When Your Ship Sinks

Dorchester 1Fifty-five minutes past midnight on February 3, 1943, the USS Dorchester was on its way to Greenland with more than 900 men on board. Captain Hans Danielsen, aware that German U-boats were in the area, had ordered the men to stay ready and keep their life jackets on, but many of them disobeyed the order because the life jackets were uncomfortable and impossible to sleep in.

Four Army chaplains  were on the ship:  a Methodist minister, a Jewish rabbi, a Catholic priest,  and  a  Reformed  Church  pastor.  All four had been  Boy Scouts.  All four were brand  new  lieutenants  in  the Army.  All four  were ready to  serve their Soldiers,  their country, and their God. All four were prepared to give their lives if necessary.  When the torpedo hit the ship, the lights  went out.  A lot of  people died instantly; more died in the water.  Others  were injured.  Men who were trapped  below began to panic,  looking for their life jacket, trying to find a way to the top deck so they could abandon ship.

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As soon as the chaos began, the four chaplains sprang into action. They encouraged panic-stricken young men, guided Soldiers towards the upper deck and to the lifeboats, and helped them find life jackets. When there were no more life preservers to be found, they took off their own and gave them away in order to save the lives of a few more men, knowing that it certainly meant they themselves would die.

Two hundred thirty men made it into the rescue boats that night. As they looked back at the sinking ship, they saw the four chaplains standing on deck, arms linked, praying and singing in Hebrew, Latin, and English.

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What do you do when your ship sinks? How do you respond when your world is at its darkest and there seems to be no way of escape? Or when the future holds no promise and there seems to be no hope?

If Ecclesiastes 3:1 is true and there is an appropriate time and season for every purpose under heaven (NIV), and if different times and seasons call for different actions, then how we live, how we behave, what is appropriate, or what is best, may be more a matter of discernment than following rules. There is a time to shout and a time to whisper, a time to drop the bomb and a time to lay down the weapon, a time to wear the life jacket, and a time to give it away so another may live.

An immoral man behaves inappropriately for selfish reasons. A moral man does what is right because of legal, humanitarian, or religious obligations. A hero rejects selfishness, takes his moral obligations into account, then discerns with artistic altruism a course of action that will benefit another human being, even when that act may bring harm to himself. That’s what love does. That’s what genuine spirituality aims for. That’s what Jesus had in mind when he said, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” John 15:13 NLT

Most societies pay tribute to their heroes, and the four chaplains of the Dorchester are heroes who deserve that honor. They could have lived longer, ministering for many more years, making a difference, perhaps for thousands of people. Yet, discerning the time and the season, they chose to whisper, “I love you.” They decided to take off their life jackets. “Here, take mine.” They loved the men they ministered to, knowing it certainly meant they would die, and in making that decision, they painted a magnificent work of art.

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The Finest Hours

The Finest HoursLast Night, my wife and I went to the local theater to see The Finest Hours. One of the greatest Coast Guard rescue attempts in history. Watching the film, we both wondered if the rescue team would get there in time, or if the men on the sinking oil tanker died. Wondered if the guys on the rescue boat came back alive, or did they drown in the sea.

I was in the Army for 24 years. My dad and brother were career Navy guys. All three of my sons are in the military (Army & Navy). So I have an appreciation for those who serve in all branches of the Armed Forces. I understand the dangers they face, and their willingness to risk their lives for their country. But on a more personal note, their willingness to risk their lives for people day in and day out – not only during war, but many other dangerous circumstances we sometimes find ourselves in.

I like watching films about the risks people take to help others. I appreciate the men and women in our police and fire departments, ambulance drivers and EMTs, and others who face danger in order to save others.

Watching this film made me proud of the people in the U.S. Coast Guard.

If you haven’t yet seen it yet, but you plan to watch it, STOP READING RIGHT NOW. Because I want to comment on a deeply significant aspect of the story.

 SPOILER ALERT. SPOILER ALERT. SPOILER ALERT.

 OK. YOU’VE BEEN WARNED.

IF YOU’RE STILL READING, DON’T BLAME ME.





In order for the rescue to even happen, there were at least three independent bold decisions that had to be made. Maybe more.

The first was made by Mr. Sybert on the damaged, about-to-sink tanker. Suddenly finding himself to be the ranking crew member, he made a gutsy decision and destroyed the life boat the other men were about to climb into. They hated him for that, but he knew the roiling sea would destroy that lifeboat and that the men would drown long before the rescue effort arrived

The next daring decision was made by Warrant Officer Cluff, the guy in charge of the Chatham Coast Guard Station. When nobody thought it even possible for the mission to succeed, he ordered his crew to go out in the worst storm on record, find the sinking ship, and come home with the survivors. His own crew and all the townspeople thought he was a fool.

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And the third was by Webber himself, the Coastguardsman who led the rescue operation. The odds and the storm were against him. The raging waves nearly destroyed the boat. His mates urged him to turn around. But he made the bold decision to keep going.

You’ll have to watch the movie, read the book, or search online to see how it ended. But what fascinates me is our interconnectedness as human beings. Three men made decisions that directly impacted the others. If any one of the three had acted differently, there would be no rescue, no hero, no story. Nobody would have blamed them for taking the safer course of action. Nobody would say they were wrong if they played it safe.

But thirty-two more men would have died. Thirty-two more families devastated by loss. And those three men would have lived out the remainder of their lives wondering what if.