Leander Thomas a survivor of the SS Dorchester

INTRODUCTION: The SS DORCHESTER, radio call sign WOBO, was a transport ship used to supply war materials to Narsarssuak Air Base BW-1. The DORCHESTER was torpedoed 150 miles west of Cape Farewell, Greenland, by the German submarine U-223, the GERLACH, on February 3, 1943. During the attack, four U.S. Army chaplains  (George L. Fox and Clark V. Poling, both Protestants; Alexander D. Goode, Jewish; and John P. Washington, Roman Catholic; were passengers, along with 902 other GIs.) gave up their life belts to soldiers who had none, and all four chaplains went down with the ship. According to survivors of that night of terror, the Four Chaplains helped the others into lifeboats and helped with the distribution of life jackets. When there were no more life jackets the four took it upon themselves to give their own life jackets to four servicemen so they could live. According to some accounts, the Four Chaplains were last seen with arms linked and their heads bowed in prayer as the ship went under.

The Coast Guard Cutter COMANCHE rescued 97 survivors, and sister ship ESCANABA, rescued 132 survivors. The ESCANABA was torpedoed later in the Belle Isle Straits with two members of the crew surviving. The GERLACH, U-223, was sunk north of Palermo, Sicily, by the HMS LAFOREY on March 30, 1944.

Leander Thomas  (30 June 1915 - 26 Oct 2006), a survivor of the SS Dorchester

Lee Thomas and the Dorcheter by Irene Pickering

Lee lived in Apple Valley, CA and gave this account of the tragedy. When I went to interview him on 7-28-2000, he said,"So you want to sink that ship again? I don’t know how many times I’ve sunk that thing!"

"When the torpedo hit, I was sleeping on the Port side of the ship. The ship was hit on the Starboard side. We were told to sleep with our life jackets on, but I couldn’t sleep with it on so took it off. I apparently slept very sound and slept for the first 10 minutes after the "hit." I awoke to confusion and darkness all around. Fortunately I had a flashlight handy until it was knocked from my hand. I tried to make my way to where the life jackets were kept and managed to get one. Then I had to make my way to the deck where I could get off the ship. Eventually I got off, and got a hold of a raft. The raft would hold only so many men and the rest of them had to hold on to a rope on the outside of the raft. I was one of those holding on! I don’t know how long I was in the water, but it was hours. Fortunately we were in water where a warm current was flowing or I couldn’t have survived. We were 100 miles off the coast of Greenland when we were hit. One man had a hold of my life jacket with his arm stuck inside. I finally just took my jacket off and just hung on to the raft. Help (The Escanba) when it did arrive had a problem with me. They dropped a rope and my hands were so cramped and numb from holding on that I couldn’t grasp the rope. They told me they would return and to just hold on. I realized that I must do something when they returned to be able to grasp the rope. So I would alternate holding on to the raft with one hand and put the other hand in my arm pit to warm it up and kept flexing my fingers and alternating my hands. I was praying all the while  I was in the water and I could hear praying all around me. Everyone was praying!"

"Once we got to Narsarssuak Greenland (BW-1) all the survivors were taken to the hospital, which was very small. My body temperature was low so I was kept in the hospital for four days and then they put all the survivors in one barracks under a doctor’s care for a few weeks. I was able to do some carpentry work while there and then worked on vehicles that had broken down. I was in Greenland for 1-½ years. The memory of my ordeal on the Dorchester still haunts me on nights that I can't sleep."