The USAT was a ship that sank near the coast of Greenland on February 3rd, 1943. It was struck by a German submarine and went down to the bottom of the sea in less than half an hour following the attack. Hundreds of lives were lost that tragic night.
However, incredible acts of bravery also took place in those terrifying early morning hours. Some men were saved due to the courage of others and lived to tell what happened. This is their story.
A Brief History of the Dorchester
It was quite a luxurious ship for its time. Advertisements assured passengers their every need would be taken care of. Passengers could enjoy live music, games, a library, and large area for dancing. The Dorchester was a popular way for people to travel for many years. Eventually the ship decided to allow passengers to bring their vehicles for an extra charge, since more and more people were buying cars. The Dorchester was not a cheap method of travel, but it appealed to those who could afford the luxury.
Then the United States entered the Second World War following the events at Pearl Harbour in 1941. Ships were necessary for the war effort. The United States Army took possession of the Dorchester early in 1942. Many of the civilian crew members were kept on, including the Commanding Officer. Navy Armed Guards were brought in to assist the initial crew. These men were responsible for handling communications and weaponry.
The Dorchester underwent extensive renovations as it was converted from a passenger vessel to an Army transport ship. Additional life boats were added as the reconditioned ship needed to be able to carry a lot more people.
The Dorchester in 1942 and 1943
The Dorchester was ready for Army service in 1942. Its purpose was to carry crew and troops to the American military base in Greenland. The ship would be escorted by the United States Coast Guard.
Five voyages would be completed successfully. The sixth one ended in tragedy almost exactly a year following the initial journey.
It was a long trip across the Atlantic, and undoubtedly very uncomfortable for everyone on board. The winds were exceedingly cold and the spray from the sea was so frigid it would freeze on the skin upon contact.
Four Chaplains and the US Coast Guard
The Dorchester would set sail for the last time on January 22nd, 1943. It left New York and stopped at the Canadian coast so that two freighters and three Coast Guard vessels could accompany them for the long journey to Greenland. The original CO had retired, so a new Captain was selected to be in command. A total of 904 men were on board as it set sail from Canada.
Among the passengers were four Army chaplains. The four were a Catholic priest, a Rabbi and two Protestant ministers. Each chaplain held daily services. They were also available to the men at any time for spiritual and emotional support.
Survivors would later say that many people on board were finding it difficult to cope with the stressful conditions. Not only was the temperature extreme but everyone was well aware of the dangers they could be facing. It was undoubtedly very difficult for everyone on board.
The Captain certainly knew about potential dangers. He told everyone on board that they should wear life jackets at all times and go to bed at night fully clothed By doing so they would be prepared in case of an attack. Tragically, most of the men ignored the Captain's directions. The main reason for disobedience was it was very hot inside their sleeping quarters. It already was uuncomfortable enough during the long voyage
Many long and anxious days had passed. Then on February 2nd most of the men began to feel hopeful as Greenland was not far away. They were due to arrive at the military bases the following morning.
However, not long after midnight on February 3, the Dorchester was hit by an underwater missile which had been fired from a German submarine. It was apparent the damage was severe and the ship was going to sink in a short time. The captain barely had time to send a distress call.
Hundreds of men desperately tried to find life jackets and boats to escape the sinking ship. Many of the boats were destroyed or impossible to access as the boat was severely unbalanced and water was rapidly entering. It would only take about 20 minutes for it to completely sink.
The Chaplains immediately set out to help the men obtain jackets and get into a life boat. It was very difficult to find jackets in the panic and confusion, and the boat was sinking very rapidly. Once the supply of jackets was exhausted each Chaplain immediately removed his and gave it to someone else so he would have a chance to survive.
According to those who survived that harrowing night, the Chaplains didn't hesitate for a minute to offer their jackets to others, even knowing they would be facing certain death. They were completely without fear. After the Chaplains had done everything they could, they held hands, praised God and prayed together as the ship went down.
Not long after the disaster word spread about the remarkable bravery of the Four Chaplains. Everyone loves to hear heroic stories of great courage. A few years later the United States Postal Service issued a stamp in honor of the four men.
However, the stories of heroism on February 2, 1943 did not end with the Four Chaplains. Many people are not aware of the role the Coast Guard played in rescuing the men.
The Comanche, which was one of the Coast Guard cutters, heard the attack. Those men on board immediately went into action. A second cutter, Escanaba, also joined in the search to locate survivors. Every second would count in the frigid temperatures. Meanwhile, the cutter Tampa patrolled the area. All three cutters fired star shells to illuminate the sea which of course placed them in grave danger of another attack.
If any cutters had been hit those on board would have had no chance for escape. A cutter would sink almost immediately. The Coast Guardsmen were well aware of the risks involved. Nevertheless, they were determined to save as many people they could.
The life jackets were equipped with red lights to help in rescue efforts. However, most of the men in the water had no chance for survival beyond a few minutes due to the extreme cold.
Even those who had managed to get into a life boat or raft needed help very quickly if they were going to live. Some Coast Guardsmen donned rubber suits so they could enter the water and assist those too weak to help themselves due to cold and shock. About 50 victims were pulled from the water, and many of them survived. Other Guardsmen on the cutters lifted men to safety using cargo netting.
This continued until everyone was out of the life boats and rafts and it was clear no one else was still alive. The Coast Guard got the victims to a hospital in Greenland a few hours later.
The journey had started with 904 men on board. Only 230 would survive.
There were many stories of the heroism that took place during World War 2. The USAT Dorchester disaster is one of them.