In early February 1943, the Escanaba was part of a Coast Guard escort accompanying the Army troopship Dorchester from Newfoundland to Greenland. Shortly after midnight on Feb. 3, 1943, this ship, carrying about 900 men, was struck by a torpedo launched from a German submarine. The strike quickly knocked out the Dorchester’s electric power, and the ship went under in about 20 minutes. Most of the troops perished in the icy water.
Among the soldiers on board were four Army chaplains: Methodist minister George Fox, Catholic priest John Washington, Rabbi Alexander Goode, and Clark Poling, a Reformed Church minister and onetime student at Hope College. Surviving witnesses recall the four chaplains on deck, and in the dark, working to organize the distribution of lifejackets to the frightened men. When the supply of lifejackets ran out, the four chaplains removed their own and gave them up to others.
The last seen or heard of the chaplains was their joining together in prayers and spiritual songs for the imperiled men about them as the ship went down.
Upon this scene came the Escanaba under the command of Lt. Cmdr. Carl Peterson. Utilizing a relatively new survival suit technique, three daring Escanaba crewmen went into the frigid water to pull men to safety. The Escanaba remained in position for several hours, in spite of the risk for further U-boat attack, and its crew managed to rescue 133 soldiers.
For the brave and effective effort of the Escanaba crew, commendations were awarded, including the Legion of Merit to Peterson. He died later that year when the Escanaba itself was sunk.
The chaplains were posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and Distinguished Service Cross. In 1960, Congress created the “Chaplains Medal for Heroism” in honor of these men; and, in 1988, established Feb. 3 as “Four Chaplains Day.”
From this tragic wartime event, Feb. 3 continues as a beautiful testimony of devotion to God and love for ones’ countrymen.
— Tim Boersma, Spring Lake Township