The ship sank, but heroism survived Faith: Four chaplains gave away their life preservers and stood together, praying, as the Dorchester went down.


The loss of the Maryland ship Dorchester during World War II became the setting for one of the war's the war's greatest acts of heroism. The ship's four chaplains -- two Protestants, a rabbi and a Catholic priest -- gave away their life preservers in order to save others. They stood together on the deck of the torpedoed vessel as it sank in the stormy, ice-chilled waters of the North Atlantic.

Built in 1926 by Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Co., NTC the Dorchester was the third of a quartet of coastwise liners built for the Merchants and Miners Line, which operated vessels from Baltimore to Florida and carried both freight and passengers.

A familiar and popular vessel of the late 1920s and 1930s, the Dorchester regularly sailed from Pier 3, Pratt and Gay streets, carrying Baltimoreans to destinations as far north as Boston and as far south as Miami. The ship was 368 feet long with a 52-foot beam and had a single funnel. Large and reasonably fast, the Dorchester was noted for its food and comfortable accommodations for 300.

The Dorchester, like its sister ships, featured telephones in every cabin and felt-lined windows that eliminated the "annoying rattle often experienced with windows on board ships." Staterooms all had running hot and cold water, berth lights and electric fans, and several luxury suites had private tubs and showers.

U-boat torpedo

At the outbreak of World War II, the Dorchester was assigned to the War Shipping Administration for trans-Atlantic troop transport duty. Shortly before 4 a.m. on the morning of Feb. 3, 1943, as the ice-coated Dorchester steamed through the North Atlantic off Greenland, a German U-boat that had been stalking the vessel fired a fatal torpedo. The mortally wounded vessel sank in minutes.

William B. Bednar, who was awakened by the concussion from the torpedo and made his way to the embarkation deck, said in an interview in The Sun, "I went overside, down a life net into a lifeboat. It was so crowded we were all standing up. We lost a couple of oars. The ship seemed to be coming down on us and we were beginning to feel fright when the lifeboat sank and left us floating.

"I could hear men crying, pleading, praying and swearing. I could also hear the chaplains preaching courage to the men. Their voices were probably the only things that kept me sane," he said.

The four Army chaplains, the Rev. Clark W. Poling, the Rev. George L. Fox, the Rev. John P. Washington and Rabbi Alexander D. Goode, removed their life belts and handed them to four soldiers. Standing arm-in-arm, they prepared to face the end. Eyewitnesses recall seeing the men moving their lips in prayer as the sea washed over the stricken vessel.

Washington, the priest, had been stationed at Fort Meade before being ordered overseas. He, like his companions, was a first lieutenant and was assigned to the 76th Division Artillery as a chaplain while at Fort Meade.

Goode had studied at Johns Hopkins University from 1937 to 1940 and was rabbi of the Beth Israel Congregation in York, Pa. Fox was minister of a small Chicopee Falls, Mass., parish, and Poling was the son of the Rev. Daniel Poling, an outstanding Baptist churchman.

Just before boarding the Dorchester, Goode wrote to his wife what became the epitaph for the four chaplains.

"We are fighting for the new age of brotherhood, the age of brotherhood that will usher in at the same time the world democracy we all want. The age when men will admire the freedom and responsibility of the common man in America."

Of the 904 Army, Navy and Merchant Marine members and civilians aboard the vessel, four were from Baltimore, and only one survived, Samuel W. Dix, of Venable Avenue.

Some 605 were drowned or froze to death before Coast Guard rescue vessels arrived. Marine historians have said that had not Coast Guard volunteers -- dressed in heavy rubber suits -- jumped into the icy waters, the loss of life would have been even greater.

The heroic act of the four chaplains, which became a symbol of faith during the dark hours of the war when U-boats were still ravaging convoys, was remembered in 1949, when a 3-cent U.S. postage stamp was issued.

Extensive memorial

The most extensive memorial, the Chapel of Four Chaplains, was erected on the campus of Temple University in Philadelphia, by Poling's father, who was editor of the Christian Herald.

At its dedication in 1951, President Harry S. Truman said: "This chapel commemorates something more than an act of bravery or courage. It commemorates a great act of faith in God.

"The four chaplains in whose memory this shrine was built were not required to give their lives as they did. They gave their lives without being asked. When their ship was sinking, they handed out all the life preservers that were available and then took off their own and gave them away in order that four other men might be saved.

"Those four chaplains actually carried out the moral code which we are all supposed to live by. They obeyed the Divine Commandment that men should love one another. They really lived up to the moral standard that declares: 'Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.' "

The president said to the audience: "They were not afraid of death because they knew that the word of God is stronger than death. Their belief, their faith, in His word enabled them to conquer death. We cannot always know what the outcome of events will be. As President Lincoln said: 'The Almighty has His own purposes.' But we need not be afraid of the outcome if we go on trying to do the right thing as God gives us to see the right."

The Dorchester's identical sister ship, the Chatham, was the first American troopship to be sunk in the war as it steamed in the same waters, with a loss of 27.

Pub Date: 1/05/97

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