African American Sailor Charles Walter David Jr. Gave His Life to Save Fellow Americans

Coast Guardsman Charles Walter David Jr. volunteered to rescue sailors from the doomed USAT Dorchester and also saved the lives of two of his own shipmates.

Top Image: Charles Walter David Jr. courtesy of the US Coast Guard.

Charles Walter David Jr. was born on June 20, 1917 in New York, New York. Little is known about his childhood, but as an African American man, he would have had few economic opportunities. In March 1941, he decided to enlist in the US Coast Guard despite having a wife and three-year-old son. In the segregated American military, David was assigned to do menial work in ship kitchens. Nevertheless, he labored diligently and was promoted to mess attendant first class.

After the United States entered World War II, David was assigned to the Coast Guard cutter USCGC Comanche. Aboard the Comanche, David was responsible for maintaining officers’ quarters, but in his off-duty hours he entertained the crew by playing his harmonica.

The USCGC Comanche. Courtesy of the US Coast Guard.

 

At 12:55 a.m. on February 3, 1943, the Comanche and three other cutters were escorting three transport ships carrying US troops and civilian contractors from the United States to Greenland. Off the coast of Greenland, the German submarine U-233 torpedoed the USAT Dorchester, which was carrying more than 900 men. The Dorchester rapidly began sinking and panic spread among the soldiers aboard. Hundreds were forced to jump into the frigid ocean because not all the lifeboats could be launched in time. Aboard the Dorchester, four Army chaplains—Methodist minister the Reverend George L. Fox, Rabbi Alexander D. Goode, Catholic priest Father John P. Washington, and Reformed Church in America minister the Reverend Clark V. Poling—guided soldiers trapped below deck to escape hatches. The chaplains passed out life vests and when the supply ran out, they gave their own life vests to men who had none. When the chaplains had done all they could, they linked arms to pray and sing hymns as the Dorchester slipped beneath the waves, less than 20 minutes after the torpedo struck the former civilian ocean liner.

USAT Dorchester. Courtesy of the US Coast Guard.

 

Sailors aboard the other vessels in the convoy watched the tragedy unfold. The captain of the Comanche chose to ignore the obvious danger of another torpedo attack and maneuvered his ship to pick up survivors. Even so, hundreds of men from the Dorchester died within minutes from exposure in the cold water. The men aboard lifeboats faced a similar fate if they could not be quickly hauled aboard the Comanche. The Comanche’s crew lowered rope climbing nets to the lifeboats, but many of the Dorchester’s survivors were too weak from the cold to climb to safety. Ten foot waves also threatened to toss soldiers into the icy water if they slipped or if their lifeboats capsized.

Witnessing the crisis, David and several other men voluntarily climbed down into the lifeboats where they helped lift the shivering men up onto the Comanche’s deck. Even though David was one of the lowest ranking men on his ship and his own nation considered him a second-class citizen, he willingly put his life at risk to save his fellow Americans. During the precarious operation, the Comanche’s executive officer, Lieutenant Langford Anderson, fell overboard. Without hesitation, David dived into the deadly waters to save Anderson. David then helped lift a second shipmate, David Swanson, back onto the Comanche when Swanson had grown too weak from helping other men. Swanson recalled that David was a “tower of strength” who shouted encouragement to his fellow sailors during the harrowing ordeal. In addition to the two men whom David single-handedly saved, he and his shipmates successfully rescued 93 survivors from the Dorchester.

Charles Walter David Jr.'s widow and son receiving David's Navy and Marine Corps Medal from Rear Admiral Stanley Parker and Lieutenant Langford Anderson. Courtesy US Coast Guard.

Although the Comanche and other ships rescued a total of 230 men from the Dorchester, nearly 700 others lost their lives. Shortly after David’s heroics, he contracted pneumonia from his time in the water. Fifty-four days later, on March 23, 1943, he succumbed to the illness in a hospital in Greenland. His crewmates did not learn of his death until weeks later. The Coast Guard posthumously awarded David the Navy and Marine Corps Medal. David’s widow and young son received the medal from Rear Admiral Stanley V. Parker and Lieutenant Anderson, the man David had pulled to safety. In 2010, the US Coast Guard named a Sentinel Class cutter in David’s honor.

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Lunchbox Lecture: The Four Chaplains of the SS Dorchester

In this lecture on October 7, Barry Simon will discuss the torpedoing and sinking of the SS Dorchester, as well as the four American chaplains from different denominations who unselfishly sacrificed their own lives to save others.

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Contributor

Tyler Bamford

Tyler Bamford is the Sherry and Alan Leventhal Research Fellow at the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy at The National WWII Museum. He obtained his PhD in history from Temple University and his BA in history from Lafayette College.

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