- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 30, 2001

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A novel about one of World War II's worst accidents at sea — and the four chaplains who gave their lives so that others might live — is coming to fruition after years of preparation.

The handful of people heading up the project say they are inspired by the 902 soldiers, sailors and civilian engineers aboard the U.S. troop transport Dorchester when it left Staten Island, N.Y., on Jan. 23, 1943.

The crew waited for stormy seas at St. John's, Newfoundland, because bad weather would be better for them at Torpedo Junction, an area known for German submarine activity.

"If you go in a storm, you're not going to get hit," recalled Michael Warish, who was an Army sergeant aboard the Dorchester.

Many believed St. John's was an evil trade-off because of its reputation as a hub of German espionage. Their departure would be reported to the Germans, just as the Dorchester's arrival was widely known in advance.

"That place was infested with spies," Mr. Warish, 89, said in an interview from his home in Taunton, Mass. When the Dorchester put in at St. John's, he said, "the paper boy says to me, 'Where were you guys? You were supposed to be here yesterday.'"

After four days, a storm arrived and the Dorchester took off.

"We went through an awful storm," Mr. Warish said. "It banged up the ship bad. It couldn't keep up with the convoy."

The Dorchester was doomed once caught at Torpedo Junction — the mouth of Davis Strait between Baffin Island and Greenland, "where the Germans used to hang out," he said.

The storm ended Feb. 2, he said. Coast Guard cutters began dropping depth charges. But around 1 a.m. Feb. 3, Mr. Warish said, a German U-boat sank the Dorchester about 100 miles from Greenland.

"When the torpedo hit, at first it was like a crash," he said. "Then about one second later, the torpedo exploded. You could smell the gunpowder, burnt. Everything went — the lights, the steam pipes, and then came the distress whistle, boop-boop-boop."

The blast sent a bed frame across the room, pinning Mr. Warish to the wall and injuring his right leg and his head. He had to pull his shoes off because his leg started swelling. By the time he crawled out, he said, the nearly deserted Dorchester "looked like a ghost ship."

He wandered around a few minutes looking for people, then noticed the evacuees out in the water, the little red lights on their lifejackets clustered.

"It looked like a city out there."

And what was left of the bad weather was no longer their friend.

"It was cold. The tide was coming into Greenland and separated the men, but the longer the men stayed in the water 20 minutes, you were gone. You'd get weaker and weaker."

Then he found the ship's four chaplains Clark Poling, Alexander Goode, George Fox and John Washington — standing together on deck, praying.

"One chaplain [Mr. Goode] went to put the life preserver on this injured guy," Mr. Warish said. "That was the chaplain's life preserver. Fox, Poling and Washington had already given theirs away."

Clark Poling was the Dutch Reformed chaplain on the Dorchester. Father Washington was Catholic, Mr. Fox Methodist and Mr. Goode Jewish.

And then the chaplains joined hands in prayer as the ship went down.

That's how naval gunner Willie Stricklin, who died in 1973, remembered last seeing them, says his daughter, Tamara Stricklin Boss, who lives in Alamogordo, N.M.

"He told that story over and over, how they were praying as the ship went down and willingly gave away their lifejackets," she said. "How they didn't try to save themselves over saving other people, when everybody else was worrying about themselves."

Mr. Warish made his way to the stern and jumped in the water alone. He got oil in his mouth and started coughing and after floating a while, he said, he had to struggle to stay awake.

"Because that's what happens — you just go to sleep."

Eventually, he was lifted into a lifeboat.

Among the survivors was a boy, about 14, who had stowed away at Staten Island. Mr. Warish said the boy had carried his uncle's duffel bags aboard and just stayed.

Most of the Dorchester's 14 lifeboats were damaged or frozen to their fittings and only two were operational, but the Coast Guard did much of the rescue work.

"It was the greatest rescue a pair of eyes could see," Mr. Warish said.

But 672 of the 902 died, including the chaplains.

A new book about the event, "Sea of Glory," is co-written by Mr. Poling's cousin, David Poling, former pastor of Albuquerque's 1st Presbyterian Church, and by film and television producer Ken Wales. Mr. Poling clearly remembers cousin Clark. David was 14 when the chaplain went off to minister to U.S. crews building a top-secret air base, weather station and radar center in Greenland.

He remembers swimming in the family pond in New Hampshire with Clark as lifeguard, he and his brother Charlie skating on a frozen river in winter or riding a sled pulled by their pet dog, Clark keeping watch, laughing; Charlie at the beach being plucked from the sea by Clark after the wading child was flattened by a breaking wave.

"Everybody wanted to be around Clark," David Poling recalls. "He was just one of those graceful, funny, athletic, caring guys — and always able to organize games for his younger cousins."

The chaplains' story has been told before. Congress gave them special posthumous medals. A postage stamp was issued in 1948. A chapel dedicated to them is expected to open this fall at the old Philadelphia Navy Yard.

The novel by Mr. Poling and Mr. Wales focuses on the chaplains' impact on people's lives, much as they affected the authors' own lives.

David Shepherd, senior vice president-publisher of Broadman & Holman, which is publishing the novel, says the book was six years in the making. Story elements were fictionalized to facilitate the telling.

"We're taking elements from history and building a story around it — in this case, a modern-day parable to underscore the idea of love and the greatest sacrifice of love, the laying down of one's life for one's friends," he said.

Mr. Wales' father attended Yale Divinity School with Clark Poling and gave his son, Ken, a keen awareness of the chaplains' story.

Mr. Wales, who produced such 1970s movies as "The Tamarind Seed" and "Islands in the Stream" and the short-lived TV series "Christy," said his father relentlessly encouraged him to write about the chaplains, saying: "Ken, tell this story so that it will never be forgotten."

And Mr. Wales remembers promising at age 10: "I will, dad, I will."

"That's been my lifelong commitment," he said.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide