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The Story of the SS Dorchester and the Four Chaplains

Originally outfitted as a luxury passenger liner, the Dorchester was refitted into a troop carrier after the U.S. entered the Second World War. Torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine, she is now best remembered for the four Army chaplains who gave their lives to help their comrades.

The SS Dorchester was launched by the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company on March 20, 1926. Built for the Merchants and Miners Transportation Company, the passenger liner spent most of its "life" carrying up to 314 passengers between Miami, Jacksonville, Savannah, Norfok, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Boston in luxury, complete with electric fans and telephones in every room and an onboard freezer for the preparation of ice cream. The ship had a dance pavilion on the boat deck and provided music from 10:30 to 12:00 A.M. and again from 9:00 to 11:00 P.M. During the day live music recitals were conducted in the music room and when conditions permitted, radio broadcasts were played. A hostess served tea each day in the social hall from 4:30 to 5:00. Deck games were provided, as well as card games and a circulating library. Religious services were held each Sunday in the music room at 11:00 A.M. Passengers were able to send wireless messages, and the ship had a barber shop. Three meals were provided, as well as a "night lunch" between 9:00 and 11:00 each evening. Passengers could even have their automobiles loaded into the cargo hold (for an extra fee of course).

SS Dorchester

[Ship Statistics total length 368 feet; beam 52 feet; draft 19 feet; displacement 5,649 gross tons; top speed 12 knots]

As were most U.S. passenger ships, the Dorchester was converted into a troop carrier upon U.S. entry into the Second World War; she was outfitted with additional lifeboats and life rafts, the windows in the pilot house were greatly reduced in size, and she was armed with four 20mm guns, one 3-inch 50-caliber gun (fore), and one 4-inch 50-caliber gun (aft). The refitting was done in New York City by the Atlantic, Gulf and West Indies SS Co., and she was relaunched on January 24, 1942, by then capable of carrying 906 crew and passengers.

The refitted Dorchester had made five successful crossings from New York City to Greenland when she set out for what would become her last voyage on January 22, 1943, with 902 officers, servicemen, and civilians aboard. The ship's master for this fateful voyage was Captain Hans J. Danielsen, and her commanding officer was Captain Preston S. Krecker. On this voyage, the Dorchester was one of three ships being escorted by the Coast Guard cutters Comanche, Escanaba, and Tampa; the other two ships in the convoy were merchant vessels. Knowing that the convoy could at any time be attacked by a German U-boat, the men aboard the Dorchester were ordered to keep their life vests on at all times, but that order was routinely disobeyed at night because the men found it difficult to sleep with a vest on.

At 55 minutes past midnight on February 3, the Dorchester was only about 100 miles from her destination when she was struck on her starboard side by a torpedo from a German U-boat. Because the blast took out the ship's power, the Dorchester was unable to send a distress signal, and she started to list almost immediately. While the terrified men aboard the Dorchester were scrambling to get to the lifeboats, four Army chaplains -- Father John P. Washington (Catholic); Reverend Clark V. Poling (Dutch Reformed), Rabbi Alexander D. Goode (Jewish), and Reverend George L. Fox (Methodist) -- did what they could to calm the frightened, tend to the wounded, and guide the disoriented to safety. They also distributed the few life jackets they could find, including their own. Less than 20 minutes after being struck, the Dorchester sank beneath the waves, taking the Four Chaplains, Captain Krecker, and 667 other men with her; it was the third worse loss of life at sea for the United States during the war. Many of the survivors reported seeing the Four Chaplains standing together on the deck, arm-in-arm, each praying in their own way, as the Dorchester sank.

depiction of the Four Chaplains helping the last survivor off the Dorchester

Although the sinking of the Dorchester was the third worst loss at sea suffered by the United States during the war, it is best remembered because of the selfless actions of the Four Chaplains. On December 19, 1944, each of the four were posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and a Purple Heart by Lt. Gen. Brehon B. Somervell, Commanding General of the Army Service Forces, in a ceremony in the chapel at Fort Myer, Virginia. On January 18, 1961, the U.S. Congress authorized President Dwight D. Eisenhower to award them with a Special Medal for Heroism; Congress had wanted to award the Four Chaplains with the Medal of Honor, but were prevented from doing so because that medal is specifically designated for acts of heroism committed when under fire.


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See Also

President Dwight D. Eisenhower

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The Robinson Library >> World War II, 1939-1945

This page was last updated on 02/03/2019.