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By JIM ADKINS, Guest Columnist
Plying their way through the wintry North Atlantic waters, the little fleet trailed white wakes from their bows as they cut through the icy sea.
Consisting of three overcrowded troopships guarded by three Coast Guard Cutters, they were bound for the war in Europe. It was just after midnight on Feb. 3, 1943, in the sea-lane off the frozen coast of Greenland.
Lurking just below the waves, trimmed level and barely moving at three knots, was the German submarine U-223. Freezing brine broke over an ominous periscope as it jutted just above the surface. Below, the German captain pressed his face against the rubber eyepiece spying the lumbering troopships designated SG-19, lit by a sliver of moon.
When the sub was in perfect attack position, he ordered, “torpedo tubes ready.” The firing sequence began and moments later a spread of three torpedoes hissed out and sped toward the small American fleet.
Like deadly snakes, they writhed toward the American ships at 30 knots, 12 feet below the surface carrying 617 pounds of high explosives each. At the end of its run, one of the deadly projectiles struck the U.S.A.T. cargo ship Dorchester amidships, below the waterline.
The 5,649-ton vessel shuddered in a blinding explosion, killing scores of men. A huge column of water rose higher than the ship’s mast, followed by enormous orange sheets of flame belching up from the starboard side.
The noise was unlike anything the crew had ever heard. Metal twisted and tore as more explosions ripped through the proud old cargo ship, vomiting oil-streaked smoke into the night sky. The stricken vessel carrying more than 900 men immediately began settling as seawater rushed into the gaping hole caused by the blast.
There were four military chaplains on board the doomed ship. Rushing through the corridors, they burst upon the deck, spilling out into a scene from Dante’s “Inferno.” Immediately, they tried to calm the frightened young soldiers who were getting their first taste of war.
Overcrowded lifeboats floated on the burning sea below as the chaplains opened a storage locker and began handing out life jackets to the panicked men remaining on the ship. After a few minutes it became evident that there would not be enough of the lifesaving devices for everyone. Looking at each other for a moment, each chaplain solemnly nodded his decision.
They then took off their own life jackets and gave them to nearby soldiers.
After only 18 harrowing minutes, the deck of the Dorchester was awash and the ship slid beneath the 34-degree water with the loss of nearly 700 lives. Many of the 230 men who survived the sinking saw the four chaplains standing arm-in-arm on the slanting main deck of the ship, praying for the victims. Their selfless act of faith and valor was in the highest tradition of the chaplaincy.
Three crosses and a Star of David honor the four brave chaplains at Arlington National Cemetery. They are: Lt. George L. Fox, Methodist; Lt. Alexander D. Goode, Jewish; Lt. Clark V. Poling, Dutch Reformed and Lt. John P. Washington, Roman Catholic.
John Ladd, one of the survivors of the tragedy, summed it up best: “It was the finest thing that I’ve ever seen or hope to see this side of heaven.”
Saturday is Armed Forces Day. I thought this story of four courageous military men appropriate.
Adkins lives in Tell City.