Members of the East Liberty County American Legion Post 321 and the congregation of the South Newport Baptist Church in Townsend conducted memorial services Sunday to honor four Army chaplains. The services observed the 70th anniversary of the actions of chaplain-lieutenants George L. Fox, Alexander D. Goode, Clark V. Poling and John P. Washington.
Shortly after midnight on Feb. 3, 1943, the bell on the troopship U.S.A.T. Dorchester rang two times then never rang again. The troopship sank after being torpedoed by a German U-boat 150 miles from its destination in Greenland. The lives of 672 of the 902 men on board ended in the cold waters of the North Atlantic. The chaplains were among those who went to a watery grave; they gave away their life jackets so four other soldiers could live.
As part of the observance, candles were lit for each chaplain and a church member rang a bell twice. Just as Post Commander Dennis P. Fitzgerald began to explain the circumstances of the event, a young boy in the congregation respectfully interrupted.
“Why don’t we hear about events and actions like this in school?” he asked.
Fitzgerald later admitted he at first was at a loss for words and had to think about his response.
“Times are moving forth, and events in our history just seem to get pushed aside,” the former Army Ranger told him then turned his comments to the congregation. “That’s why we, as members of the American Legion, have an obligation to educate not only the youth of America but all Americans on the rich history of America’s veterans and military, past and present.”
According to Fitzgerald, the Dorchester was part of a three-ship convoy being escorted by U.S. Coast Guard cutters, the Tampa, Escanaba and Comanche. The ship’s captain was concerned because the Tampa had detected a submarine with its sonar the day before. He ordered his crew and passengers to sleep in their clothes and life jackets. However, many sailors and soldiers deep in the ship’s hold ignored his orders because they were so close to the heat of the ship’s engine.
The torpedo hit the ship’s starboard side below the water line, killing scores of men and wounding many more. The ship took on water and lost power, leaving no method for radioing the three escort ships. The captain ordered everyone to abandon ship.
Fox, Goode, Poling and Washington spread out among the soldiers and sailors, calming the frightened and tending to the wounded. While reading from the historic account by survivors, Fitzgerald quoted several soldiers and sailors.
“I could hear men crying, pleading, praying,” said Pvt. William Bednar, who found himself floating in the oil-smeared water, “I could also hear the chaplains preaching courage. Their voices were the only thing that kept me going.”
When most of the men were topside, the chaplains took charge of distributing life jackets until there were no more to give out. Engineer Grady Clark said he witnessed each chaplain remove his life vest and hand it over to the next soldier or sailor in line. As the ship went down, survivors said they could see the four chaplains, arms linked and braced against the leaning deck, singing hymns and praying.
When each candle was lit and a bio of each chaplain read, Fitzgerald ordered his Legionnaires to present arms as “Taps” was played by Josh Morse. Afterward, Fitzgerald told the congregation it was important to remember the sacrifice of the four chaplains. They are an enduring example of extraordinary faith, courage and selflessness, he said.
Along with Fitzgerald, Legionnaires taking part in Sunday’s observance were Senior Vice Commander A.J. Schmitt, Junior Vice Commander Darryl Woodard, Sergeant At Arms Herbert Reed, Adjutant John C. Ryon Jr., finance officer Jeffery Bowen and Chaplain Alice Hoach.