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Sinking of The Dorchester - 70th Anniversary -  Honoring those who Died

70th Anniversary of the Sinking of The Dorchester -  Honoring those who Died

The Four ChaplainsIn the early hours of February 3, 1943, a German U-Boat captain gave the command to attack The Dorchester.  Within 27 minutes, the transport ship with 902 people on board sank, taking the lives of 700 officers, servicemen and civilian workers.

In that final half hour, the selfless efforts of four clergy on board helped save many men.  Working calmly, they located life jackets and helped direct the men out of the darkness out to the deck. 

2013 marked the 70th anniversary of this tragic event.   Every year in early February, thousands of veterans, religious leaders, community volunteers and families gather at VA hospital chapels, American Legion posts and Jewish community centers to celebrate the heroism and faith of the Four Chaplains.

The Dorchester,
Four Chaplains, A Story Worth Telling

The Dorchester, built in 1926, began its life caryying freight and passengers between Baltimore and Florida, up to 314 passengers and 90 crew. During World War II, with increased need for troop transport, The Dorchester was converted to military use.  Under the new wartime configuration, The Dorchester could carry 900 passengers and crew.

Four chaplains, who eventually boarded The Dorchester, met in Army Chaplains School at Harvard University:  Rev. George L. Fox, a Methodist Minister, Rev. Clark V. Poling, a Dutch Reformed Minister, Fr. John P. Washington, a Catholic Priest and Rabbi Alexander D. Goode, a Jewish spiritual leader.  Despite their interfaith differences, they prayed together and became close friends.  Sharing a special kind of faith unity, they also found their strength. 

Photos of the Four Chaplains on board the USAT Dorchester 1943 (public domain)

On January 23, 1943, accompanied by a convoy of three Coast Guard cutters, the USAT Dorchester left from New York  to Greenland with 902 people on board, most of them servicemen new to the military, heading to the war front. Approximately 14 months had passed since the attack on Pearl Harbor, since the start of the US involvement in World War II. 

Packed into the bowels of the ship, the men's living quarters were hot and uncomfortable. On February 2, just eleven days into their journey and 150 miles from their destination, the service men were warned:  "A cutter deteced a submarine close by.  Sleep in your life jackets."  Many failed to heed the warning and slept only in their underwear.

Around 1am, with almost everyone but the four chaplains asleep, two torpedoes hit the ship.  The first torpedo left the boat in complete darkness. The second one killed 100 men instantly. 

USAT DorchesterOn impact, the ship tilted.  Clothing and life jackets were lost in the darkness, and panic set in.  The four chaplains, without thought or question, fell into their commitment to service.  They helped calm and reassure the men as they moved everyone upstairs to the deck, distributing the life jackets they could find.

As the boat began to list more heavily and then sink, as water came over the bow, the four chaplains remained together on the ship's deck, their arms linked.  Singing, praying, their heads bowed, they remained visible and audible to the survivors in lifeboats who watched The Dorchester slip beneath the waves.

The US Army Transport ship: The Dorchester (Wikipedia Creative Commons license)

The chaplain's story of selflessness is inspiring, taking on meaning well beyond the simple acts of enduring service and sacrifice in the last half hour of life.  Their legacy continues to this day. 

Memorializing the Four Chaplains

Many actions have been taken to memorialize the Four Chaplains including a dedicated postage stamp, a medal in their honor, an annual recognition day and a memorial foundation.

  • On December 19, 1944, all four chaplains were posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Service Cross.
  • On May 28, 1948 U.S. Postal Service issued a special stamp to commemorate the brotherhood, service and sacrifice of the Four Chaplains.
  • July 14, 1960, United States Congress authorized the "Four Chaplains Medal." which was presented posthumously to the families of the Four Chaplains.
  • In 1988, February 3 is established by unanimous act of Congress is an annual "Four Chaplain's Day." Each state has its own way of celebrating the day including official proclamations, flags flying at half-mast.
  • Many churches throughout United States remember the four chaplains on February 3 every year. The day is also observed is the feast day of the church calendar the Episcopal Church in the United States of America.
  • The Chapel of the Four Chaplains was dedicated on February 3, 1951 by Pres. Harry S Truman to honor these chaplains of different faiths. The chapel was located in the basement of Grace Baptist Church in Philadelphia. When the building in which the chapel was located was sold to Temple University
  • The Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation is housed at the former U.S. Naval Chapel located at the former South Philadelphia Navy Yard. Its official mission statement is "to further the cause of 'unity without uniformity' by encouraging goodwill and cooperation among all people."

The Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation

Mission Statement The Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation exists to further the cause of 'unity without uniformity' by encouraging goodwill and cooperation among all people. The organization achieves its mission by advocating for and honoring people whose deeds symbolize the legacy of the Four Chaplains aboard the U.S.A.T. Dorchester in 1943.

Vision The Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation's vision is to impart the principles of selfless service to humanity without regard to race, creed, ethnicity, or religious beliefs.

The Four Chaplains promotes annual memorial services in communities across The U.S. on or near the February anniversary of the sinking of the U.S.A.T. Dorchester to raise awareness of the need for cooperation among all peoples.

The Four Chaplains also advises in developing and constructing public inter-faith memorials and chapels throughout the nation. It provides comprehensive information and visual materials about the proper technique of retelling The Four Chaplains saga.

History of the Four Chaplains Chapel

Chapel of the Four ChaplainsThe effort to establish a chapel was started by The Reverend Daniel Poling, in honor of the Rev. Clark V. Poling.  The Chapel of the Four Chaplains was dedicated on February 3, 1951, by President Harry S. Truman to honor the four chaplains of different faiths, working together courageously. 

In his dedication speech, President Truman said, "This interfaith shrine... will stand through long generations to teach Americans that as men can die heroically as brothers so should they live together in mutual faith and goodwill."

Initially located in the basement of Grace Baptist church in Philadelphia, the building was sold to Temple University in 1974.

Memorial Chapel in The Naval Yard - Memorial Foundation website (see below)

The Four Chaplains Around 1990, the Memorial Foundation began looking in earnest for a location to build a new chapel.  A possible historic and relevant site - a naval chapel - was identified in 1994 when the Philadelphia Navy Base was preparing to close down.

The Philadelphia Naval Shipyard (PNSY) was the country's first naval shipyard, its origins dating back to the founding of the country in 1776. Because of shifting requirements, the Navy officially closed Philadelphia Naval Shipyard in 1995, but significant military facilities remain, including the Naval Ship Systems Engineering Station (NAVSSES).

In 2001, the work of the Memorial Foundation came to fruition when The Chapel of Four Chaplains moved to The Naval Yard.  The Dedication Ceremony took place on Sunday, November 11, 2001 (Veterans Day) with 450 people in attendance. It was a day of victory for the organization, for the chapel and for veterans across the country of ours who have stood behind us and made it possible.

"It was a day of victory for the chapel and for veterans across this country of ours who have stood behind us and made it possible."

The Memorial Foundation speaks proudly of their sustained efforts despite not having a physical chapel for years.

"Throughout these years of struggle, The Chapel of Four Chaplains has never faltered in any of its efforts. The lack of a chapel building forced us to see the chapel as more of a movement than a place.Our focus has become less upon where we are and more upon what we do."

Stained glass window of The Four Chaplains at the Pentagon (public domain)


Four Chaplains Foundation
Stories of the Medals of Honor
American Veterans Center
Philadelphia Naval Yard


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Posted: February 10, 2013     Nancy J Conrad

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