ALEXANDER D. GOODE
GEORGE L. FOX
CLARK V. POLING
JOHN P. WASHINGTON
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THE SAGA OF THE FOUR
It was the evening of Feb. 2, 1943, and the U.S.A.T.
Dorchester was crowded to capacity, carrying 902 service
men, merchant seamen and civilian workers.
Once a luxury coastal liner, the 5,649-ton vessel had
been converted into an Army transport ship. The
Dorchester, 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.
Hans J. Danielsen, the ship's captain, was concerned
and cautious. Earlier the Tampa had detected a
submarine with its sonar. Danielsen knew he was in
dangerous waters even before he got the alarming
information. German U-boats were constantly prowling
these vital sea lanes, and several ships had already
been blasted and sunk.
The Dorchester was now only 150 miles from its
destination, but the captain ordered the men to
sleep in their clothing and keep life jackets on.
Many soldiers sleeping deep in the ship's hold
disregarded the order because of the engine's heat.
Others ignored it because the life jackets were
On Feb. 3, at 12:55 a.m., a periscope broke
the chilly Atlantic waters. Through the cross hairs,
an officer aboard the German submarine U-223 spotted
The U-223 approached the convoy on the
surface, and after identifying and targeting the
ship, he gave orders to fire the torpedoes, a fan of
three were fired. The one that hit was decisive--and
deadly--striking the starboard side, amid ship, far
below the water line.
Danielsen, alerted that the Dorchester was taking
water rapidly and sinking, gave the order to abandon
ship. In less than 20 minutes, the Dorchester would
slip beneath the Atlantic's icy waters.
Tragically, the hit had knocked out power and radio
contact with the three escort ships. The CGC Comanche,
however, saw the flash of the explosion. It responded
and then rescued 97 survivors. The CGC Escanaba circled
the Dorchester, rescuing an additional 132 survivors.
The third cutter, CGC Tampa, continued on, escorting the
remaining two ships
Aboard the Dorchester, panic and chaos had set in. The
blast had killed scores of men, and many more were
seriously wounded. Others, stunned by the explosion were
groping in the darkness. Those sleeping without clothing
rushed topside where they were confronted first by a
blast of icy Arctic air and then by the knowledge that
Men jumped from the ship into lifeboats, over-crowding
them to the point of capsizing, according to
eyewitnesses. Other rafts, tossed into the Atlantic,
drifted away before soldiers could get in them.
Through the pandemonium, according to those present,
four Army chaplains brought hope in despair and light in
darkness. Those chaplains were Lt. George L. Fox,
Methodist; Lt. Alexander D. Goode, Jewish; Lt. John P.
Washington, Roman Catholic; and Lt. Clark V. Poling,
Quickly and quietly, the four chaplains spread out among
the soldiers. There they tried to calm the frightened,
tend the wounded and guide the disoriented toward
"Witnesses of that terrible night remember hearing the
four men offer prayers for the dying and encouragement
for those who would live," says Wyatt R. Fox, son of
One witness, Private William B. Bednar, found himself
floating in oil-smeared water surrounded by dead bodies
and debris. "I could hear men crying, pleading,
praying," Bednar recalls. "I could also hear the
chaplains preaching courage. Their voices were the only
thing that kept me going."
Another sailor, Petty Officer John J. Mahoney, tried to
reenter his cabin but Rabbi Goode stopped him. Mahoney,
concerned about the cold Arctic air, explained he had
forgotten his gloves.
"Never mind," Goode responded. "I have two pairs." The
rabbi then gave the petty officer his own gloves. In
retrospect, Mahoney realized that Rabbi Goode was not
conveniently carrying two pairs of gloves, and that the
rabbi had decided not to leave the Dorchester.
By this time, most of the men were topside, and the
chaplains opened a storage locker and began
distributing life jackets. It was then that Engineer
Grady Clark witnessed an astonishing sight.
When there were no more lifejackets in the storage
room, the chaplains removed theirs and gave them to
four frightened young men.
"It was the finest thing I have seen or hope to
see this side of heaven," said John Ladd, another
survivor who saw the chaplains' selfless act.
Ladd's response is understandable. The altruistic
action of the four chaplains
constitutes one of the purest spiritual and ethical acts
a person can make. When giving their life jackets, Rabbi
Goode did not call out for a Jew; Father Washington did
not call out for a Catholic; nor did the Reverends Fox
and Poling call out for a Protestant. They simply gave
their life jackets to the next man in line.
As the ship went down, survivors in nearby rafts could
see the four chaplains--arms linked and braced against
the slanting deck. Their voices could also be heard
Of the 902 men aboard the U.S.A.T. Dorchester, 672 died,
leaving 230 survivors. When the news reached American
shores, the nation was stunned by the magnitude of the
tragedy and heroic conduct of the four chaplains.
"Valor is a gift," Carl Sandburg once said. "Those
having it never know for sure whether they have it until
the test comes."
That night Reverend Fox, Rabbi Goode, Reverend Poling
and Father Washington passed life's ultimate test. In
doing so, they became an enduring example of
extraordinary faith, courage and selflessness.
The Distinguished Service Cross and Purple Heart were
awarded posthumously December 19, 1944, to the next of
kin by Lt. Gen. Brehon B. Somervell, Commanding General
of the Army Service Forces, in a ceremony at the post
chapel at Fort Myer, VA.
A one-time only posthumous Special Medal for Heroism was
authorized by Congress and awarded by the President
Eisenhower on January 18, 1961. Congress attempted to
confer the Medal of Honor but was blocked by the
stringent requirements that required heroism performed
under fire. The special medal was intended to have the
same weight and importance as the Medal of Honor.