A Survivor’s Story of Four Chaplains Day–the Torpedo Attack on the Troop Ship Dorchester

Over a year ago I reviewed a book about the USAT Dorchester disaster. I discovered that February 3 is a day of remembrance for the four chaplains who lost their lives serving the men on that ship, so I’d already made a meme for today.

Then Monday, this showed up on Instagram: “Happy 100th Birthday in heaven to my Grandfather Michael Calandriello. He served in the Army Air Force during WW2 and was one of few survivors of the torpedo attack on the USAT Dorchester on February 3, 1943.”

I recognized the name of the ship, then noticed the hashtags:

#family #lineage #history #ww2 #grandfather #italianamerican #usatdorchester \#angelbirthday #life #love #brooklyn #newjersey #4chaplains #europe #neverforgotten

From the book: “In the early morning hours of February 3, 1943, a German submarine torpedoes the American troop ship Dorchester en route to a top secret radar installation in Greenland. The four Army chaplains on board could scarcely be more different from each other: Methodist pastor and war veteran George Fox; intellectual and athletic Rabbi Alex Goode; scholar, poet, and Dutch Reformed minister Clark Poling; baseball fan and “regular guy” Father John Washington. Yet in the terror and confusion following the attack by a deadly U-boat wolfpack, the chaplains unite in a final triumphant sacrifice that transforms the life of every survivor who lives to tell of it.”

I sent a note to glenn_against_the_machine, acknowledging what he’d posted. He sent photos and more information and gave me permission to share this story of his maternal grandfather, who was one of only 230 survivors out of over 900 on the ship.

“Never remove your left jackets! Eat, sleep and work in them but never ever take them off.” Obeying that order saved the life of Glenn Simmons’ grandfather Michael Calandriello who served in the Army Air Force during WWII.

SSgt. Michael Calandriello’s Story

“The torpedo struck like a giant hand reaching out of the sea and puncturing a hold in the side of the ship. Forward motion stopped, we began a hard sideward skid stirring the dark waters beneath the hull. Moving automatically, I joined my shipmates in making my way across the sloping deck to my assigned station.

“Just like in drills, the lifeboat was loaded and we were lowered over the side. Nothing in our training, however, had prepared us for the shock of the lifeboat tipping and dumping us over, to be engulfed by the frigid water. . . .

“Treading water, I saw a G.I. grab an axe and cut the ropes allowing the lifeboat to right itself. But my hopes were dashed as a desperate man jumped from the deck above, landed in the lifeboat, and crashed through the bottom.

“Yet I was one of the lucky ones.

“Soon another lifeboat came by and picked me up. A Black crewman, Charley Wright, who had already survived previous torpedoings, took charge. With only three oars and all of us bailing furiously, we managed to stay afloat until we were rescued by the Coast Guard Cutter Escanaba.

“. . . Along the rails of all three decks [of the Dorchester] was an unbroken line of men. All were to paralyzed by fear to jump. I shouted ‘Get off! Get off!’ but the turmoil drowned my voice. . .

“I was among the first picked up. The courageous men of the Escanaba stripped off my clothes, wrapped me in blankets and began rubbing my frozen legs. For hours men were carried in, oil-slicked, unconscious, some dying and some who would be dead by morning’s first light.

The Four Chaplains

“It was from those picked up last that I first heard the story of the Four Chaplains. I had known Father Washington from Mass and confession. I remember his soft-spoken caring. There was an underlying strength to the man that reassured us he would always do God’s work and take care of his men no matter what happened. That’s exactly what he and his fellow chaplains did that fateful night.

We spoke not a word

“Almost fifty years have passed, yet the visions of that night remain vivid in my mind. One man in particular stands out. He was a Jewish buddy who pulled me into the lifeboat and rubbed life back into my limbs on board the Escanaba. As he held his prayer book and I held my rosary beads, we spoke not word. But in our hearts we knew our faith in our common God had spared us.

“This was akin to the example set by the Four Chaplains. Though their lives were not spared, they had helped to spare others and bring comfort to those doomed to perish. Four men, three faiths, one God–this is their legacy. What better monument than t have etched into our minds and hearts the sight of these four men of God staying with their flock, giving them strength and faith as they entered eternal rest.”

 

Michael Calandriello (left) and his friend John Fisher. Believed to have been taken in Greenland shortly after the sinking of the Dorchester.

 


Thanks to Glenn A. Simmons (on the right), who served as marine infantryman during the Global War on Terror. His father, Glenn D. Simmons (left) served with 10th special forces in Vietnam. 


Glenn Simmons telling his grandfather’s story on Our American Stories.

 

8 comments

    • I’m still amazed that I read what you wrote–and those hashtags–on Instagram Monday. Meant to be. And I’m so thankful about where it’s leading. MM said he’d get together with you by the weekend.

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