THE NORTH ATLANTIC, (WHTM) — On Feb. 3, 1943, at about 1 a.m., the troop transport S.S. Dorchester was torpedoed by a German U-boat, the U-223. She sank in less than 20 minutes. Of the more than 900 people on board, only about 200 survived.
If people are aware of this event at all, usually it’s because of the story of the Four Chaplains, who gave their life jackets to others and went down with the ship. But there’s another story about that dreadful night which is often overlooked-the officers and men of two Coast Guard Cutters, who risked their lives to pull men out of the freezing cold water-including one sailor who had to rescue some of the rescuers.
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When the Dorchester sank, two convoy escort ships, the Coast Guard Cutters Comanche and Escanaba, were ordered to head to the location of the sinking and search for survivors. It was a grim search; when they reached the scene, many of those in the water were already dead, killed by hypothermia in 31-degree water. But both ships had men trained in a new lifesaving technique-retriever swimming. They wore rubber survival suits to protect them from the cold, as they swam to men floating in the water, and either helped them to the ships where they could climb aboard on cargo nets draped over the side, or tied a line to them so they could be hauled to safety. Some of the sailors hauled in looked like they had already frozen, but recovered after being warmed up.
One of the rescuers on the Comanche was an African American from New York City, Charles Walter David., Jr., Steward’s mate, First Class. While he was in a lifeboat, helping the Dorchester survivors, Comanche’s executive officer, Lieutenant Langford Anderson, fell overboard. David immediately jumped into the water to rescue him. He then helped another rescuer, Storekeeper 1st Class Richard ‘Dick” Swanson, when he couldn’t make it up the net after working in the freezing water.
In all, the two ships rescued about 200 men. For his actions, Charles David Jr. would receive the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, the highest non-combat decoration awarded for heroism by the U.S. Navy Department. He would later receive the American Defense Service Medal, the American Campaign Medal, the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, and the WWII Victory Medal.
Sadly, they would all be presented to his family posthumously. As a result of exhaustion and exposure from his efforts, David developed pneumonia, and died on March 29, 1943, 54 days after the rescue.
On Nov. 16, 2013, the Coast Guard Commissioned the USCGC Charles David Jr., a 157-foot-long Coast Guard Cutter. She currently serves out of Key West, Florida.