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Norwich - In the early morning hours of Feb. 3, 1943, the commanding officers of the U.S. Army transport ship Dorchester were on high alert. Coast Guard sonar had detected a submarine in the vicinity of the Dorchester as it traveled through a sea lane in the icy waters off of Newfoundland.
Just before 1 a.m., a torpedo fired from German submarine U-223 struck the Dorchester at midship on its starboard side. In less than 20 minutes, the Dorchester's bow slipped beneath the surface of the sea and the ship sank. Only 230 of the 904 men on board survived.
On Sunday, about 75 people gathered at the Peter Gallan American Legion Post 104 in Taftville to mark the anniversary of the Dorchester's sinking and to honor the meritorious service of the rabbi, Catholic priest and two Protestant ministers who helped save the lives of others.
"They acted with such historic compassion and leadership that they became known as the Immortal Chaplains," said master of ceremonies Dennis A. Baptise, a Post member.
The four chaplains - Lt. George Fox, a Methodist minister; Lt. Alexander D. Goode, a rabbi; Lt. John P. Washington, a Catholic priest; and Lt. Clark V. Poling, a Dutch Reformed Church minister who once served as the youth minister of New London's First Congregational Church - helped others onto lifeboats and gave away their own life jackets, then huddled together in prayer to meet their deaths as they went down with the ship.
Among the speakers at Sunday's event was State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, herself an Army veteran.
"It is an amazing story that gets lost amongst all of the noise that happens around the Super Bowl and some of the other things happening these days," Osten said. "The four chaplains calmed the men on board the Dorchester and gave up their own lives that day."
Norwich Mayor Deberey Hinchey, whose father served in the Navy, recalled the day in 1963 when her father was notified that the submarine USS Thresher had disappeared east of Cape Cod and how the community instinctively gravitated to the naval chaplain.
"I remember how, to the families of my friends and the people we lived near, it was the most important thing to all of us to find out what happened to that submarine," Hinchey said. "That evening, we all gathered in the base chapel with the chaplain to pray for the safe return of that ship and those men."
The four Immortal Chaplains, Hinchey said, embodied what her father taught her about the importance of a submariner honoring his ship and the others who served on board.
"To hear this story of these chaplains and the work they did to honor their ship and the people that were going to be lost that day is truly remarkable," she said.
The Rev. Cathy Zall, pastor of the First Congregational Church in New London, said that in giving up their own life jackets, the four chaplains did "the Christ-like thing."
"Such acts of selfless bravery speak louder than any words," she said. "I also ask that we each honor the Immortal Chaplains and so many others who served, by letting their example encourage us to greater service."
Zall and three other clergy - Rabbi Ken Alter of Congregation Ahavath Achim in Colchester, the Rev. Scott Schuett of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Lebanon, and the Rev. Brian Converse, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Roman Catholic Church in Gales Ferry and the Connecticut National Guard chaplain - ended Sunday's event huddled together in prayer, a recreation of the final minutes of the Immortal Chaplains.