Four Chaplains Day Commemorates Fallen Heroes

CHICAGO, IL (February 3, 2014) — Editor’s note: In 1988, Congress declared February 3 Four Chaplains Day to commemorate the sacrificial heroism of four military chaplains that enabled many men on the USAT Dorchester to survive a torpedo attack. In honor of their sacrifice and the work of other military chaplains, we are republishing two stories that originally appeared in the Covenant Companion.

The first article, “If We Can Die Together, Can’t We Live Together?” published in May 2003, focuses on the event and its aftermath. The second article, “A Mystery Solved,” chronicles how the first piece brought together two families that had never met but had the disaster in common.

 

IF WE CAN DIE TOGETHER, CAN’T WE LIVE TOGETHER?

Sixty years later, the sacrifice of four Army chaplains still inspires hope for peace in a war-torn world.

On February 3, 1943, the USAT Dorchester, a troop transport, was torpedoed and sunk by the German submarine U-223 while off the coast of Greenland.

Of the 902 men aboard, only 230 survived. Among those who perished were four Army chaplains—John Washington, a Catholic priest; Clark Poling, a Dutch Reformed minister; Alexander Goode, a Jewish rabbi; and George Fox, a Methodist minister.

As the order came to abandon ship, the chaplains helped keep the men calm, handed out life vests, and when they ran out, took off their own vests and gave them away. Survivors recalled seeing the chaplains link arms and pray as the ship went down. One survivor called the chaplains’ action, “the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven.”

For their actions, the chaplains were awarded the Purple Heart and Distinguished Cross medals in 1944. A postage stamp honoring them was issued in 1948, and the chaplains were later awarded a Medal of Valor and a Special Medal for Heroism by the U.S. Congress. Their actions are also memorialized by the Immortal Chaplains Foundation; the Chapel of the Four Chaplains in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania; and by stained glass windows at the Pentagon, West Point, and the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

In the sixty years since the Dorchester’s sinking, the four chaplains’ sacrifice has stood as an example that people of different faiths can together live out the grace and love of God. This Memorial Day, as we remember the sacrifices—past and present—that men and women have made in defense of their country, the chaplains give us hope that one day we will live in peace.

As the Foundation of the Immortal Chaplains asks, “If we can die together, can’t we live together?”

A Survivor’s Story

Not a day goes by, says Benjamin Epstein, where he doesn’t think about his buddy Vince Frucelli.

Today, Epstein, eighty-one, is a retired business person living in Delray, Florida. “There’s a light breeze here,” he says, “the sun is shining—it’s God’s country.” But sixty years ago, he and Frucelli were soldiers, traveling aboard the USAT Dorchester in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic. They had met in boot camp and became close friends. “I met his wife before we left,” he says. “She was so thrilled that we had this friendship. I don’t know, I guess it gave her some sense of security.”

In early February 1943, the Dorchester, as part of the SG-19 convoy, was headed to the Army base on Greenland. Because of reports that German U-boats were following the convoy, the men were under orders to sleep in their clothes and to keep their life preservers with them at all times. On the evening of February 2, with the convoy closing in on Greenland, the captain addressed the crew.

“The captain told us, ‘If we make it through the night we will be fine,’” says Epstein. “‘We will have air cover, and the submarines don’t like air cover.’” The captain finished his address by saying, “Good luck to you all.”

A few hours later, the crew and soldiers on the Dorchester were awakened by an explosion. The U-223 had fired three torpedoes at the Dorchester, with one striking the ship on the starboard side, near the engine room. The ship rolled onto its starboard side and began taking on water. She would sink in less than eighteen minutes.

Epstein and Frucelli made their way amidst the chaos on board—the ship lost power and light almost immediately—to their life boat station. The boat was already in the water but was still attached to the Dorchester by a rope.

“I said to Vince,” says Epstein, “‘I’ll jump over the railing and grab the rope, and then you jump over and follow me.’ So I jumped over the rail, grabbed the rope, and slid down—I never saw Vince again. Whether he jumped or not I don’t know.”

Meanwhile, the chaplains took charge of handing out life vests. The Dorchester carried enough life vests, says Jim Eardley, another survivor, but “some of the guys got scared” or could not find theirs in the chaos following the torpedo hit.

The chaplains “simply would not leave the men behind,” says David Fox, nephew of Chaplain Fox, and executive director of the Immortal Chaplains Foundation. Fox says that kind of dedication was characteristic of the four chaplains. His uncle, for example, had served in World War I as an ambulance driver and twice went onto the battlefield to save wounded soldiers. In one case, following a mustard gas attack, he took off his gas mask and gave it to a wounded soldier, suffering damage to his own lungs in the process. When World War II broke out, Fox volunteered, telling his wife, “I have to go—I know what those boys are up against.”

“Not a Pleasant Thing”

Going into the North Atlantic was “not a pleasant thing,” says Epstein. The water was frigid, and the waves crashed around the lifeboat. It was pitch black, with no moonlight visible. Soon after Epstein left the Dorchester, the lifeboat he was in capsized. Several of the men aboard were trapped underneath the boat, but Epstein was thrown clear.

“When I came up, I was next to the Dorchester. I had read that when a big ship goes down it creates suction,” he says, “So I started to swim. I had no idea of where I was swimming. By pure luck, I got to one of the two lifeboats that had gotten away. There were thirteen or fourteen lifeboats on board and only two got away.” The Dorchester also had a number of large rafts, which survivors clung to.

Freezing with his clothes and boots waterlogged, Epstein had to be helped aboard the lifeboat. As he turned around, Epstein saw a sight that he has never been able to get out of his mind.

“I saw the ship make one last lurch as she went down,” he says. “It looked like a Christmas tree—each life preserver had a red light on it—and lined up against the rail were all my fellow soldiers. They just went down with the ship.”

Epstein was picked up by the Coast Guard cutter Escanaba, which was escorting the convey along with cutters Tampa and Comanche. The Tampa accompanied the remaining ships to Greenland, while the Comanche and Escanaba searched for the U-boat and rescued survivors. After he was rescued, Epstein heard about the chaplains giving away their life jackets. He had met the chaplains on several occasions—attending a service led by Rabbi Goode and talking to the chaplains when they visited the soldiers on the Dorchester, many of whom were suffering from severe sea sickness because of the rough seas of the North Atlantic.

“They used to come walking through the ship,” Epstein says, “looking to give aid and comfort to the men who were sick in bed. The chaplains were as sick as the rest of us, and still they would come and give you an uplift[ing word].”

Epstein says his own experience gave him a greater appreciation of what the chaplains faced when they gave away their life jackets. It was “hell,” he says—besides the pitch black and frigid cold, he could hear voices calling out, “Father, save me, I am freezing,” but couldn’t see where the voices were coming from.

“You can read about this in a book and say it was heroic and so on,” he says. “I was there—they knew when they took off the life preservers, they had no chance of survival—that’s what’s called heroism.”

Later, Epstein learned that several of the chaplains had children, including Rabbi Goode. “He had a three-year-old baby,” says Epstein. “It was something to give away your life when you had a family waiting for you.”

Jim Eardley had also met the chaplains, who he says “seemed like nice men.” On one occasion, they had talked about what would happen if the ship went down.

“They told us if we were in the water, we’d last two-and-a-half minutes,” Eardley says, “and that God would be with us.”

After jumping overboard, Eardley made it to one of the Dorchester’s life rafts. He spent six hours in the raft, kicking his feet against the bottom to keep them from freezing. “There were twenty-five in the life raft with me—they were piled on top of each other,” he says.

“When we were rescued, there were only seven or eight of us left. The rest had gotten frozen and fallen off.”

The Rescuers

Dick Swanson, a member of the Evangelical Covenant Church of Mead, Nebraska, was aboard the Coast Guard cutter Comanche the night the Dorchester sank. A storekeeper and sonar operator, the then twenty-year-old Swanson heard the torpedo as it hit the Dorchester. “I heard the explosion, and reported it to the captain,” he says. The Comanche was ordered at first to hunt for the submarine but quickly returned to pick up survivors. A forty-foot cargo net was let over the side to allow survivors to climb aboard.

Because many survivors were weakened by exposure, Swanson and some of his shipmates climbed down to get them. “We went down to the rafts,” he says, “and put a line around them. Then the fellows on deck would hoist [the men] up.”

The rescue work was dangerous and exhausting. “The seas were a bit rough,” says Swanson, “with six- or eight-foot waves. It was hard to keep up against the lifeboats.” Ninety-seven survivors were brought on board the Comanche. Since the Comanche was a small vessel, with only a crew of about sixty, things were cramped with all the survivors. “We put them in our bunks and gave them our blankets,” says Swanson.

By the time rescue efforts were complete, Swanson and several of the rescuers were so worn out that they had to be hauled up by Charles David, one of their shipmates. David also dove into the frigid waters to rescue one of the Comanche’s officers. “He was just a tower of strength that day,” says Swanson. “He just kept going after survivors. I was exhausted and he came down and pulled me up—he just wouldn’t quit.”

But David’s heroic efforts came at a terrible cost, says Swanson. He contracted pneumonia from exposure to the elements, and died a few days later.

In 1997, the Immortal Chaplains Foundation awarded David, who was African American, one of its first “Prizes for Humanity,” which honors those who risk their lives for a person of another faith or race. Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa also was honored that year for his opposition to apartheid.

Since none of David’s family could be contacted, Swanson was asked to receive the honor on behalf of his friend. “I still have the award and am trying to find his family,” he says. “I told the foundation I would go anywhere to deliver it.”

Swanson says that there were no African Americans living in Mead when he was growing up. And the public prejudices of the times meant that he and David “couldn’t associate together off the ship,” says Swanson. “He couldn’t go where I went on liberty, and I couldn’t go where he went on liberty.”

But aboard ship, the two became friends. Because David was the chief steward for the officers’ mess, he had to get supplies from Swanson, the ship’s storekeeper. The two also found they shared a common love of music.

“I had my sax and he had a harmonica, and we used to play the blues together,” Swanson says.

David was not the only rescuer to lose his life. Four months later, the Escanaba was torpedoed and sunk by a U-boat. “Everyone was lost except one or two survivors,” says Epstein. “We went into a state of depression—these were our saviors.”

The Dorchester survivors were taken to Greenland, and most were sent home within a few months. A few, like Jim Eardley, part of a group of a medics who were coming to relieve the staff at the base hospital, stayed on in Greenland. “They didn’t have replacements for us,” Eardely says, “so we had to stay there.”

After leaving Greenland, Eardley became part of a “ship corp” of medics sent to bring wounded soldiers home from Europe. He says he had no fear of getting back on a boat, despite his experience on the Dorchester.

“It didn’t matter if you were on ship or on land,” he says. “They’d get you one way or the other.”

A Reconciliation

After the war, the Dorchester survivors and Coast Guard cutter crews put their experience behind them. Epstein became an accountant and business person in New York City. Swanson moved to Dallas, where he worked in the audio-visual business before retiring and moving back to Mead.

And they didn’t talk much about their experience. “It was just something that happened in the past,” says Eardley. Epstein says, “I just couldn’t bring myself to write or talk about it.”

Then, in 1999, David Fox contacted Epstein and other survivors. He had tracked down crew members of the U-223, and asked if the Dorchester survivors would meet them.

At first, Epstein was reluctant. “When the subject of a meeting was first brought up,” says Epstein, “I didn’t know how we were all going to feel—I lost my buddy that night.”

Then he changed his mind. “If we are ever going to have peace,” he says, “you have got to talk to each other. You have got to talk and figure out what it was that caused all of these problems.”  Swanson was also reluctant to meet the U-boat crew, but eventually agreed to come as a representative of the rescuers.

The group met in Washington, D.C., in February 2000. Two members of the U-boat crew were there—crewmen Kurt Röser and executive officer Gerhard Buske. “We sat together and talked for a while,” says Swanson. “It was really something to meet them.”

During that meeting, the Dorchester survivors realized they had something in common with the U-boat crew—in 1944, the U-223 was sunk off of Sicily and most of the crew were killed. “These guys were survivors too,” says Swanson.

The group ended up becoming friends as they shared their stories. “[Röser] looked at me and started calling me ‘boom-boom Swanson,’” says Swanson. “We were pinging the sub [with sonar] that night, and he said they were terrified because he thought we had dropped depth charges [on them]. Since that initial meeting, Swanson, Epstein, Buske, and Röser, among others, have become involved in the work of the Immortal Chaplains Foundation.

Buske spoke at this year’s Prize for Humanity ceremony, held on the sixtieth anniversary of the Dorchester’s sinking. He described meeting the Dorchester survivors for the first time, and the emotional power of shaking hands in reconciliation “beneath the stained glass windows in the National Cathedral,” which honors the chaplains.

“We the sailors of U-223 regret the deep sorrows and pains caused by the torpedo,” he said. “Wives lost their husbands, parents their sons, and children waited for their fathers in vain. I once more ask forgiveness, as we had to fight for our country, as your soldiers had to do for theirs.”

In a touching moment, Buske also played “Amazing Grace” on his harmonica, in memory of all who died during World War II, especially his shipmates lost when the U-223 sunk, and those lost on the Dorchester.

He closed his remarks by urging those gathered for the ceremony to follow the example of the chaplains. “We ought to love when others hate; we ought to forgive when others are violent,” he said. “I wish that we can say the truth to correct errors; we can bring faith where doubt threatens; we can awaken hope where despair exists; we can light up a light where darkness reigns; that we can bring joy where sorrows dominate.

“That is what we should do in this time of human conflict, where hate and revenge will never create peace.”

The Power of Remembering

Many of those involved with the Immortal Chaplains Foundation say they want to ensure that the example of the chaplains is not lost when they have passed on. Of the 230 Dorchester survivors, only about twenty remain. And only two of the U-223 crew are left alive.

Epstein says that by telling his story, he is working to help make peace a reality. He had a hard time watching the images of the war from Iraq, because he knows the kind of hell that war really is. “It’s not like the movies,” he says. “It is not John Wayne. When I see a seventeen- or eighteen-year-old getting killed and not getting to know what it means to live, that really hurts.”

“But there has got to be hope,” he says. “It may be dismal now—but we are human beings—we have to have hope.

The Covenant Companion, May 2003

By Bob Smietana

 

A MYSTERY SOLVED

For more than 50 years, Mike Porcellini’s mother wondered how her brother died. A Companion article helped answer that question.

Sometimes when you write about matters of faith you get to be a part of something extraordinary.

We heard recently from Mike Porcellini of South Philadelphia who told us about the impact a Companion article had on his life. Here’s some background.

When Mike was two years old, his mother would read him the letters she got from her brother, Vince “Jimmy” Frucelli, who was serving in the Army during WWII.  While she read the letters, little Mickey (as Mike was known), played with the envelopes, doodling and poking holes in them with his pencil. Jimmy ended each letter with, “Kiss Mickey for me.”

Then in January 1943, the last letter came. Jimmy was sailing for Greenland with his unit aboard the USAT Dorchester, a troop carrier. On February 3, 1943, the Dorchester was torpedoed by a U-boat off the coast of Greenland. There were 902 soldiers and crew aboard. Only 230 survived.

For the next sixty years, Mike Porcellini and his family would wonder about Uncle’s Jimmy’s last few days and how he died.

“All we knew was that he was lost at sea. Period,” says Mike.  “No one knew anything about it.”

Mike, who’ll turn sixty-four in July, lives about a half-mile from the neighborhood where his uncle grew up in South Philadelphia. Even today, when he visits the old neighborhood, people remember his Uncle Jimmy.

Mike’s mother took the loss of her brother hard. For a year after the Dorchester sank, she wrote to military hospitals, asking if anyone had seen him. She’d include a picture of Jimmy—perhaps he had been so badly wounded that he couldn’t remember who he was, or wasn’t able to communicate.

“She never gave up hope,” Mike says, of his mother, who died five years ago. She still had all of Jimmy’s letters, along with the newspaper clippings about the sinking of the Dorchester, in her hope chest. Mike found them about two months ago. He’d grown up hearing the story of the Dorchester, which was made famous because of the actions of four army chaplains aboard—a rabbi, a Catholic priest, and two Protestant ministers. When the ship was hit, their job was to hand out life vests. When the vests ran out, they gave away their own, linked arms, and prayed together as the ship sank into the North Atlantic.

Last year, we decided to do a story on the chaplains for the Companion. And that’s how I met Ben Epstein, one of the Dorchester survivors. Ben is now eighty-two, and lives in Delray Beach, Florida. When I called him last year, he told me about his buddy Vince Frucelli, Mike’s uncle. Ben and Vince had met in basic training and become fast friends.

Just before the Dorchester went down, Ben and Vince stood on the rail. Below them was a life raft, still connected to the ship by a rope.

“I’ll jump over the railing and grab the rope,” Ben told Vince. He jumped, grabbed the rope, and slid down. Vince never made it. Whether Vince jumped or not, Ben doesn’t know. All he knows is that he never saw Vince again.

“Not a day goes by when I don’t think about him,” he said.

The article ran in the May 2003 Companion. A few months later I got an email from Mike Porcellini. He’s not a Covenanter, doesn’t know any Covenanters. But a relative of his (his cousin’s daughter-in-law, to be exact) had come across the Companion article and wondered if the Vince Frucelli in the article was related to her husband, who has the same last name.  The only thing was, her husband had never mentioned an Uncle Vince.

She called a few relatives and eventually connected with Mike. He’s not exactly computer literate, he admits, but he asked her to email him the article. And then he emailed the Companion. We put him in touch with Ben.

Every winter Mike takes a vacation to a spot in Florida near Ben’s home. So in early February, sixty-one years (and a few days) after the Dorchester sank, Mike met up with his uncle’s old buddy. He spent two and a half hours talking with Ben and his wife, Miriam. Mike brought along some of the letters his mother had saved, and Ben showed him a photo of Vince that he’d kept in his wallet all these years. Mike brought Ben and 8×10 copy of the same photo as a gift.

The meeting brought tears of sorrow and joy to both men, says Mike.

For Mike, meeting Ben meant he could finally answer the questions his mother had about her brother’s death. “She was something special,” he says, “so I was very happy to do this for her—to find out what happened to her brother.”

“Now we know,” he says. “I met someone who was there, who could tell me how he died. That’s better than just, ‘The ship got torpedoed.’”

For years, Ben was reluctant to talk about his experience. He wanted to forget some of the terrible memories of that day—the icy cold of the North Atlantic, the sailors freezing to death all around him.

Then, he says, “It dawned on me that if we survivors don’t talk about it, how will anyone in the world know about what happened that fateful morning.”

Now he’s happy to tell his story, and the story of the chaplains to anyone who asks. And he still can’t believe that after all these years he’s been able to connect with his old friend’s family.

“We got along famously,” Ben says. “We told Mike we’ve already adopted him as another son. After sixty-one years—my head is still shaking. I was as close to his uncle Vince as anyone could be.”

“I cannot express how deeply grateful and indebted I am to you for having afforded me the opportunity to meet Ben,” Mike told me in an email afterwards. “It is a memory I will cherish forever.”

So will we.

The Covenant Companion, April 2004

By Bob Smietana

 

 

 

 

 

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1 Comment

  1. Thank you for the story on the sinking of the Dorchester and the four chaplains. It is my responsibility to present the story each year at my American Legion post. I have several readers who assist in telling the story. I shed tears each year and I am not alone.

    Norman Harpole, Chaplain for
    Legion Post 11-11 and Colorado District 5

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