Today is the 71st anniversary of the sinking of the troop ship Dorchester in the Labrador Sea just after midnight on February 3, 1943. Six-hundred seventy-two passengers and crew died when a German submarine put a torpedo in its side. Among the dead were four chaplains: George Fox (Methodist), John Washington (Roman Catholic), Alexander Goode (Jewish) and Clark Poling (Dutch Reformed). As the ship sank into the icy deep, the chaplains prayed with frightened soldiers, encouraging them and comforting them in the darkness. Survivors reported that the chaplains gave their own life vests to soldiers who lacked them, and then linked arms in prayer as the ship slipped from sight about 25 minutes after being hit. The story of the four chaplains continues to inspire those who hear it, and it serves as one of the Army chaplaincy’s formational narratives.
U.S. Army Chaplain Corps historian Dr. Mark W. Johnson recently published an article looking at the background of the sinking.
I want to examine the events of February 3, 1943, from a broader point of view and explore some of the contextual aspects of the incident: Why was Dorchester heading for Greenland? How did a German U-boat slip through the screen of protective escort ships to deliver Dorchester a fatal blow? The transport was part of a multi-ship convoy, but why did it take so long for rescue ships to arrive on the scene, which resulted in the great majority of potential survivors freezing to death in the icy waters of the North Atlantic? And why was an interdenominational team of four chaplains on Dorchester in the first place?
This is the best short article that I’ve read on the military background of the sinking.
I did not know, for example, that the the presence of Protestant, Catholic and Jewish chaplains aboard was not an accident of manifesting. The ship’s destination was Greenland, not England. Greenland was a “backwater” of the war, not the most glorious assignment or the most comfortable, but strategically and operationally necessary for a variety of reasons. Although there were some 2000 military personnel stationed in Greenland, there had not been any chaplains assigned there in the first year of the war. Johnson continues,
In early 1943 the Army determined to correct this oversight. With a routine rotation of Greenland-based personnel scheduled for February, officials at the New York Port of Embarkation were instructed to assign four chaplains to the manifest of the troopship Dorchester. Each of the four was to be of a different denomination, thus enabling the chaplains to provide the greatest possible extent of pastoral care in Greenland. There were a number of chaplains designated for overseas assignment then marking time at Camp Miles Standish near Boston. Orders soon when out for Chaplains Fox, Goode, Poling, and Washington to report to New York. The four had all volunteered for deployment, and in their own ways were looking forward to the challenges of service in a war zone—but none of them were overly thrilled about being assigned to an out-of-the-way place like Greenland.
I also did not know that another troop transport from the same original convoy – the Henry R. Mallory – sank after it was attacked on February 7, taking with it five more chaplains. The loss of nine chaplains in four days marks the deadliest week in Army chaplain corps history.
For those with an interest in military history, the article provides important context for understanding the story of the four chaplains. Now I know the rest of the story.