Sinking of the SS Dorchester

U.S. #956 was a rare exception to the rule. At the time, no one other than Presidents were honored on stamps within 10 years of their death.

On February 3, 1943, after the SS Dorchester was sunk, the Four Chaplains sacrificed their lives to protect the other men on their boat.

The U.S. Army Transport Dorchester (formerly a coastal liner) left New York on January 23, 1943, with 904 passengers and crew aboard. Among them were four men who had met at Army Chaplains School at Harvard University – Methodist Minister George L. Fox, Protestant Minister Clark V. Poling, Catholic Priest John P. Washington, and Reform Rabbi Alexander D. Goode.

The Dorchester was one of three troop transport ships in a convoy. The crew was on high alert because German U-boats had attacked American ships in the same area near Newfoundland. Because of the concern of attack, the men were ordered to sleep in their clothes and wear their life jackets. But many ignored the command because they found it hot and uncomfortable. Shortly after midnight on February 3, the Dorchester was hit by a torpedo. The blast knocked out the electrical system, and left passengers trapped below deck in darkness.

U.S. #2765a – The Dorchester was struck by the German submarine U-223.

Chaos ensued, but the four Chaplains calmed those on board while organizing the evacuation. As they passed out life jackets, they found there weren’t enough for everyone, so the four Chaplains gave theirs away to other men on board. After helping as many of the men into lifeboats as they could, they linked arms, said prayers, and sang hymns until the ship eventually sank.

According to one survivor, “As I swam away from the ship, I looked back. The flares had lighted everything. The bow came up high and she slid under. The last thing I saw, the four Chaplains were up there praying for the safety of the men. They had done everything they could. I did not see them again. They themselves did not have a chance without their life jackets.” Of the 904 men initially aboard the ship, just 230 were rescued, as hypothermia took countless lives.

U.S. #4704 – The Four Chaplains posthumously received the Purple Heart in 1944.

In December 1944, the four Chaplains were posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and Purple Heart. Members of Congress hoped to award the chaplains the Medal of Honor, but because they were not under fire at the time of their bravery, they didn’t qualify. Instead, Congress created the Four Chaplains’ Medal. In 1961, President Eisenhower presented the new medal to the Chaplains’ families. Congress further honored the Chaplains in 1988 by proclaiming February 3 as Four Chaplains Day.

In the years since the sinking, the Chaplains have been honored in a number of ways. These include several chapels and stained glass windows, sculptures and plaques around the country, as well as books and a documentary, which you can watch here. In 2002, survivors of the Dorchester and the German U-223 that attacked it, met in a reconciliatory meeting.

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  1. As I again watched the D-Day celebrations in Normandy last year, I could not fail noting that representatives of the German people again were not invited. What is it with the Anglo/Franco self-righteous govts they cannot reconcile themselves with, something the USA people have for a long time now. Congratulations, and peace may be with the four Chaplains, and the flock they cared for on board the Dorchester. GdR

  2. By 1943 the U.S. military realized that morale would be a critical factor in winning a war, a war which promised to be long and costly. A great factor in building and maintaining a comittment to
    “see the thing through,” was faith. In World War I chaplains like Father (major) Francis P. Duffy
    became well known as the keepers of the faith, and they prepared the ground work for the chaplains of WWII. (see: Michael Shay, Sky Pilots, 2014) The deaths of the Four Chaplains, giving their all for their GI flocks, was a great example for soldiers and civilians alike. At a time when the chaplains are under attack it is wise for us to remember what those four men did for their faith and their men on that sinking ship. Dr. James J. Cooke, Prof. Emeritus of History (U of Miss).

  3. I enjoy these historical emails EVERY morning. This is a touching story that should set an example for interfaith cooperation and leadership…so important today.

  4. I remember the story of the Five Sullivan Brothers who died on the USS Juneau after a torpedo attack in the Battle of Guadacanal but did not know about the four chaplains until I started collecting stamps.

  5. Todays “This day in history” is so inspiring. I had never heard of Four Chaplin’s and this great historical story. Thanks for the link to the documentary. I’ll check it out.

  6. What an inspiring story of four selfless people. How sad that our stamps today capture, not brave people and mighty events that might lift us to be better human beings, but more often political issues, fame, and entertainment.

    1. I have had this stamp in my collection since I was a kid, but never knew the story of it. Thanks for the write-up here and the link for the U-tube movie. It was very inspiring and moving of the God-given extreme courage of these four men helping others in the face of certain death. Yes, “There’s no greater love…”.

  7. Very good article on the four Chaplin’s. I totally disagree with the Medal of honor Issue. If your country is at war and there are enemy subs ready to attack and sink your ship, how is that not an under fire situation? Someone should re-evaluate and change the decision.

  8. I believe that under fire or not under fire these chaplains would have continued to serve bravely as they did. So while they were not awarded the MOH, they were examples to us all of courage and caring. There are many modern day military chaplains who I also know of. One of these Father Vincent Capodanno was awarded the MOH. He was killed during Operation Swift September 1967 in Quang Tin Province of Vietnam near the Vinh Huy village complex.

  9. I have always loved this story. True sacrifice. Too bad that today the PCers of this world are trying to remove religion (all types) from our Chaplin Corps.

  10. A great story about courage and self-sacrifice. It make you wonder if there were others among the over 900 young soldiers and sailors aboard the Dorchester who risked or sacrificed their life to help a buddy or even a total stranger. Stories like this about extraordinary courage under life threatening circumstances inspire all of us. It makes us wonder what we would do under such circumstances.

  11. This is the first I heard of the Four Chaplains Day. This should be taught in schools and mentioned on the radio and television. What an inspiring story. Thank you.

  12. A great article. Everyone on the Atlantic Ocean was under fire in the longest battle (Battle of the Atlantic) of WW II.

    I look forward to your article on the Five Sullivan Brothers on the USS Juneau. Another story of devotion to duty.

  13. Wonderful article. In this day when even Men & Women of Faith sometimes succumb to the evils of society, and are questioned as to being Role Models to lead the faithful, it is nice to have stories such as these to remind us of bravery and true sacrifice and service for others.

  14. My grandfather Ernest Albert Smith a civilian was on that ship, tragedy struck my mom and grandmother at the news of what had happened.

  15. Why has this story of courage and bravery never been made into a major motion picture? I have wondered that for the past 52 years when I started collecting stamps. Get with it Hollywood! We need movies like this, instead of the recycled trash that passes for “entertainment” these days.

  16. Interesting side note: If you watched any of the USCG-led press conferences the past few days about the Titan submersible rescue attempt, the FRC Warren Deyampert, which was behind the speakers, was named after another crew member of the Dorchester who helped the rescue of 100 sailors on the DOrchester. He dies in action during the sinking while saving others’ lives in the spirit of the “Four CHaplins”. As a baby boomer, their story was well known when I was in school, but I suspect it has faded. Perhaps this coincidence will bring it back to front of mind.

  17. I was in the Navy for a long time myself. I remember having drills in case we were hit by a torpedo or anything else. Faith is something that I feel doesn’t need to be explained. I remember going out to sea and wondering about those who came before, as well as those after me. May they all have fair winds and following seas.

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