They willingly gave up their life vests so that four shipmates could be saved. The Veteran Affairs Medical Center in Buffalo hosted a ceremony Wednesday honoring four Army chaplains who sacrificed their lives in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic during World War II, as they recognized three local men - and a d0g - who serve in various volunteer roles.
The ceremony included an interfaith memorial service, reflecting the different faiths or denominations represented by the four chaplains whose story was highlighted at the gathering. The story was shared before the presentation of a VA recognition to the day's living honorees.
"The Legion of Honor award is to exemplify the sacrifice made by those four chaplains as the Dorchester was sinking on the way to Greenland," said Brian Stuttler, lead chaplain for the VA Western New York Healthcare System. "They decided to stay on the deck, give up their life vests, and give them to other sailors or civilians who were aboard the vessel."
The chaplains were among more than 900 people aboard an Army transport ship, the USAT Dorchester, which was carrying servicemen, merchant seamen and civilian workers from Newfoundland to an assignment at a base in Greenland.
At around 1 a.m. on February 3, 1943, about 150 miles off the coast of Greenland, the Dorchester was struck by a German torpedo. As those aboard scrambled to board a lifeboat or don a life vest, the four chaplains were equipped with the latter.
According to accounts by survivors on the website FourChaplains.org, Methodist minister Lt. George L. Fox, Rabbi Lt. Alexander D. Goode, Dutch Reformed Church minister Lt. Clark V. Poling and Catholic priest Lt. John P. Washington all realized there were not enough life vests for everyone aboard. They made the conscious decision to give theirs to fellow passengers.
According to eyewitness accounts, the men joined together in prayer as the ship went down. It reportedly took only 20 minutes for the Dorchester, a former luxury coastal liner, to sink. Of the 902 souls aboard, only 227 survived.
After a detailed and moving tribute to the four chaplains by Helen Markham, which included the singing of the melody of America the Beautiful but with lyrics saluting the chaplains, the Legion of Honor award was presented to Michael Hoplight of Niagara Falls, Carl Eugene Moore of Buffalo and Greg Scott of East Amherst. Receiving the award with Scott was his therapy dog, Riley.
Scott explained their volunteer service includes visits to hospital wards where patients get to interact with Riley, a golden retriever. He wore a cross pin on his collar but Scott explained he is not a chaplain himself but simply strong in his Christian faith.
When asked about the willingness of four chaplains to offer up their lives to save four others, he suggested such valor is more widespread among the ranks than one might think.
"Everybody does it, an act of courage... to give up their life jackets and stand there and hold hands and go down with the ship and give their lives for other humans," he said. "We just try to help some humans, touch somebody in a positive way. If we can touch one person, we're happy. That's our return."