February 3, 1943 Greater Love Hath No Man

Rabbi Goode did not call out for a Jew when he gave away his only hope for survival, Father Washington did not ask for a Catholic. Neither minister Fox nor Poling asked for a Protestant.  Each gave his life jacket to the nearest man.

The Troop Transport USAT Dorchester sailed out of New York Harbor on January 23, 1943, carrying 904 service members, merchant seamen and civilian workers.  They were headed for the  the Army Command Base at Narsarsuaq in southern Greenland, part of a six-ship convoy designated SG-19 together with two merchant ships and escorted by the Coast Guard Cutters Comanche, Escanaba and Tampa.

Built as a coastal liner in 1926, Dorchester was anything but graceful, bouncing and shuddering her way through the rough seas of the North Atlantic.German submarine wolf packs had already sunk several ships in these waters.  Late on the night of February 2, one of the Cutters flashed flashed the light signal “we’re being followed”.

Dorchester Captain Hans Danielson ordered his ship on high alert that night.  Men were ordered to sleep in their clothes with their life jackets on, but many disregarded the order.  It was too hot down there in the holds, and those life jackets were anything but comfortable.

Some of those off-duty tried to sleep that night, while others played cards or threw dice, well into the night.  Nerves were understandably on edge, especially among new recruits, as four Army chaplains passed among them with words of encouragement.

They were the Jewish rabbi Alexander David Goode, the Catholic priest John Patrick Washington, the Reformed Church in America (RCA) minister Clark Vandersail Poling, and the Methodist minister George Lansing Fox.

At 12:55am on February 3rd, the German submarine U-223 fired a spread of three torpedoes.  One struck Dorchester amidships, deep below the water line.  A hundred or more were killed in the blast, or in the clouds of steam and ammonia vapor billowing from ruptured boilers.  Suddenly pitched into darkness, untold numbers were trapped below decks.  With boiler power lost, there was no longer enough steam to blow the full 6 whistle signal to abandon ship, while loss of power prevented a radio distress signal.  For reasons which remain unclear, there never were any signal flares.druidartThose who could escape scrambled onto the deck, injured, disoriented, many still in their underwear as they emerged into the cold and darkness.

The four chaplains must have been a welcome sight, guiding the disoriented and the wounded, offering prayers and words of courage.  They opened a storage locker and handed out life preservers, until there were no more.  “Padre,” said one young soldier, “I’ve lost my life jacket and I can’t swim!”  Witnesses differ as to which of the four it was who gave this man his life jacket, but they all followed suit.  One survivor, John Ladd, said “It was the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven.” Rabbi Goode gave his gloves to Petty Officer John Mahoney, saying “Never mind.  I have two pairs”.  It was only later that Mahoney realized.  Rabbi Goode intended to stay with the ship.

story11Dorchester was listing hard to starboard and taking on water fast, with only 20 minutes to live.  Port side lifeboats were inoperable due to the ship’s angle.  Men jumped across the void into those on the starboard side, overcrowding some to the point of capsize.  Only two of fourteen lifeboats launched successfully.

Private William Bednar found himself floating in 34° water, surrounded by dead bodies and debris. “I could hear men crying, pleading, praying,” he recalled. “I could also hear the chaplains preaching courage. Their voices were the only thing that kept me going.”

As the ship upended and went down by the bow, survivors floating nearby could see the four chaplains.  With arms linked and leaning against the slanting deck, their voices offered prayers and sang hymns for the dead and for those about to die.web-four-chaplains-painting-courtesy-of-the-chapel-of-the-four-chaplainsRushing back to the scene, coast guard cutters found themselves in a sea of bobbing red lights, the water-activated emergency strobe lights of individual life jackets.  Most marked the location of corpses.  Of the 904 on board, the Coast Guard plucked 230 from the water, alive.

The United States Congress attempted to confer the Medal of Honor on the four chaplains for their selfless courage, but strict requirements for “heroism under fire” prevented it from doing so.  Congress authorized a one time, posthumous “Chaplain’s Medal for Heroism”, awarded to the next of kin on January 18, 1961 by Secretary of the Army Wilber M. Brucker at Fort Myer, Virginia.special-medalJohn 15:13 teaches us, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”.  Rabbi Goode did not call out for a Jew when he gave away his only hope for survival, Father Washington did not ask for a Catholic. Neither minister Fox nor Poling asked for a Protestant.  Each gave his life jacket to the nearest man.

Carl Sandburg once said that “Valor is a gift.  Those having it never know for sure whether they have it until the test comes.”  If I were ever to be so tested, I hope I would prove myself half the man as any of those four chaplains.

January 13, 1997 Buffalo Soldier

Fun Fact: “Few images embody the spirit of the American West as well as the trailblazing, sharpshooting, horseback-riding cowboy of American lore. And though African-American cowboys don’t play a part in the popular narrative, historians estimate that one in four cowboys were black”. – Smithsonian.com

In September 1867, Private John Randall of Troop G, US 10th Cavalry Regiment, was escorting two civilians on a hunting trip. The hunter became the hunted when a band of 70 Cheyenne warriors swept down on the trio. The two civilians were killed in the initial attack and Randall’s horse shot out from under him.

hardpicCornered in a washout under some railroad tracks Randall held off the attack single handed with his revolver, despite a gunshot wound to his shoulder and no fewer than 11 lance wounds.

By the time help arrived, 13 Cheyenne warriors lay dead.  Private Randall was still standing. Word spread among the Cheyenne about a new kind of soldier, “who had fought like a cornered buffalo; who like a buffalo had suffered wound after wound, yet had not died; and who like a buffalo had a thick and shaggy mane of hair.”

The US 10th Cavalry, formed on September 21, 1866 at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, was the first unit of “Negro Cavalry”, an all-black unit which would soon be joined by the 9th, 24th and 25th Cavalry and come to be known as “Buffalo Soldiers”.

Fun Fact: “Few images embody the spirit of the American West as well as the trailblazing, sharpshooting, horseback-riding cowboy of American lore. And though African-American cowboys don’t play a part in the popular narrative, historians estimate that one in four cowboys were black”. – Smithsonian.com

Several all-black regiments were formed during the late Civil War including the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry depicted in the film, “Glory”.  The “Buffalo Soldiers” were the first peacetime all-black regiments in the regular Army.

The original units fought in the American Indian Wars, the Spanish-American War, the Philippine-American War, the Border War and two World Wars, amassing 23 Medals of Honor by the end of 1918.

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At one time, “Buffalo Soldier” was a catch-all term, used to describe American troops of African ancestry. Today the term is used as a badge of honor only by those units who trace their lineage to the 9th and 10th Cavalry regiments. Here, the 92nd Division (segregated) in the Argonne Forest of WW1. The 92nd’s insignia is a buffalo: a tribute to their predecessors.

The old met the new during WWII when Mark Matthews, veteran of the Pancho Villa Expedition, WW1, WW2 and the Battle of Saipan, was sent to train with the Tuskeegee Airmen.  In the end, Matthews proved too old to fly.  A member of the Buffalo Soldiers Drum & Bugle Corps, Matthews would play taps at Arlington National Cemetery, always from the woods. Blacks of the era were not permitted at “white” funerals.  1st Sergeant Matthews retired shortly before the Buffalo Soldiers were disbanded, part of President Truman’s initiative to integrate United States’ armed forces.

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1st Lt. John Robert Fox

In December 1944, the segregated 366th Infantry Regiment of the 92nd Infantry Division was fighting in the vicinity of Sommocolonia, in northern Italy.  German soldiers began to infiltrate the town on Christmas day, disguised as civilians.

A heavy artillery barrage began in the early morning hours of the 26th, followed by an overwhelming attack of enemy ground forces.  Vastly outnumbered, American infantry were forced to conduct a fighting retreat.

First Lieutenant John R. Fox, forward observer for the 598th Field Artillery Battalion, volunteered to stay behind with a small Italian force, to help slow the enemy advance.  From the second floor of a house, Lieutenant Fox directed American defensive fire by radio, adjusting each salvo closer to his own position.  Warned that his final adjustment would bring artillery down on his own head, the soldier who received the message was stunned at the response.

1st Lieutenant John R. Fox’ last known words, were “Fire it.”

When American forces retook the town, Lieutenant Fox’ body was found with those of about 100 German soldiers.

393_sommocolonia_17.jpegThe King James Bible teaches us, in John 15:13:  “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends“.  After the war, Sommocolonia erected a Memorial.  A tribute to nine brave soldiers who gave their lives that their brothers might live.  Eight Italians and one American.

In a January 13, 1997 ceremony at the White House, President Bill Clinton awarded the Medal of Honor, posthumously, to the family of 1st Lieutenant John R. Fox.

Memorial Day celebration in Washington, D.C.1st Sergeant Mark Matthews, the last of the Buffalo Soldiers, died of pneumonia on September 6, 2005 at the age of 111.  A man who forged papers in order to join at age fifteen and once had to play taps from the woods, Matthews was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery, section 69, grave #4215.

An American Hero.

The rank of General of the Armies is equivalent to that of a six-star general, the highest possible operational rank of the United States Armed Forces.  The rank has been awarded only twice, once posthumously to George Washington, and once to an active-duty officer: John Joseph Pershing.

Then-1st Lieutenant Pershing served with the Buffalo Soldiers from October 1895 to May 1897 plus another six months in Cuba, and came to respect soldiers of African ancestry. These were “real soldiers”, in every way.  As West Point instructor beginning in 1897, Pershing was looked down upon and insulted by white cadets and officers, aggrieved over Pershing’s strict and unyielding disciplinary policies.

The press sanitized the favored insult directed at Pershing to “Black Jack,” delivered, no doubt, behind the man’s back.  That’s not actually what they called him but good enough for currently fashionable sensibilities.

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Living Historians of the Pennington-Moye VFW Post 9251, Rochester NY

During WW1, General Pershing bowed to the segregationist policies of President Woodrow Wilson and Secretary of War Newton Baker.  It seems Pershing understood what the Connecticut academic and the Ohio politician had failed to learn.  A principle enunciated by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., some fifty years later:

“We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools”.