In the early morning hours of February 3, 1943, the American troop ship USAT (United States Army Transport) Dorchester is torpedoed by the German submarine U-223 en route to Greenland, in order to establish a top-secret radar base. For the four Army chaplains and one young solider on board this day would forever change their lives.
The four Army chaplains could not have been more different from each other: athletic and intellectual Rabbi Alex Goode: Methodist pastor and World War One veteran George Fox: scholar, poet and Dutch Reformed minister Clark Poling: baseball fan and “just a good guy” Father John Washington. Yet in the confession and freight following the attack from the German U-boat, the four chaplains unite in a final sacrifice that changes every survivor life forever. Survivors watched and heard of what the four chaplains did as they distributed the life jackets that where on the ship to the soldiers in need. Many on the ship were in such a rush to leave the ship, many of the men left their life jackets behind. The four chaplains would ultimately give their lives so that other could live by giving other soldiers their life jackets.
As the ship sank into the icy waters of the North Atlantic, survivors in nearby lifeboats saw the four chaplains, linked arm-in-arm on the deck, praying together. Of the 902 aboard the Dorchester that night, only 230 survived. The one young soldier was Cpl. Ralph F. Davis, my grandfather and a survivor.
My grandfather recalled watching the chaplains as he stayed his post of guarding the bridge. He had switched earlier that day assignments due to another soldier being sick. So rather than being asleep in the bully of the ship he was above deck dressed for the icy cold assignment for the evening, including having his life jacket on. My grandfather would also remember how terrifying the minutes and hours were that following the attack. He did not make it into a lifeboat they were away from the ship by the time he was relieved of duty. He would spend the next 23 hours in the freezing North Atlantic along with many others watching the red lights on the life jacket bob up and down in the water.
Hearing this story when I was young had an amazing impact on my life. It heightened my love for history and Christ. In one sitting when we talked about his time both on and before boarding the Dorchester recalled leaving port in New York where he was shocked at the size of the city. He was a country boy from North Carolina. He remembered hearing Bing Crosby’s White Christmas for the first time and the strong black coffee on the ship. I guess that’s why I like my coffee strong and black today. As we finished talking that day he said to me I remember praying that God would allow me to live in order that he could make a difference. Then he said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) It was the last time we ever talked about that night. I miss him and his quiet wisdom.
Let me just say, thank you to all who serve and have served our country with valor and courage so that we may live in freedom.