Summary: A sermon about the 4 heroic Chaplains of the Dorchester
“The Finest Thing This Side of Heaven”, a sermon about the 4 heroic Chaplains of the Dorchester Chaplain (LTC-Ret) Bob Leroe, Cliftondale Congregational Church, Saugus, Massachusetts
The year was 1943. The USS Dorchester, a ship that once was a luxury liner, had been pressed into service and refitted. On January 22nd, the second winter of the war, it was ready to serve as a troop transport and cargo ship, staffed by a merchant marine crew of 130 men. 751 soldiers came aboard and settled in berths below, stacked four-high, heading out to the cold North Atlantic as part of a convoy of freighters, tankers, and Coast Guard cutters.
Four Chaplains came aboard, all First Lieutenants: George Fox (Methodist), Alexander Goode (Jewish), John Washington (Catholic) and Clark Poling (Reformed). Fr. Washington was from an Irish Catholic family in Newark NJ. At age 12, he miraculously recovered from a nearly fatal throat infection. He told his sister, “God must have something special for me to do.” Rabbi Goode was a 3rd-generation Rabbi. At age 10 at Arlington Cemetery he saw the WWI Unknown Soldier laid to rest. When the US entered the war Goode left his synagogue in York PA and reported for duty. Clark Poling gave up a law career in Michigan to enter seminary. When he completed his training and was ordained, he served for a while at the First Reformed Church of Schenectady, NY. When the war came, he was married, with a 2-year old son, and his wife was expecting another. Poling wrote his father, “Don’t pray for my safe return. Pray that I do my duty.” George Fox was a decorated WWI veteran. After the war he served several Methodist churches in Vermont as a “circuit-rider”. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor he told his wife, “I must go. I know what these boys are facing.”
The moment these four met onboard they became instant friends, and from that time forward were always seen together. This was before the days of ecumenism, yet these military clergy were inseparable, bound by a mission to serve God and country, with the understanding that the concept of one’s “congregation” goes beyond church lines.
Aboard the Dorchester, Captain Danielson cautiously ordered the men to sleep in their clothing, with life jackets close at hand. Nazi submarines and U-boats were on the prowl. During the day, they were under air cover from the US base at Greenland. During the passage daily alerts and drills were conducted on board. And as is the case during war, attendance at worship services continued to steadily grow. In addition to services, to boost morale and stave off boredom, the Chaplains organized a talent show, and it turned out they were part of the show. Soldiers played guitar, bagpipes and piano. There were sing-alongs and solos
The chaplains spent much of their time doing “ministry of presence”, having informal conversations, doing “footlocker counseling” with the troops and visiting the sick. They tried to break the tension of the voyage. Ch Washington came upon a poker game and a soldier at the table asked, “Father would you bless my hand? Washington took a peek, then answered, “What? Waste a blessing on a measly pair of deuces?” A few days later, a seasick soldier said to him, “Father, if you really want to do some good, get me out on deck so I can jump overboard.” The priest gave him some soda crackers for his seasickness and convinced him to join him in a game of cards.
As officers, the Chaplains knew the destination, but this classified information had been withheld from the troops, although rumors were abounding. One soldier tried to get the Rabbi to reveal where they were going. Pledged to operational security, Ch Goode replied, “Why spoil the surprise?” However, when the Dorchester docked in St. John’s, Newfoundland, everyone correctly guessed that the convoy was headed for Greenland, and passing through what was called “torpedo junction”.
As the ships journeyed north through gale-force winds, the sonar picked up the presence of a submarine. It was February 3rd, and the soldiers were in their bunks, but few could sleep. The heat of the hold, and fear, kept them awake. Then at 3:58 am, 15 miles from their destination, a periscope from a German U-456 caught the Dorchester in its cross hairs, and fired, hitting the lower midsection of the ship on the starboard side. The hit was deadly and decisive. PFC John Garey was just coming off guard duty and was on his way to the galley for coffee. He heard a thump and then felt the deck lurch under his feet. “What’s going on?”, he yelled to the mess sergeant. The cook answered, “We’ve been hit!” Panicked men started pouring up from the bowels of the ship, stunned and disoriented. The smell of ammonia filled the air from burst refrigerator pipes. The Dorchester began listing to starboard.