Painting of the rescue of USAT Dorchester survivors by USCGC Escanaba (WPG-77); artist unattributed

Painting of the rescue of USAT Dorchester survivors by USCGC Escanaba (WPG-77); artist unattributed

On the frigid night of Feb. 3, 1943, the overcrowded Allied ship U.S.A.T. Dorchester, carrying 902 servicemen, plowed through the dark waters near Greenland. At 1:00 a.m., a Nazi submarine fired a torpedo into the transport’s flank, killing many in the explosion and trapping others below deck. It sank in 27 minutes.

The two escort ships, Coast Guard cutters Comanche and Escanaba, were able to rescue only 231 survivors. In the chaos of fire, smoke, oil and ammonia, four chaplains calmed sailors and distributed life jackets:

  • Lt. George L. Fox, Methodist
  • Lt. Clark V. Poling, Dutch Reformed
  • Lt. John P. Washington, Roman Catholic
  • Lt. Alexander D. Goode, Jewish

When there were no more life jackets, the four chaplains ripped off their own and put them on four young men. As the ship went down, survivors floating in rafts could see the four chaplains linking arms and bracing themselves on the slanting deck. They bowed their heads in prayer as they sank to their icy deaths.

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Survivor Grady Clark wrote: “As I swam away from the ship, I looked back. The flares had lighted everything. The bow came up high and she slid under. The last thing I saw, the four chaplains were up there praying for the safety of the men. They had done everything they could. I did not see them again. They themselves did not have a chance without their life jackets.”

Congress honored them by declaring this “Four Chaplains Day.”

On Feb. 7, 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower spoke from the White House for the American Legion “Back-to-God” Program: “And we remember that, only a decade ago, aboard the transport Dorchester, four chaplains of four faiths together willingly sacrificed their lives so that four others might live. In the three centuries that separate the Pilgrims of the Mayflower from the chaplains of the Dorchester, America’s freedom, her courage, her strength, and her progress have had their foundation in faith. …”

Eisenhower continued: “Today as then, there is need for positive acts of renewed recognition that faith is our surest strength, our greatest resource. This ‘Back to God’ movement is such a positive act. … Whatever our individual church, whatever our personal creed, our common faith in God is a common bond among us. … Together we thank the Power that has made and preserved us a nation. By the millions, we speak prayers, we sing hymns – and no matter what their words may be, their spirit is the same – ‘In God is Our Trust.'”

Eisenhower stated in his address: “As a former soldier, I am delighted that our veterans are sponsoring a movement to increase our awareness of God in our daily lives. In battle, they learned a great truth – that there are no atheists in the foxholes.”

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