The U boat war was now entering a critical phase. Just as more and more men and munitions were leaving America and Canada to join the fight in Britain and North Africa, the U-boat packs were intensifying their efforts to sink them. Whilst a wide range of new technical measures and tactics were transforming the anti U-boat campaign, and having increasing success, the Battle of the Atlantic was far from won.
The United States Army Transport (USAT) Dorchester was passing through the freezing seas off Newfoundland when her captain learnt of a U-boat nearby, located by land based radio direction finding. There was little they could do about it, apart from keeping especially alert and staying close to the convoy. None of the escorts possessed radar so U-223 was able to surface in the darkness and fire one torpedo at 0055 on the 3rd.
Four men on board so distinguished themselves by their conduct in the following half-hour that there were calls for them to be awarded the Medal of Honor. The rules state that it can only be awarded for acts performed ‘under fire’. So in 1960 by special Act of Congress they were awarded a unique medal in recognition of their sacrifice:
On February 2, 1943 the German submarine U-223 spotted the convoy on the move and closed with the ships, firing a torpedo which struck the Dorchester shortly after midnight. Hundreds of men packed the decks of the rapidly sinking ship and scrambled for the lifeboats. Several of the lifeboats had been damaged and the four chaplains began to organize frightened soldiers.
They distributed life jackets from a locker; when the supply of life jackets ran out, each of the chaplains gave theirs to other soldiers. When the last lifeboats were away, the chaplains prayed with those unable to escape the sinking ship. 27 minutes after the torpedo struck, the Dorchester disappeared below the waves with 672 men still aboard. The last anyone saw of the four chaplains, they were standing on the deck, arms linked and praying together.
Citation for the Four Chaplains’ Medal approved by an Act of Congress on July 14, 1960
Lt. William H. Arpaia, USNR, was the Gunnery officer on board and described the last minutes on the ship after the torpedo hit:
Immediately the engines ceased to function, all of the lights went out on the ship and it listed to starboard to about a 30 degree angle. None of the lookouts reported having seen or heard anything other than a swishing sound almost immediately prior to the explosion. Instantly pandemonium broke loose. The Army troops started to throw life rafts overboard and started to leave the ship.
Both the 4″ and the 3″ guns were loaded. One of the gunners on the 3 20 mm gun on the starboard site had been blown out of the gun circle onto the gunwhale and into the water. By reason of the fact that the ship listed immediately, it was impossible to operate any of the guns.
The bridge was unable to give a fixed red light because of the fact that the electricity was cut off. A fog whistle was sounded 6 times and another series of 6 blasts was started when the steam gave out. No white rockets were fired. The DORCESTER immediately became lit up with red lights and flash lights, The red lights were attached to many of the life preservers. The flashlights were owned and used by the army personnel and some of the civilians aboard.
The Master was on the flying bridge when I last saw him. I asked him if he had disposed of the confidential publications. He said he had not, and that I should do so. I immediately went into his cabin and personally threw all the confidential papers overboard from the starboard side in the perforated sheet metal box.
I asked the Captain if he saw anything and he said that he didn’t. He remained on the flying bridge and to all intents and purposes did not probably realize that the ship was going to sink. After becoming certainly convinced that to open fire would be futile and that the ship was sinking and listing rapidly, I gave orders to the entire gun crew forward and aft to abandon ship.
I abandoned ship from the port side on the beam in a doughnut raft. Eight to ten of the gun crew were with me but most of them fended for themselves. McCoy and McMinn, Seamen First Class, after a doughnut raft had been thrown overboard and after we descended and were standing on the listed vessel, discovered that some soldiers had taken our raft. Both McCoy and McMinn were entirely on their own and with the ship sinking under them, volunteered to climb up to top side end get another raft, which they did, and which they threw down.
I then dove into the water, got into the raft and held it for them and they both got in as well as Taylor, Sl/c. It seemed that McCoy and McMinn displayed a dash of courage which certainly deserves some commendation.
There were 921 people on the ship, of whom 227 were saved.
He was not picked up for over six hours, during which time one man in his raft, Ralph L. Taylor , ‘lost his mind’ and died of the cold.