by Rogue Writer
A fictional tale, based on a famous WWII catastrophe in the North Atlantic.
My night of stark terror.
Fiction based on true events.
I'm a merchant marine sailor and it was my luck to be assigned to this old bucket on my third tour of duty. The SS Dorchester is almost twenty years old. In her day she would have been a great luxurious tramp steamer but now she's been transformed into a troop transport. It was a dark January 23rd when we left New York harbor on the evening tide. We joined up with the other ships of the SG-19 Convoy just off the shores of Newfoundland four days later and started for Europe.
We followed standard procedure and began the evasive maneuver of zigzagging which slowed our progress to a crawl. The old ship labored to keep pace; at just under 12 knots, we slowly drifted to the back of the group.
February 2nd 1943, 22:00 hours; it is my turn at starboard watch. Our convoy is running dark. Because of an overcast and a rough sea; the nearest ship is well out of sight in the darkness. Every so often I can make out a signal light from one of the Coast Guard Escorts; otherwise, for all practical purposes, I can see nothing.
We have 904 souls on board including the crew. I found everyone believes we're bound for England; but I asked my friend in navigation and he whispered, “Don't say anything to our passengers but it's Greenland.” Normally we'd be escorted by destroyers; I guess the Coast Guard is as good as any Navy destroyer.
We are on a high state of alert; German submarine's have been detected in the area. A warning is posted to keep a keen eye. I'd made this crossing twice before but this time it's a colder and angrier ocean than I'd seen before.
As I scan the darkness with the cold wind tearing at my face, I think about last night. I met four soldiers at the evening mess who were sitting by themselves. One noticed me looking for a place to sit and invited me to join their table. Come to find out that they are all Chaplains. One was a Catholic Priest, one a Methodist minister, another Lutheran and the last a Rabbi. We sat and ate quietly until one of them asked me my faith and I had to admit to being an agnostic.
“Which means you...?” He asked with a smile.
“Well in my case I question religions, but not the existence of God.”
Lieutenant Fox was his name and he said, “You're at the right table young man; we represent many religions. I'm a Rabbi. My friends here are Catholic, Methodist and Lutheran. So if you're questioning religions in general, you may ask all the questions you wish.”
They each told me their stories of how they became chaplains. Lieutenant Fox was the oldest of the four and spoke of his service in the great war as a medic. How he decided to dedicate his life to the church as a Methodist Preacher and saw his life's destiny in helping others.
They each in turn told their stories of how they became servants of their beliefs. In a way they changed me last night and the warmth of their devotion eased my fears.
My four hour watch is half over: I check the time and it's almost one in the morning when I'm suddenly lifted off the deck and thrown back against a bulkhead. My ears are ringing with a deafening rush like water over a waterfall. All the interior lights are out and I find myself crawling to the wheelhouse. There are no alarms and no lights. I finally right myself and find the ship is dipping at the bow.
I'm already in my life jacket and through my impaired hearing I can make out the captains voice. “Abandon Ship!” I see him holding onto the back of his chair... I see his lips moving and as if he's miles away, I can barely hear is voice. He points to the aft gangway, waving everyone off the bridge.
Along with a number of my crew-mates, we directed our passengers to the aft quarter of the deck and when there was no one left to help, we followed. The ship is sinking fast, water was lapping at the gunnels. As we progress I see those four chaplains assisting their fellow soldiers into life vests.
Seeing that I'm already wearing one, Lieutenant Fox gazed into my eyes for a moment, then waved me on to where they were attempting to lower boats. Most of the boats that could be launched, were. Somehow, I find the courage to leap into that angry sea. The water felt like icy knives slashing and stabbing at me. In only moments I began to shiver and shake; but I was one of the lucky ones that was pulled from the frigid water and into one of the few life rafts. Later I found out that of the 904 on board, only 203 survived; most were lost to exposure to the frigid waters of the North Atlantic.
I also heard that those four chaplains did their best to help their fellow servicemen. They even gave up their own life vest to save four more souls. They were last seen huddled together on the deck of that sinking ship, Praying. I think back on those four men and try, every day, to live up to their standards.
To this day the four chaplains are commemorated in services held by veterans groups every February to honor... Methodist Reverend George Lancing Fox, Rabbi Alexander David Goode, Lutheran Pastor Clark Vandersall Poling and Catholic Father John Patrick Washington.
WC = 952