By ADRIENNE ANDERSONFebruary 7, 2013
FORT BENNING, Ga. (Feb. 6, 2013) -- Fort Benning observed the 70th anniversary of the sinking of the USAT Dorchester Sunday at the Field of Four Chaplains. The Dorchester carried 902 people including the four chaplains who sacrificed their lives for others: George Fox, Alexander Goode, John Washington and Clark Poling.
"Seventy years ago today, four chaplains with four distinctly different faiths and backgrounds made the ultimate sacrifice for their fellow Soldiers, troops in a selfless fashion that underscored the meaning of service, love, unity and brotherhood," said retired Navy Capt. Neil Block of Harris County, Ga., guest speaker for the ceremony. "It was a startling, startling sacrifice of four young men who loved their fellow men so much that they were prepared to die for them -- which they did."
Maj. Gen. H. R. McMaster, Fort Benning's commanding general, called the chaplains and their actions heroic and courageous because of their commitment to the lives of others and the Army values.
"Though there occasionally occurs in history an event so unique and powerful that it shapes the prospective of an entire nation -- the sacrifice these four chaplains made on Feb. 3, 1943, and the way they made those sacrifices is one such event," he said. "Rev. George Fox, Rabbi Alexander Goode, Father John Washington and Rev. Clark Poling surely could not have known how their courage and how their sacrifices would impact generations to follow. They have come to represent our determination as a people of religious freedom who share a commitment to care for one another, to treat others as we would like to be treated."
The night of Feb. 3, the Dorchester was hit by a torpedo, which struck the boiler room and destroyed the electric supply. In the darkness, the chaplains helped calm the men and organize an evacuation as the ship continued to sink. When the life jackets ran out, the chaplains gave up their own.
Two of the 14 lifeboats were successfully used in the evacuation and many Soldiers jumped into the cold waters below. The four chaplains remained on the ship, their arms linked as they prayed.
The four chaplains were posthumously awarded the Special Medal for Heroism, according to the website www.fourchaplains.org.
"Religion can have a way of separating us and on that day, the four chaplains -- two Protestants, one Catholic, one Jewish chaplain -- they stood together, they linked arms," said Chaplain (Maj.) Mike Reeves of Bloomington, Ind., the deputy garrison chaplain for religious support at Fort Benning. "Those that survived that day recalled that they saw these chaplains praying as the Dorchester sank beneath the waves."
Block called the four chaplains' sacrifice "tremendous" and that night something Americans needed to remember.
"We as Americans need to recall, irrespective of who we are, what our backgrounds, what our faiths, what our ethnicities -- we're all brothers, we're all sisters, we're all of one family and more so than that, we are all children of one God," he said.
During the ceremony the band from Hardaway High School played The Light Eternal, a piece that commemorated the sinking of the Dorchester.
Martha Medaris, the mother of a student in the band, said she didn't know about the sinking, but learned the importance of those who "go above and beyond to save the lives of other people -- how we should never take life for granted."
"Live your day as if it's your last because you will never know," she said.
Reeves said that the impact that night had on the country, and the fact that it's still remembered today, shows its importance in American culture and reflects its values.
Despite the different backgrounds and beliefs of Americans, he said, "we find a way to come together, we cooperate -- we don't compromise who we are."
History of the Dorchester
On Jan. 23, 1943, the USAT Dorchester left New York Harbor bound for Greenland carrying 902 officers, servicemen and civilian workers. The Dorchester was escorted by three Coast Guard cutters. On Feb. 2, one of the cutters detected the presence of a submarine but failed to find the submarine's position. The Dorchester's commanding officer ordered the men to sleep in their clothing, with life jackets close at hand. They were only 150 miles from Greenland and daylight would bring air cover from the American base.
Down in the old converted cruise ship's stifling hold, four U.S. Army chaplains circulated among the frightened young men, some lying wide-eyed in their bunks, others nervously playing cards or shooting dice. Those chaplains were Lt. George L. Fox - Methodist; Lt. Alexander D. Goode - Jewish; Lt. John P. Washington - Roman Catholic; and Lt. Clark V. Poling - Reformed Church. Chatting with the troops, the chaplains eased tensions, calmed fears and passed out soda crackers to alleviate seasickness.
Early in the morning of Feb. 3, the chaplains were still up. Just before 1 a.m., a torpedo struck and exploded in the boiler room, destroying the electric supply, releasing suffocating clouds of steam and ammonia gas. The tremendous explosion threw soldiers from their bunks and the lights went out as the stricken ship listed to starboard, sinking fast.
Those not trapped below rushed topside. Amid the shriek of escaping steam and frantic blasts of the ship's whistle, dazed men stumbled about the dark, crowded decks. Some gripped the rails, too struck with horror to head toward the lifeboats.
The four chaplains quickly moved among the bewildered men; calming them; directing them to life rafts; and urging them to escape the doomed ship. Many had forgotten their life jackets. The chaplains located a supply in a deck locker and passed them out. When the bin was empty, they pulled off their own and made others put them on.
Only two of the 14 lifeboats were successfully used in abandoning ship. Soldiers leaped into the icy sea. They clutched the gunwales of the two overloaded lifeboats, clung to doughnut-like rafts or floated alone.
Some men were insulated by the thick fuel oil that coated them and floated in lifejackets for eight hours.
The four chaplains remained on the ship's slanted aft deck, standing together, arms linked, heads bowed in prayer, as the Dorchester slipped beneath the waves.
Their sacrifice is remembered as one of the most touching stories of the WWII, and their legacy continues to this day.