65 years ago in the North Atlantic, they perished so others could live

The story of the four chaplains who stood together as the Dorchester sank remains powerful


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The Dorchester was in trouble.

It was shortly before 1 a.m. on Feb. 3, 1943 -- 65 years ago today -- and a German submarine had just blown a gaping hole in the converted cruise ship, which was packed with more than 900 soldiers, seamen and civilians headed for bases on the icy reaches of Greenland.

The ship would have about 25 minutes before it sank into the frigid North Atlantic.

As stunned soldiers clambered onto the deck, many started to gather around four officers who had grouped themselves together.

The officers -- the Rev. George Fox, Rabbi Alexander Goode, the Rev. Clark Poling and the Rev. John Washington -- were the ship's chaplains. They comforted the men, prayed with them, tried to calm them down, and scrounged up spare life jackets for the dozens who had failed to put on their own before the attack.

Then, at some point, witnesses said, one of the chaplains took off his own cork-filled life jacket and gave it to a soldier who didn't have one. Before long, none of the chaplains was wearing one.

The ship tilted heavily to starboard and then slipped beneath the sea. Of the 904 men on board, only 229 survived.

Many of the passengers, either frightened or fatalistic, never left the ship. The chaplains stayed with them until the end.

The sinking of the Dorchester caused one of the largest losses of life of any maritime attack in World War II.

   
About the mural

The mural shown at the top of this page hangs in the Jewish Community Center on Forbes Avenue in Squirrel Hill. It was commissioned by philanthropist Hyman Rogal in 1956, and was painted by a well-know muralist, W. Dean Fausett.

Dedicated to the four chaplains on Feb. 19, 1956, the mural shows Rabbi Alexander Goode at the top left, arms raised in the air. Grouped below him are the Rev. John Washington, a priest shown praying, and the Rev. Clark Poling and the Rev. George Fox, Protestant ministers who are shown putting their life jackets on soldiers.

The stylized depiction at right shows soldiers trying to get into lifeboats as their troop ship, the Dorchester, began to sink in the North Atlantic after being hit by a German torpedo.

Mr. Rogal raised $40,000 for the mural, equivalent to almost $300,000 in today's dollars. For many years, it hung in the Young Men and Women's Hebrew Association building on Bellefield Avenue in Oakland.

   

In the years immediately afterward and through the 1950s, the story of the Roman Catholic priest, the rabbi and the two Protestant ministers who had given up their life jackets to save others was well known, becoming a national symbol of heroism and sacrifice.

The government issued a commemorative stamp in 1948, memorial services were held all over the nation, and eventually, two foundations were formed to promulgate the interfaith values that the chaplains exemplified.

Pittsburgh had its own symbol of remembrance. A large, dramatic mural commemorating the chaplains, commissioned by philanthropist Hyman Rogal and dedicated in 1956, hung for many years in the former Jewish Community Center on Bellefield Avenue in Oakland. It has since been transferred to the new JCC building in Squirrel Hill.

As happens so often with historic events, though, the saga of the four chaplains has faded from public view in recent years. Of the more than 200 men who were rescued after the sinking, probably fewer than 10 are now living, says David Fox, the nephew of the Rev. George Fox, one of the chaplains.

Three of the chaplains had Pennsylvania connections. And as outlined in Dan Kurzman's 2004 book, "No Greater Glory: The Four Immortal Chaplains and the Sinking of the Dorchester," each followed an unusual path to the troop ship.

An unlikely foursome

George Fox was serving a small Methodist parish in Vermont and barely scraping by when he enlisted. At 42, he was the old man of the chaplains.

He grew up in Altoona, but he didn't like to talk about it.

Raised by a brutal, abusive father, he lied about his age so he could enlist in the Army in World War I. While serving in France as a medic, he was badly injured when a building he was working in collapsed on top of him after an explosion. It was one day before the Armistice.

During the war, he corresponded with a New York woman who had volunteered to write to men overseas. When he got out of the hospital in 1918, he headed straight for New York City and moved in with the woman, Florence Fox, her husband Percy and their seven children in a rambling house in Brooklyn.

Eventually, the Foxes adopted George, and, in later years, he made it clear that he would rather not discuss his birth name or his childhood.

Rabbi Alexander Goode, 31, may have been the most accomplished of the chaplains. As a high school student, he won awards in athletics and oratory. After graduating from Hebrew Union Seminary in Cincinnati, the Reformed rabbi began working at Temple Beth Israel in York, York County, and earned a Ph.D. in Middle Eastern languages by going to night classes at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

He met his wife, Theresa Flax, a niece of entertainer Al Jolson, while both were in high school, and they had a 3-year-old daughter, Rosalie, when he entered the Army.

The Rev. Clark Poling, 32, came from a family of ministers. His father, Daniel, was the minister who preceded Norman Vincent Peale at the prominent Marble Collegiate Church in New York City. His grandfather, his uncle, and three of his cousins also were ministers, according to his son, Clark Poling Jr.

The Rev. Poling's mother died when he was 17 and living in Massachusetts, and the family then briefly moved to Wilkinsburg, where his grandfather headed a church, before his father remarried.

In a book he wrote a year after his son's death, entitled "Your Daddy Did Not Die," Daniel Poling recounted a conversation he and Clark had before his son shipped out. "Dad, I don't want you to pray for my return -- that wouldn't be fair [because] many will not return ... Oh Dad, just pray that I shall be adequate."

Clark Poling Jr. was just 3 when his father entered the Army. His only memory is of his dad pushing him around on the family carpet sweeper. Less than three months after he died, the Rev. Poling's daughter Susan was born.

The Rev. John Washington, 34, seemed an unlikely candidate for the priesthood when he was growing up in Newark, N.J.

Known for his mischievousness and getting into scrapes, he surprised his family by announcing his plans to go into the ministry and enter Seton Hall's seminary program.

When America entered the war, he had to lie about his poor eyesight to get into the chaplaincy. A fine singer and musician. Father Washington became the worship service piano player and resident storyteller aboard the Dorchester.

His mother Mary lost not only John in the war, but also her son Francis, an Army Air Force bombardier, and her son Leo, who died of war wounds shortly after returning home. After Father Washington died, neighbors said, she never left her house again.

Destination unknown

When the Dorchester left Staten Island on Jan. 22, 1943, most of the men did not know they were heading to Greenland.

   
More about the four chaplains

• "No Greater Glory: The Four Immortal Chaplains and the Sinking of the Dorchester in World War II" by Dan Kurzman, Random House, 2004

• "Sea of Glory," a novel based on the events, by David Poling (the Rev. Clark Poling's cousin) and Ken Wales (film producer), Broadman and Holman, 2006

immortalchaplains.org, The Immortal Chaplains Foundation, Long Beach, Calif., started by David Fox, nephew of the Rev. George Fox.

fourchaplains.org, The Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation, Philadelphia, Pa.

   

Greenland, a geographic oxymoron mostly covered in ice, played an important role in the Allied war effort: It provided air bases for Allied fighters and bombers. It was critical for accurate weather forecasting for Europe. And it had a cryolite mine, producing an ore that was important for manufacturing aluminum airplane fuselages.

Because convoys heading for Greenland hugged the Canadian coast, however, they attracted packs of German U-boats. By late 1942, more than 100 American ships had gone to the bottom of the sea along that route, Mr. Kurzman wrote.

By the night of Feb. 2, the Dorchester was within hailing distance of its destination. But Capt. Hans Danielsen told the men that radar had picked up the presence of a U-boat.

If they could make it through the night, he said, the convoy would pick up protection from Greenland air patrols. But just in case, he said, every man should wear his clothing, his coat and his life jacket to bed that night.

Hundreds of men ignored the advice, especially those who had to sleep on the sweltering lower decks.

At 12:55 a.m., U-223, captained by Lt. Cmdr. Karl-Jurgen Wachter, surfaced near the convoy and fired a clutch of torpedoes at the Dorchester. One plowed into the engine room, leaving the ship dead in the water and sinking quickly.

Desperate last moments

It's hard to know how many more men might have been saved if the evacuation had gone according to plan and rescue operations hadn't been delayed by orders to search for the German submarine.

Because of the heavy cant to starboard, most of the lifeboats on that side of the ship were unusable. Other lifeboats capsized in the water when too many men tried to get into them, trapping soldiers underneath.

That almost happened to Ben Epstein, one of the few remaining survivors.

Mr. Epstein, now 86 and living in Glen Cove, N.Y., was an Army Air Force enlisted man at the time, sharing a room with his best friend, Vincent Fruselli.

When the torpedo hit, he said, he and Mr. Fruselli made their way to the lifeboat station where they had been assigned. The boat already was in the water.

"I told Vince, 'I'm going to grab the rope and slide down to the lifeboat. I want you to follow me.' But when I got down to the lifeboat, I didn't see Vince. I never saw him again," he said.

Once he got inside, the overloaded lifeboat capsized. Somehow he was thrown clear.

"I was right near the Dorchester, and I remembered that when these large boats go down they create a suction, so I said to myself, this is nowhere to be, and so I started swimming. I didn't know where I was going, and by some good luck I came across another lifeboat."

The 36-degree water made him too numb and weak to climb on board, but a good samaritan pulled him in. He eventually was rescued by the Coast Guard cutter Escanaba.

James Eardley, also 86 and living in Westerlo, N.Y., was a young medic on the ship, and when he got to the deck, his assigned lifeboat also was missing. So he climbed down a cargo net and jumped in the ocean, wearing only his life jacket.

"As soon as I hit the water I was numb. But I couldn't see a letter going home to my mother saying your son's missing in action, so I kicked my feet for all I was worth," and then he was pulled onto a life raft that held 20 to 30 men.

Once inside, he turned around to look back at the Dorchester. It had turned almost completely upside down, but there were still men huddled on the keel.

That's when he saw the four chaplains, their arms linked, outlined against the sky. "Somebody on the boat told me they'd given their life jackets away. And then the Dorchester went under."

After the Dorchester was hit, the U.S. convoy commander, following standard procedure, told two trailing Coast Guard cutters to search for the submarine before trying to pick up survivors. For that reason, Mr. Kurzman wrote in his book, it took nearly an hour before they began to hunt for men who were still alive.

It was an eerie scene. Each of the life jackets was equipped with a blinking red light, so that the sea seemed to be covered with an undulating Christmas display. By the time the cutters got to many of the blinking lights, the men in those jackets were dead, killed by exposure.

David Fox, George Fox's nephew and founder of The Immortal Chaplains Foundation based on the retired cruise ship Queen Mary in Long Beach, Calif., has tried to keep the spirit of the chaplains alive by handing out annual awards to people who "risked all to protect others of a different faith or ethnicity."

This year's award is going to Aaron Cohen, a California man known for his work rescuing women from sex-ring slavery.

There also is a Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation based at the Philadelphia Navy Yard which promotes interfaith chapels and provides youth scholarships.

"These guys were trailblazers," David Fox said. "This was the first time that anybody knows about that interfaith values and sacrifice were brought into such prominence."


Correction/Clarification: (Published Feb. 4, 2008) David Poling is the Rev. Clark Poling's cousin. A reference to a book co-written by Mr. Poling in this story as originally published Feb. 3, 2008 misidentified his relationship to Clark Poling.

Mark Roth can be reached at mroth@post-gazette.com or at 412-263-1130.


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