Politics & Policy

Religious Band of Brothers

The holy men of the Dorchester.

Shortly after midnight on February 3, 1943, a German U-boat fired a torpedo into the USAT Dorchester, an American troop carrier on its way to Greenland. Twenty-five minutes later the Dorchester plunged into the Atlantic, and of the 902 men on board only 230 survived. Among the dead were four chaplains–the subjects of Dan Kurzman’s No Greater Glory: The Four Immortal Chaplains and the Sinking of the Dorchester in World War II–who had calmed panicked crewmen after the attack and given up their lifejackets, gloves, even shoelaces to save others before joining hands in a collective prayer as the ship went down. Kurzman, a former foreign correspondent for the Washington Post and author of 16 books, tells their story ably. Despite a few shortcomings, his book is a worthy tribute to these four impressive men.

George Fox, Alexander Goode, Clark Poling, and John Washington did not share the same religion but were united, in Kurzman’s telling, by that uniquely American patriotism that combines love of country with universal ideals. Fox, a Methodist, was a World War I veteran who could no longer fight in battle but reenlisted after Pearl Harbor as a chaplain to help those who could. He met and befriended Goode, a rabbi, at the U.S Army Chaplain School (then at Harvard University), where both prepared for service. Goode had also decided to enlist after Pearl Harbor: Though the event nearly shattered his hope for a new “spirit of brotherhood and democracy,” the rabbi was determined to “spiritually reform the world” and saw the fight against tyranny as a necessary first step.

Poling, a Dutch Reformed pastor, had similar hopes for universal brotherhood and even leaned toward pacifism before the Japanese attack snapped him out of it. Washington, a Catholic priest, fudged the eye test of his Army fitness exam–covering his bad eye twice–so that his application for enlistment would be accepted. He was the last to join his fellow chaplains at Camp Miles Standish, where the four waited impatiently to be sent into war.

Eventually they were assigned to the Dorchester, a run-down former luxury liner that set sail for Greenland on January 23, 1943. Kurzman reports that the chaplains’ different religions didn’t much matter to the men on board: “…They found that the four all exhibited similar personality traits. They were tolerant, selfless, and, most important, humorous even in moments of stress and crisis.” First Sergeant Michael Warish, at first agnostic about the value of having the chaplains on the ship, eventually saw they were indispensable: “Guys would line up to talk to them. We had a lot of young guys, and a lot of them had never been away from home. The chaplains were like mother and father to them.”

Though Kurzman goes into some detail about each man’s youth and family life, the most engaging part of the book is his description of the Dorchester’s near-final and final moments. Kurzman sets the scene early on when he quotes one of the Dorchester’s men describing the ship as “a rust-covered thing, very cramped,” and when he pauses on Warish’s sinking feeling on first exploring it. When Kurzman returns several chapters later to describe the German U-boat campaign of 1943 (to strangle Allied supply lines coming through the Atlantic and Mediterranean), he reveals that the Dorchester sailed to Greenland at great risk: It could not carry enough troops to warrant a (safer) voyage to Europe, and was moreover forced to match its speed to that of the slowest ships in its convoy, the Escanaba and Comanche, which averaged just eight knots each. “This creeping movement made the Dorchester extremely vulnerable to a submarine attack.”

Kurzman also gives us a brief but colorful glimpse into the mind of the ambitious 26-year-old Lieutenant Commander Karl-Jurgen Wachter, who led the German U-223’s maiden voyage. After shadowing the American convoy until a raging storm around them subsided (Kurzman includes a gripping account of that, too), Wachter–too eager to even wait for reinforcement–dealt the ship its fatal blow.

Back on the Dorchester, the moments following the attack were chaotic. There were, of course, the inevitable difficulties of trying to save those aboard a sinking ship: Torpedo damage meant that the Dorchester gradually rolled to its starboard side, making lifeboats there impossible to reach. Some boats couldn’t be lowered because the icy conditions had frozen their cables. Rafts and soldiers fell from the ship onto people already in boats or in the water, killing some and wounding others.

But to make matters worse, the boats accompanying the Dorchester were ordered not to come to its rescue. The convoy commander, Captain Joseph Greenspun, followed the unwritten doctrine that when a ship in a convoy was hit, the other vessels should destroy the submarine responsible for the attack before picking up survivors. Although Greenspun eventually ordered the Escanaba to make its way to the torpedoed ship, the delay of over 45 minutes cost many men their lives (few if any could have survived in the water for that long). “The irony,” Kurzman writes, “is that after sinking the Dorchester, the U-223 crewmen, in a standard U-boat maneuver, rushed into the deep, where they settled for hours, too fearful of an attack from another ship in the convoy to strike a second time.”

Throughout all of this, the chaplains acted with courage and remarkable calm. Said one survivor (Kurzman quotes from several affidavits in an appendix), “They were passing out life preservers from boxes on deck. When these were gone, I saw them take the life preservers from their own persons and hand them out too.” Then, they “started praying together in what sounded like a babble of English, Hebrew, and Latin,” Kurzman writes. “In the background Michael [Warish] did not note whether they linked arms, but other witnesses say they did. As water splashed ever more heavily on the tilting deck, he saw that ‘the chaplains were not going overboard. They were not gonna abandon ship.’”

Another survivor later told the Army, “The encouraging thoughts and remarks of the chaplains was in no small way responsible for some of the more fearful individuals going over the side [of the boat] and eventually being saved.”

Because the chaplains did not carry firearms, they weren’t eligible for the Congressional Medal of Honor. But they were each posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the Purple Heart, and later a specially designed Medal of Valor never bestowed before and never to be bestowed again. In 1998, Congress designated February 3 as “Four Chaplains Day.”

But while the story of the chaplains’ last moments is intrinsically compelling, Kurzman’s portraits of their lives are less so, especially when it comes to their religious beliefs. Though Kurzman strains to weave their faith into the narrative, his descriptions more often than not seem hollow–even, taken out of context, belittling. “Not even the sacred caress of God could…assuage” George Fox’s pain when his father insisted he spend his life farming. John Washington “couldn’t quite figure out God” (though he was convinced He “had a rollicking sense of humor”). For Clark Poling, “God had finally come through” when he was called off to Camp Miles Standish to begin his service. There, all four chaplains “marked time until God would deliver them from this miserable, muddy, half-built camp and send them on a sacred mission.”

Kurzman also tends toward the hagiographic when describing the chaplains’ personalities. It may be–as the last quote above inadvertently suggests–that their motives for going to war were less than completely altruistic: Like most men, they too may have had a hankering for personal glory. But Kurzman doesn’t really leave room for such nuance. As a result, the chaplains emerge from his portrayal looking like fairly sophisticated cartoon characters, not real men with real dilemmas and real struggles.

Still, Kurzman has performed a valuable service in setting down the chaplains’ lives and final acts. Their story is a testament to the power of religious faith to guide men to noble deeds, and to the power of inspired men to lead and comfort others during times of crisis. In this sense its relevance today is obvious; its relevance is enduring.

Rachel Zabarkes Friedman is an associate editor of National Review.


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