within a few minutes, three “killing fish” sped out at 62mph with the Dorchester in their sights at a distance of less than a nautical mile.

At 12:55 a.m., when Michael Warish on the Dorchester was just looking at his watch, suddenly a powerful force made him fall to the floor. The Dorchester was badly shaken by a violent attack on the starboard side of the ship.

Unfortunately, that was the torpedo launched from the German submarine. It made a large hole near the engine room, completely destroying the steam pipes, cutting the power, and severely damaging nearby bedrooms. Screams mixed with gunpowder and ammonia created unprecedented chaos on the lower decks.

The explosion killed dozens of soldiers immediately and “sucked” a huge amount of cold water into the lower decks, rapidly submerging hundreds of men. Nearly one-third of the 909 Dorchester soldiers died in the first moments of the disaster. 

Many of the ones working on the lower decks who hadn’t obeyed the commander’s order were groping in the chaos and dark walkways looking for life jackets. Within a few minutes, the Dorchester pitched 30 degrees to the starboard side, which unfortunately resulted in many falling into the icy sea.

In the cold night out on the upper deck, the men were also in a panic, faced with difficult choices. There were not enough lifeboats because they were destroyed by the explosion.

Self-sacrifice for the lives of others

The order was announced: All must leave the ship, all must leave the ship immediately. On the slowly sinking ship, many were injured, some were motionless because of shock, and most of them were frantically looking for life jackets. In such chaos, there were four strong men still calm without fear and rushing to the front line.

In the roar of the Arctic winds and chaotic sounds on deck, a gunner named Roy Summers ran toward the stern to jump into the sea before the ship gradually sank. But he realized that, at that position, he would probably die because the ship’s propellers were still in operation.

Upon turning round, Roy Summers saw two of the four chaplains distributing life jackets and supporting troops in turn slipping into available lifeboats underneath with ropes. A soldier hugged Clark Poling as if he wanted to say goodbye without the opportunity to meet again.

On the other side of the deck, John Washington was guiding each group of troops to calmly move in succession on a floating bridge into the sea. While waiting his turn, a soldier by the name of Charles Macli failed to persuade John Washington to accompany them. Instead, Washington chose to stay on the ship and got the last of the troops off safely.

On another part of the ship, soldier Walter Miller looked at the dark sea in panic, fearing to be swallowed up. He turned blue and cold in his wet military uniform and suddenly heard a resounding voice: “I can not find my life jacket.”

Turning to that voice, Miller saw Fox taking off his jacket and putting it on that soldier, which was an unforgettable scene in Miller’s military life.

In the darkness, First Lt. John Mahoney cursed himself for leaving his gloves in his bedroom. Fox was right there and encouraged Mahoney: “Don’t blame yourself, man. Now is not the time to do it,” said the chaplain and with these words, he gave Mahoney his gloves and wished him good luck.

The survivors slowly departed from the dangerous area where the Dorchester was gradually leaning into the sea. Credit: Wikipedia

When Mahoney sat in the lifeboat and slowly departed from the dangerous area where the ship was gradually leaning into the sea, he realized that Fox was still diligently supporting and encouraging the troops on deck.

Twenty-five minutes after being torpedoed, the Dorchester sank into the icy sea with 661 men including the four chaplains. Only 230 people were rescued out of 909 men. Among the survivors, there were many witnesses who had told of their meeting with the four chaplains aboard, sacrificed their lives for others.

They also witnessed the four chaplains standing side by side, saying prayers, and singing hymns together while the ship sank into the icy sea. This was one magnificent scene with the ship appearing intermittently in the light of the other ships.

In the faint boundary between life and death, during the Dorchester’s last moments, the presence of the four chaplains helped to reassure the troops who had no opportunity to board lifeboats. There was no chaos or shouts for help, the men aboard silently prayed and calmly accepted accompanying the ship. This was a strange situation contrasting with the turbulent scenes of only a few minutes earlier.

Honoring brave people

Five years after the Dorchester’s tragic event, the painful loss of those soldiers was soon balanced by a tale of the four chaplains’ heroism.

On December 19th 1944, all four chaplains were posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Service Cross. In 1948, the U.S. Postal Service also issued a commemorative stamp to honor them and Congress appointed February 2 as Four Chaplains Day. Twelve years later, the Four Chaplains Medal was awarded to the survivors by Congress.

In 1948, the U.S. Postal Service also issued a commemorative stamp to honor the chaplains. Credit: Wikipedia

Sgt. Michael Warish who was the first one to be rescued continued his service in the Army until his retirement in 1963. He passed away in September 2003.

A year after U-233 sank the Dorchester, it was sunk with most of its crew by British destroyers. Kurt Rosser, the only survivor on the U-233 became a prisoner of war at a Mississippi detention center.

In 2000, the Immortal Chaplains Foundation took him and the U-233’s first officer, Gerhard Buske, to Washington, D.C., in order to attend the commemoration of the great sacrifice of the Dorchester men. They met Theresa Goode Kaplan— Alexander Goode’s widow and expressed their respect for her husband’s sacrifice.

On the 60th anniversary of the Dorchester event, Gerhard Buske, the U-333’s first officer said: “We ought to love when others hate, we ought to forgive when others are violent. … We can bring faith where doubt threatens; we can awaken hope where despair exists; we can light up a light where darkness reigns; we can bring joy where sorrow dominates. That is what we should do in this time of human conflict, where hate and revenge will never create peace.”

The story of these four young chaplains is one of the most prominent stories of bravery, sacrifice, and faith in God.