Services are being held in many communities in the United States this month to mark the 75th anniversary of the sinking of a US Army troopship with the loss of more than 670 men.
In addition to the heavy toll, the Dorchester, 5,649grt, has a special place in the US history of the Second World War due to the heroic actions of four US Army chaplains as the ship sank.
In 1942, the US Army Air Force was ordered to build bases at Goose Bay, Labrador, and in Greenland from where US aircraft could operate. In southern Greenland, the base at Narsarssuak was named Bluie West One and convoys of ships were used to transport equipment and supplies to build and operate the base from ports such as Boston, in the US and from ports in Canada. One such convoy was SG-19, the SG designation being for St John’s-Greenland.
The coastal passenger ship Dorchester, of the Merchants & Miners Transportation Co, of Baltimore, had been chartered as a troop transport by the US Army. She had embarked more than 750 passengers and general cargo and mail at New York then sailed with just over 900 troops, crew and gunners for St John’s where she joined the small convoy SG-19 bound for the Bluie West One airbase.
The convoy also comprised the Norwegian cargo ships Biscaya, 1,323grt, of Fearnley & Eger, and Lutz, 1,416grt, of C T Gogstad & Co, both chartered from the Norwegian Government in exile, and they were escorted by the US Coast Guard cutters Comanche, Escanaba and Tampa.
West of Cape Farewell and some 150 miles from its destination on Feb 3, the convoy was attacked by the German submarine U-223 which at 0035 fired a spread of three torpedoes at the Dorchester. One hit her amidships on the starboard side. The damage was severe and all power was lost.
Within minutes, the order was given for the passengers and crew to abandon the Dorchester as she developed a list to starboard which prevented the lifeboats on the port side being launched. On the starboard side, the lifeboats were soon overcrowded and several capsized. The wind was icy cold and the water was around 34deg F.
On board the ship were the four US Army chaplains: Lieutenant George L Fox, Methodist; Lt Alexander D Goode, Jewish; Lt John P Washington, Roman Catholic; and Lt Clark V Poling, Dutch Reformed.
The four chaplains went among the soldiers and sailors trying to offer comfort. The chaplains found a storage locker containing lifejackets and began handing them out to those who did not have one. When the locker was empty, the chaplains took off their own lifejackets and gave them to four soldiers.
The four chaplains were last seen with their arms linked and heads bowed in prayer as the Dorchester sank just 20 minutes after being torpedoed. They were among the more than 670 who were lost.