- Simon 'Peters' Biggs
Heroism of four Chaplains on U.S.A.T. Dorchester
The U boat war was now entering a critical phase. Just as more and more men and munitions were leaving America and Canada to join the fight in Britain and North Africa, the U-boat packs were intensifying their efforts to sink them. Whilst a wide range of new technical measures and tactics were transforming the anti U-boat campaign, and having increasing success, the Battle of the Atlantic was far from won.
The United States Army Transport (USAT) Dorchester was passing through the freezing seas off Newfoundland when her captain learnt of a U-boat nearby, located by land based radio direction finding. There was little they could do about it, apart from keeping especially alert and staying close to the convoy. None of the escorts possessed radar so U-223 was able to surface in the darkness and fire one torpedo at 0055 on the 3rd.
Four men on board so distinguished themselves by their conduct in the following half-hour that there were calls for them to be awarded the Medal of Honor. The rules state that it can only be awarded for acts performed ‘under fire’. So in 1960 by special Act of Congress they were awarded a unique medal in recognition of their sacrifice:
Painting of the rescue of USAT Dorchester survivors by USCGC Escanaba (WPG-77) on 3 February 1943 in the North Atlantic Ocean. Unattributed United States Coast Guard image.
On February 2, 1943 the German submarine U-223 spotted the convoy on the move and closed with the ships, firing a torpedo which struck the Dorchester shortly after midnight. Hundreds of men packed the decks of the rapidly sinking ship and scrambled for the lifeboats. Several of the lifeboats had been damaged and the four chaplains began to organize frightened soldiers.
They distributed life jackets from a locker; when the supply of life jackets ran out, each of the chaplains gave theirs to other soldiers. When the last lifeboats were away, the chaplains prayed with those unable to escape the sinking ship. 27 minutes after the torpedo struck, the Dorchester disappeared below the waves with 672 men still aboard. The last anyone saw of the four chaplains, they were standing on the deck, arms linked and praying together.
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