1AM on February 3, 1943. United States Army Transport Ship, Dorchester, is in a convoy of 6 ships enroute from St John’s Newfoundland to the US Army Command base in southern Greenland. At that time, she is about 100 miles off the southern coast of Greenland making a leisurely 10 knots an hour. Most of the 904 crewmembers and American soldiers were asleep below deck. They had been told to sleep dressed and in lifejackets as they were steaming through waters then known as “torpedo alley.”
Some distance away at periscope depth, the Captain of the German U-boat, U-223, spots the convoy. She approaches the convoy on the surface and, at his order, lays out a fan of three torpedoes. Two apparently went awry. The third, the third slammed amidships into Dorchester’s starboard side. It is a mortal wound. Boiler power was lost so the whistle to abandon ship could not be sounded. Electric power was also lost so that an SOS could not be sent. Several life boats were destroyed. Many of the ones that did launch capsized due to overcrowding. In the confusion, life jackets were lost. They were of little use to the hundreds of men thrown violently into 34 degree water. The water was so cold they were unable to even grasp the cargo nets thrown to them. 904 men went into the cold northern Atlantic that night – 230 would survive to see the sunrise – and Dorchester sank by the bow in 20 minutes.
The explosion had left many men badly wounded and unable to move. Four young men however made a choice to give up their life jackets and stay on board with the wounded. They were all young Army Chaplains. They stayed on board to preach courage to the living and pray with the dying. They recognized that the needs of those all around them were more important than their own. Survivors tell of them moving about the sinking ship tending to as many as they could until Dorchester finally sank into the cold and dark north Atlantic.
It is said they were last observed standing on the deck together, arms linked, praying loud enough to be heard in one final effort to bring comfort to those who would soon face a cold and lonely death. For their actions, the four chaplains were posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.—- Today, the US Army trains its Chaplains at Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania. There is a Chapel there with a stained glass window installed in memory of those four Americans who showed the greatest love that they gave their lives for their friends.
There are few examples of completely selfless acts of service. Most of us will never be in a position to give this kind of sacrifice. Words cannot fully express the quality of men that would voluntarily give up their own lives in service to the men around them, most of which they did not know. “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.”