PHOTO: When a troop transport was torpedoed by a German Submarine in frigid waters, four chaplains gave up life vest and their lives so others may live. (Wikimedia Commons)
By Tyler Pruett, Managing Editor
FORT PAYNE, Ala. — On Saturday, February 18 at 10 am, The Fort Payne American Legion Post will hold a memorial service dedicated to four chaplains who gave up their lives so others may live. The ceremony will be held in the Coal & Iron building.
American Legion Post 89 Chaplain Don Donaghy said, "the memorial service will be to honor these four brave souls and the troops who perished alongside them in the sinking."
In early 1943, America was waging war against Japan in the far east, and Nazi Germany as well as Italy in Europe. This required the enormous task of moving millions of men and equipment to support them around the globe. Despite air transport being available, aircraft technology had not yet evolved enough to be up to the task, meaning most troops and equipment were moved by sea.
In the early stages of the war, Germany and Japan still retained the ability to threaten allied vessels in the open seas, meaning that getting to the war was almost as dangerous as directly fighting in combat. The SS Dorchester was a ship that was assigned this daunting task. Once a luxury cruise-liner, the Dorchester was converted to an Army transport ship when America entered the war. In early 1943, the vessel was part of a convoy bound for Greenland.
Until recently, Greenland had been a colony of Denmark, and is located at the arctic circle; north of Canada. When the Germans occupied Denmark, the colony was left on it's own. The locals decided to break away from their former master, and seek American protection. The American's aboard the Dorchester were headed north to protect Greenland's mines and airfields that were crucial to the European Theatre of operations.
On the night of Feb. 2, 1943, the vessel, one of three ships in the SG-19 convoy, was moving steadily across the icy waters from Newfoundland toward an American base in Greenland. SG-19 was escorted by Coast Guard Cutters Tampa, Escanaba and Comanche.
The SS Dorchester was crowded to capacity, carrying 902 service men, merchant seamen, and civilian workers. The fully-laden ship was only 150 miles from it's destination.
Around 1:00 am, German U-Boat (submarine) U-223 spotted the Dorchester, and launched three torpedoes, with one striking below the waterline, sinking the ship in 20 minutes. The torpedo blast knocked out electrical and steam power aboard the vessel, which made it impossible to call for help or even sound an alarm. The attack caused chaos aboard the ship. Many men were unable to find their life jackets in the pitch black darkness in the lower decks of the ship.
Of the 902 passengers, 674 perished in the icy waters or during the initial explosion that night. Four of these casualties were chaplains: Lt. George L. Fox (Methodist), Lt. Alexander D. Goode (Jewish), Lt. John P. Washington (Roman Catholic), and Lt. Clark V. Poling (Dutch Reformed).
In the pandemonium that ensued after the attack, the four chaplains assembled on the deck with the other passengers to escape the sinking ship. When life vest began to run low and all the life boats were at near capacity, the four chaplains gave up their seats in the boats and handed out their vests so that others may live. The chaplains reportedly stayed on the deck until the ship sank under the icy seas; singing hymns and offering prayers.
The four chaplains were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the Purple Heart, posthumously. They were also awarded the "Medal of Heroism," which was established by Congress exclusively for these four brave souls, and carries the same weight as the "Medal of Honor," our nations highest military award. In 1948, the U.S. Postal Service commemorated a special stamp in honor of the chaplains.
Join American Legion Post 89 in honoring these four brave men this Saturday at 10 am in the Coal & Iron building in downtown Fort Payne. In you are a veteran and would like to get involved with American Legion Post 89, contact Don Donaghy at 256-717-3350.
Post 89 holds their regular meetings on the third Saturday of each month at the Coal & Iron building in Fort Payne at 9:30 am.