March 14, 1918 Concrete Fleet

Steel was in critically short supply by the time the US entered the war in 1917, the need for new ships, higher than ever.  Something had to be done.  One answer, was concrete.

The final third of the nineteenth century was a period of unprecedented technological advancement, an industrial revolution of international proportion. 

The war born of the second industrial revolution, would be like none before.

From the earliest days of the “War to end all Wars”, the Triple Entente powers imposed a surface blockade on the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, throttling the maritime supply of goods and crippling the capacity to make war. One academic study from 1928 put the death toll by starvation at 424,000, in Germany alone.

The Kaiser responded with a blockade of his own, a submarine attack on the supply chain to the British home islands. It was a devastating incursion against an island adversary dependent on prodigious levels of imports.

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Joseph Louis Lambot’s first prototype, built 1848

1915 saw the first German attacks on civilian shipping.  Total losses for that year alone came to 370 vessels against a loss of only 16 U-Boats.  Steel was in critically short supply by the time the US entered the war in 1917 with the need for new ships, higher than ever.  Something had to be done.  One answer, was concrete.

The idea of concrete boats was nothing new.  In the south of France, Joseph Louis Lambot experimented with steel-reinforced “ferrocement”, building his first dinghy in 1848.

By the outbreak of WW1, Lambot’s creation had sunk to the bottom of a lake, where it remained for 100 years, buried deep in anaerobic mud.  Today you may see the thing at the Museum of Brignoles, in the south of France.

Italian engineer Carlo Gabellini built barges and small ships of concrete in the 1890s.  British boat builders experimented with the stuff, in the first decade of the 20th century.  The Violette, built in Faversham in 1917, is now a mooring hulk in Kent, the oldest concrete vessel still afloat.

 

 

The Violette built in 1917, is the oldest concrete ship, still afloat.

The American government contracted with Norwegian boat builder N.K. Fougner to create a prototype, the 84-foot Namsenfjord launched in August, 1917.  The test was judged a success.  President Woodrow Wilson approved a twenty-four ship fleet, consisting of steamers and tankers to aid the war effort.  The first and largest of the concrete fleet, the SS Faith was launched on this day in 1918, thirty days ahead of schedule.

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“Constructed by the San Francisco Shipbuilding Company in 1918, the SS Faith was the first concrete ship built in the United States”. – H/T warfarehistorynetwork.com

The New York Times was ecstatic:

98260463‘”When the first steel vessels were built people said they would not float, or if they did they would be too heavy to be serviceable,” said W. Leslie Comyn, President of the concern which built the boat. “Now they say the same about concrete. But all the engineers we have taken over this boat, including many who said it was an impossible undertaking, now agree that it was a success”‘.

All that from a west coast meadow with two tool sheds, a production facility 1/20th the cost of a conventional steel shipyard.

The Great War ended eight months later with only half the concrete fleet, actually begun.  None were completed.  All were sold off to commercial shippers or for storage, or scrap.

For all its advantages as a building material, ferrocement has numerous drawbacks.  Concrete is a porous material, and chunks tend to spall off from rusting steel reinforcements.  We’ve all see that on bridge abutments.  Worst of all, the stuff is brittle.  On October 30, 1920, the SS Cape Fear collided with a cargo ship in Narragansett Bay Rhode Island and “shattered like a teacup”, killing 19 crewmen.

SS Palo Alto was a tanker-turned restaurant and dance club, before breaking up in heavy waves, in Monterey Bay.

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SS Palo Alto

SS San Pasqual was damaged in a storm in 1921 and became a warehouse for the Old Times Molasses Company of Havana. She was converted to a coastal defense installation during WW2 and outfitted with machine guns and cannon, then becaming a prison, during the Cuban revolution. The wreck was later converted to a 10-room hotel before closing, for good.  That was some swanky joint, I’m sure.

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SS San Pasquale

The steamer SS Sapona was sold for scrap and converted to a floating liquor warehouse during Prohibition, later grounding off the shore of Bimini during a hurricane.  All the liquor, was lost.

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SS Sapone as she looked, in 2009.  H/T Compsciscubadive

The SS Atlantus was destined to be sunk in place as a ferry dock in Cape May New Jersey in 1926, until she broke free in a hurricane and ran aground, 150-feet from the beach. Several attempts were made to free the hulk, but none successful. At one time, the wreck bore a billboard. Advertising a marine insurance outfit, no less. Kids used to swim out and dive off, until one drowned. The wreck began to split up in the late 1950s. If you visit sunset beach today, you might see something like the image, at the top of this page.

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SS Atlantus, Insurance billboard

In 1942, the world once again descended into war.  With steel again in short supply, the Roosevelt administration contracted for another concrete fleet of 24 ships.  The decades had come and gone since that earlier fleet.  This time, the new vessels came off the production line at the astonishing rate of one a month featuring newer and stronger aggregates, lighter than those of years past. Like the earlier concrete fleet, most would be sold off after the war.  Two of the WW2 concrete fleet actually saw combat service, the SS David O. Saylor and the SS Vitruvius.  

In March 1944, an extraordinary naval convoy departed the port of Baltimore. including the concrete vessels, SS David O. Saylor and SS Vitruvius.  It was the most decrepit procession to depart an American city since Ma and Pa Joad left Oklahoma, for California.  A one-way voyage with Merchant Marines promised a return trip, aboard Queen Mary.

Merchant mariner Richard Powers , described the scene:

“We left Baltimore on March 5, and met our convoy just outside Charleston, South Carolina,” Powers recalled. “It wasn’t a pretty sight: 15 old ‘rustpots.’ There were World War I-era ‘Hog Islanders’ (named for the Hog Island shipyard in Philadelphia where these cargo and transport ships were built), damaged Liberty Ships.”

1,154 U-boats were commissioned into the German navy before and during WW2, some 245 of which were lost in 1944.  The majority of those, in the North Atlantic.  The allied crossing took a snail’s pace at 33 days and, despite the massive U-boat presence, passed unmolested into Liverpool.  Powers figured, “The U-Boats were not stupid enough to waste their torpedoes on us.”

Herr Hitler’s Kriegsmarine should have paid more attention.

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On June 1, Seaman Powers’ parade of misfit ships joined a procession of 100 British and American vessels.  Old transports and battered warships, under tow or limping across the English channel at the stately pace of five knots.  These were the old and the infirm, the combat damaged and obsolete.  There were gaping holes from mine explosions, and the twisted and misshapen evidence of collisions at sea. Some had superstructures torn by some of the most vicious naval combat, of the European war.  Decrepit as they were, each was bristling with anti-aircraft batteries, Merchant Mariners joined by battle hardened combat troops.

Their services would not be required.  The allies had complete air supremacy over the English channel.

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A line of U.S. Liberty ships deliberately sunk off the coast at Omaha beach to form a breakwater for the Mulberry harbor there.(U.S. Army) H/T wearethemighty.com

These were the “gooseberries” and “blockships”.   Part of the artificial “Mulberry” harbors intended to form breakwaters and landing piers in support of the D-Day landing, charged with the difficult and dangerous task of scuttling under fire at five points along the Norman coast.  Utah.  Omaha.  Gold.  Juneau.  Sword.

Later on, thousands more merchant vessels would arrive in support of the D-Day invasion.  None more important than those hundred or so destined to advance and die, the living breakwater without which the retaking of continental Europe, would not have been possible.

 

A Trivial Matter
The British Army lost 19,240 killed on the first Day of the WW1 Battle of the Somme. French and German forces suffered a whopping 975,000 casualties on one single day of the ten-month Battle of Verdun. Imperial Russia lost five million soldiers, in the first two years of WW1. Many single day’s fighting of the great battles of 1916 produced more casualties than every European war of the previous 100 years. Combined.

December 13, 1941 Cook’s Assistant

There is no telling, how many lives could have been lost.  But for the actions, of a sixteen-year-old cook’s assistant.

Similar to the Base Exchange system serving American military personnel, the British Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes (NAAFI) is the UK-government organization operating clubs, bars, shops and supermarkets in service to British armed forces, as well as naval canteen services (NCS) aboard Royal Navy ships.

naafiNAAFI personnel serving on ships are assigned to duty stations and wear uniforms, while technically remaining civilians.

Tommy Brown was fifteen when he lied about his age, enlisting in the NAAFI on this day in 1941 and assigned as canteen assistant to the “P-class” destroyer, HMS Petard.

On October 30, 1942, Petard joined three other destroyers and a squadron of Vickers Wellesley light bombers off the coast of Port Said Egypt, in a 16-hour hunt for the German “Unterseeboot”, U–559.

Hours of depth charge attacks were rewarded when the crippled U-559 came to the surface, the 4-inch guns of HMS Petard, permanently ending the career of the German sub.

The U-559 crew abandoned ship, but not before opening the boat’s seacocks.   Water was pouring into the submarine as Lieutenant Francis Anthony Blair Fasson and Able Seaman Colin Grazier dived into the water and swam to the submarine, with Junior canteen assistant Tommy Brown close behind.

Ww2-Hms-Petard-The-Enigma-2000-Cover

With the submarine sinking fast, Fasson and Grazier made their way into the captain’s cabin.   Finding a set of keys, Fasson opened a drawer, to discover a number of documents, including two sets of code books.

With one hand on the conning ladder and the other clutching those documents, Brown made three trips up and down from the hatch, to Petard’s whaler.

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With the sub beginning to sink, the canteen assistant called for his shipmates to get out of the boat, but the other two were trapped. Brown himself was dragged under, but managed to kick free and come to the surface.  Colin Grazier and Francis Fasson, did not escape.

The episode brought Brown to the attention of the authorities, ending his posting aboard Petard with the revelation of his true age.  He never was discharged from the NAAFI, and later returned to sea on board the HMS Belfast.

grazier 2

By 1945 he was Leading Seaman Tommy Brown, home on shore leave when fire broke out at the family home in South Shields.  He died while trying to rescue his youngest sister Maureen, and was buried with full military honors in Tynemouth cemetery.

Fasson and Grazier were awarded the George Cross, the second-highest award of the United Kingdom system of military honors.  Since he was a civilian due to his NAAFI employment, Brown was awarded the George medal.

Fasson Memorial

None of the three would ever learn that their actions had helped to end the war.

For German U-boat commanders, the period between the fall of France and the American entry into WW2 was known as “Die Glückliche Zeit” – “The Happy Time” – in the North Sea and North Atlantic.  From July through October 1940 alone, 282 Allied ships were sunk off the northwest approach to Ireland, for a combined loss of 1.5 million tons of merchant shipping.

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Tommy Brown’s Mediterranean episode took place in 1942, in the midst of the “Second Happy Time”, also known among German submarine commanders as the American shooting season. U-boats inflicted massive damage during this period, sinking 609 ships totaling 3.1 million tons with the loss of thousands of lives, against a cost of only 22 U-boats.

According to USMM.org, the United States Merchant marine suffered a higher percentage of fatalities at 3.9%, than any other American service branch during WW2.

enigma2Early versions of the German “Enigma” code were broken as early as 1932, thanks to cryptanalysts of the Polish Cipher Bureau, and French spy Hans Thilo Schmidt.

French and British military intelligence were read into Polish decryption techniques in 1939, \methods which were later improved upon by the British code breakers of Bletchley Park.  Vast numbers of messages were intercepted and decoded from Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe sources, shortening the war by at least a year, and possibly two.

The Kriegsmarine was a different story.  Maniacally jealous of security, Admiral Karl Dönitz introduced a third-generation enigma machine (M4) into the submarine service around May 1941, a system so secret that neither Wehrmacht nor Luftwaffe, were aware of its existence.  The system requires identical cipher machines at both ends of the transmission and took a while to put into place, with German subs being spread around the world.

By early 1942, all M4 machines were in place.  On February 2, German submarine communications went dark.  For code breakers at Bletchley Park, the blackout was sudden and complete.  Like the flipping of a switch.  For a period of nine months, Allies had not the foggiest notion of what the German submarine service was up to.  The result was disastrous.

BletchleyThe beginning of the end of darkness came to an end on October 30, when a ship’s cook climbed up that conning ladder.  Code sheets allowed British cryptanalysts to attack the “Triton” key used by the U-boat service.  It would not be long, before the U-boats themselves, were under attack.

Tommy Brown never knew what was in those documents.  The entire enterprise would remain Top Secret, until years after his death.  Winston Churchill would later write, that the actions of the crew of Petard, were crucial to the outcome of the war.  There is no telling, how many lives could have been lost.  But for the actions, of a sixteen-year-old cook’s assistant.

thomas-brown-sharon-carley-462946894

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

February 9, 1945 Operation Caesar

The most unusual confrontation of WW2 occurred on this day in 1945, in the form of a combat action between two submerged submarines.

In 1939, the impending Nazi invasion of Poland was an open secret.  That August, representatives of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact, pledging mutual non-aggression for a period of two years.

Two days later, representatives of the United Kingdom signed the Agreement of Mutual Assistance with Poland, aligning Great Britain with the Franco-Polish Military Alliance.  Should Poland be invaded by a foreign power, England and France were now committed to intervene.

The first fourteen “Unterseeboots” (U-boats) left their bases, fanning out across the North Atlantic.  Hitler’s invasion of Poland, began, three weeks later. Even then, Hitler believed that war with England and France could still be avoided.  The “Kriegsmarine” was under strict orders to follow the “Prize Regulations” of 1936.

how-hitler-tried-to-terrorize-the-seas-with-u-boats-during-world-war-ii

England and France declared war on Nazi Germany on Septemebr 3. Hours later, U-30 Oberleutnant Fritz Julius Lemp fired a torpedo into the British liner SS Athenia. Lemp had mistakenly believed it to be an armed merchant vessel and fair game under Prize Regulations, but the damage was done. The longest and most complex naval battle in history, had begun.

As in WWI, both England and Germany were quick to implement blockades on one another. For good reason. By the time that WWII was in full swing, England alone would require over a million tons a week of imported goods, in order to continue the fight.

convoy_thumbThe “Battle of the Atlantic” lasted 5 years, 8 months and 5 days, ranging from the Irish Sea to the Gulf of Mexico, from the Caribbean to the Arctic Ocean. Winston Churchill would describe this as “the dominating factor all through the war.  Never for a moment could we forget that everything happening elsewhere, on land, at sea or in the air depended ultimately on its outcome”.

Thousands of ships were involved in more than a hundred convoy battles, with over 1,000 single ship encounters unfolding across a theater thousands of miles wide. According to http://www.usmm.org, the United States Merchant Marine suffered the highest percentage of fatalities of any service branch, at 1 in 26 compared to one in 38, 44, 114 and 421 respectively, for the Marine Corps, Army, Navy and Coast Guard.

800px-Atlantic_Merchant_CasualtyNew weapons and tactics would shift the balance first in favor of one side, and then to the other. In the end over 3,500 merchant ships and 175 warships would be sunk to the bottom of the ocean, compared with the loss of 783 U-boats.

The most unusual confrontation of the war occurred on this day in 1945, in the form of a combat action between two submerged submarines. Submarines operate in 3-dimensional space, but their most effective weapon does not. The torpedo is a surface weapon, operating in two-dimensional space: left, right and forward. Firing at a submerged target requires that the torpedo be converted to neutral buoyancy, introducing near-insurmountable complexity into firing calculations.

U-864
U-864

The war was going badly for the Axis Powers in 1945, the allies enjoying near-uncontested supremacy over the world’s shipping lanes. At this time, any surface delivery between Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan was likely to be detected and stopped. The maiden voyage of the 287’, 1,799 ton German submarine U-864 departed on “Operation Caesar” on December 5, delivering Messerschmitt jet engine parts, V-2 missile guidance systems, and 65 tons of mercury to the Imperial Japanese war production industry.

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WW2 U-boat pens, Bergen, Norway

The mission was a failure, U-864 having to retreat to the submarine pens in Bergen, Norway, for repairs after running aground in the Kiel Canal. The sub was able to clear the island of Fedje off the Norway coast undetected on February 6. By this time British MI6 had broken the German Enigma code. They were well aware of Operation Caesar.

The British submarine Venturer, commanded by 25-year-old Lieutenant Jimmy Launders, was dispatched from the Shetland Islands, to intercept and destroy U-864.

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A four dimensional firing solution accounting for time, distance, bearing and target depth was theoretically possible, but had rarely been attempted under combat conditions.

ASDIC, an early name for sonar, would have been far more helpful in locating U-864, but at a price. That familiar “ping” would have been heard by both sides, alerting the German commander that he was being hunted. Launders opted for hydrophones, a passive listening device which could alert him to external noises. Calculating his adversary’s direction, depth and speed was vastly more complicated without ASDIC, but the need for stealth won out.

Developing an engine noise which he feared might give him away, U-864’s commander, Ralf-Reimar Wolfram decided to return to Bergen for repairs. German submarines of the age were equipped with “snorkels”, heavy tubes which broke the surface, enabling diesel engines U-864 locationand crews to breathe while running submerged. Venturer was on batteries when the first sounds were detected, giving the British sub the stealth advantage but sharply limiting the time frame in which it could act.

A four dimensional firing solution accounting for time, distance, bearing and target depth was theoretically possible, but had rarely been attempted under combat conditions. Plus, there were unknown factors which could only be approximated.

A fast attack sub, Venturer only carried four torpedo tubes, far fewer than her much larger adversary. Launders calculated his firing solution, ordering all four tubes firing with a 17½ second delay between each pair.

U-864 WreckWith four incoming at as many depths, the German sub didn’t have time to react. Wolfram was only just retrieving his snorkel and converting to electric, when the #4 torpedo struck. U-864 imploded and sank, instantly killing all 73 aboard.

Surface actions were common enough between all manner of vessels, but a fully submerged submarine to submarine kill occurred only once in WWI, on October 18, 1914, when the German U-27 torpedoed and sank the British sub HMS E3 with the loss of all 28 aboard. To my knowledge, such an action occurred only this one time, in all of WWII.

 

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it too. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

December 13, 1942 Ship’s Cook

Untold numbers of lives that could have been lost.  But for the actions, of a sixteen-year-old ship’s cook.

Similar to the Base Exchange system serving American military personnel, the British Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes (NAAFI) is the UK-government organization operating clubs, bars, shops and supermarkets in service to British armed forces, as well as naval canteen services (NCS) on board Royal Navy ships.

NAAFI personnel serving on ships are assigned to duty stations and wear uniforms, while technically remaining civilians.

Tommy Brown was fifteen when he lied about his age, enlisting in the NAAFI and assigned as canteen assistant to the “P-class” destroyer, HMS Petard.

HMSPETARD
HMS Petard

On October 30, 1942, Petard joined three other destroyers and a squadron of Vickers Wellesley light bombers off the coast of Port Said Egypt, in a 16-hour hunt for the German “Unterseeboot”, U–559.

Hours of depth charge attacks were rewarded when the crippled U-559 came to the surface, the 4-inch guns of HMS Petard, permanently ending the career of the German sub.

U-559
U-559

The crew abandoned ship, but not before opening the boat’s seacocks.   Water was pouring into the submarine as Lieutenant Francis Anthony Blair Fasson and Able Seaman Colin Grazier dived into the water and swam to the submarine, with junior canteen assistant Tommy Brown close behind.

With U-559 sinking fast, Fasson and Grazier made their way into the captain’s cabin.   Finding a set of keys, Fasson opened a drawer, to discover a number of documents, including two sets of code books.

With one hand on the conning ladder and the other clutching those documents, Brown made three trips up and down through the hatch, to Petard’s whaler.

300px-U-185
U-185 sinking, after American depth charging

In the final moments, the ship’s cook called for his shipmates to get out of the boat. Brown himself was dragged under, but managed to kick free and come to the surface.  Colin Grazier and Francis Fasson, went down with the German sub.

The episode brought Brown to the attention of the authorities, ending his posting aboard Petard when his true age became known.  He was not discharged from the NAAFI, and later returned to sea on board the light cruiser, HMS Belfast.

In 1945, now-Leading Seaman Tommy Brown was home on shore leave, when fire broke out at the family home in South Shields.  He died while trying to rescue his 4-year-old sister Maureen, and was buried with full military honors in Tynemouth cemetery.

Fasson and Grazier were awarded the George Cross, the second-highest award in the United Kingdom system of honors.  Since he was a civilian due to his NAAFI employment, Brown was awarded the George Medal.

355b2-442_doenitz_paukenschlagFor German U-boat commanders, the period between the fall of France and the American entry into WW2 was known as “Die Glückliche Zeit” – “The Happy Time” – in the North Sea and North Atlantic.  From July through October 1940 alone, 282 Allied ships were sunk on the approaches to Ireland, for a combined loss of 1.5 million tons of merchant shipping.

Tommy Brown’s Mediterranean episode took place in 1942, in the midst of the “Second Happy Time”, a period known among German submarine commanders as the “American shooting season”. U-boats inflicted massive damage during this period, sinking 609 ships totaling 3.1 million tons with the loss of thousands of lives, against a cost of only 22 U-boats.

USMM.org reports that the United States Merchant Marine service suffered a higher percentage of fatalities at 3.9%, than any American service branch in WW2.

Bletchley ParkEarly versions of the German “Enigma” code were broken as early as 1932, thanks to cryptanalysts of the Polish Cipher Bureau, and French spy Hans Thilo Schmidt.  French and British military intelligence were read into Polish decryption techniques in 1939, these methods later improved upon by the British code breakers of Bletchley Park.

Vast numbers of messages were intercepted and decoded from Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe sources through the Allied intelligence project “Ultra”, shortening the war by at least a year, and possibly two.

The Kriegsmarine was a different story.  Maniacally concerned with security, Admiral Karl Dönitz introduced a third-generation enigma machine (M4) into the submarine service around May 1941, a system so secret that neither Wehrmacht nor Luftwaffe, were aware of its existence.

The system requires identical cipher machines at both ends of the transmission and took a while to put into place, with German subs being spread around the world.

M4All M4 machines were distributed by early 1942.  On February 2, German submarine communications went dark.  For code breakers at Bletchley Park, the blackout was sudden and complete.  For a period of nine months, Allies had not the slightest idea of what the German submarine service was up to.  The result was catastrophic.

U-559 documents were rushed back to England, arriving at Bletchley Park on November 24, allowing cryptanalysts to attack the “Triton” key used within the U-boat service.  It would not be long, before the U-boats themselves were under attack.

The M4 code was broken by December 13, when the first of a steady stream of intercepts arrived at the Admiralty Operational Intelligence Office, giving the positions of 12 U-boats.

The UK Guardian newspaper wrote: “The naval historian Ralph Erskine thinks that, without the (M4) breakthrough, the Normandy invasion would have been delayed by at least a year, and that between 500,000 and 750,000 tons of allied shipping were saved in December 1942 and January 1943 alone”.

Tommy Brown never knew what was in those documents.  The entire enterprise would remain Top Secret, until decades after he died.

Winston Churchill later wrote, that the actions of the crew of HMS Petard were “crucial to the outcome of the war”.

Untold numbers of lives that could have been lost.  But for the actions, of a sixteen-year-old ship’s cook.

thomas-brown-sharon-carley-462946894

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy the same. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

February 3, 1943  Greater Love Hath No Man

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

usat_dorchesterThe Troop Transport USAT Dorchester sailed out of New York Harbor on January 23, 1943, carrying 902 service members, merchant seamen and civilian workers.  They were headed for the Army Command Base 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 in 1926 as a coastal liner, Dorchester was anything but graceful, bouncing and shuddering its way through the rough seas of the North Atlantic.    Several ships had already been sunk by German U-Boats in these waters.  One of the Cutters detected a sub late on February 2, flashing 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.  Many disregarded the order.  It was too hot down there in the holds, and those life jackets were anything but comfortable.

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The Four Chaplains

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 D. Goode, the Catholic priest John P. Washington, the Dutch Reformed Church Minister Clark V. Poling and the Methodist Minister George L. 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 orgerman_submarine_wwii_by_racoonart more were killed in the blast, or in the clouds of steam and ammonia vapor pouring 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 whatever reason, there never were any signal flares.

Those who could escape scrambled onto the deck, injured, disoriented, many still in their underwear as they emerged into the sub-arctic cold.

The four chaplains must have been a welcome sight that night, 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.

Dorchester 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 them to the point of capsize.  Only two of fourteen lifeboats launched successfully.

dorchesterPrivate 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.

Rushing 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 locations of corpses.  Of the 902 on board, the Coast Guard plucked 230 from the water, alive.

four-chaplainsThe United States Congress attempted to confer the Medal of Honor on the four chaplains for their selfless act of courage, but strict requirements for “heroism under fire” prevented them from doing so.  Congress authorized a one time, posthumous “Chaplain’s Medal for Heroism”, awarded to the next of kin by Secretary of the Army Wilber M. Brucker at Fort Myer, Virginia on January 18, 1961.

John 15:13 says “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, they gave their life jackets 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 so tested, I hope that I would prove myself half the man, as those four chaplains.