Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The Sinking of the USAT Dorchester

In an earlier post, I shared the work of Dick Levesque, a marine painter and historian who developed a fascination with the WWII story of the USAT Dorchester, her Coast Guard escort on her last fateful journey, and her heroic Four Chaplains. Recently, Dick completed his second painting inspired by this story, an illustration of the sinking of the Dorchester.

Here is Dick's commentary about this piece:

"This painting represents the sinking of the USAT Dorchester in wintry seas 150 miles south of Greenland on Feb. 3, 1943 during the Battle of the Atlantic. At 12:55 a.m., two torpedoes fired from German submarine U-223 hit amidships just aft of the stack and below water. Almost immediately, the Dorchester lost power continuing a short distance under her forward momentum before becoming 'dead in the water.' She then settled slowly towards the stern, rolled to starboard sinking bow first within 20 minutes of the initial blast.

"The painting illustrates her starboard side. On the upper deck, men frantically try to cut a frozen drum raft free while others attempt to clear two lifeboats.* Many men can be seen slipping on the ice-covered deck, others are only partly clad, having ignored their captain’s orders to sleep fully clothed and with their lifebelts on, and others, dazed, contemplate jumping into the frigid water, where they might last 20 minutes before succumbing to hypothermia, or taking their chances with the ship. The Dorchester’s famed Four Chaplains [link to Chaplains page] are depicted on the lower left of the main deck as they give their last life jacket to a man who had lost his own.

"Several survivors said the sinking ship looked like a 'giant Christmas tree of humanity with hundreds of glowing red lights on the life jackets.' There were 902 men aboard the Dorchester as it sailed into an area alternately known as 'Torpedo Alley' and 'The Black Pit.' Only 227 survived.

"The USAT Dorchester Sinking is now on permanent display in the Immortal Chaplains Memorial Sanctuary aboard the Queen Mary in Long Beach, CA."

*The port side life rafts could not be released due to the severe list of the ship to starboard, some of the starboard side rafts were damaged from the blast, and the remaining life rafts were frozen into place by the severe weather. Based on a contemporaneous survivor report by Lt. William Arpaia, I believe my grandfather, was on the upper deck helping the merchant marines and Army troops try to free the rafts. They managed to free only two larger rafts, and, In the end, they freed as many of the smaller drum rafts as they could hoping that when the ship sank, these smaller rafts would survive the suction of the ship and be available for the men who had jumped into the water.USAT Dorchester Sinking
Media: Acrylic
Size: 5' x 3'
Painter: Dick Levesque


angie said...

Great painting. Loved the Christmas lights description mentioned. Lots of good stuff to draw from here for your book - happy writing, E.!

WannabeMe said...

Yeah, I like the lights in the water. Good research!

Rob Gregory Browne said...

That painting gives me chills.

Elizabeth Krecker said...

Thanks, Angie!

Dana, good research on Dick's part. I'm merely the purveyor of his fine work.

Yes, I agree, Robert, this painting makes my blood run cold. These men were real, they had families and loved ones, and here we witness the last few moments of many of their lives.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Sea battles, to me, always seemed particularly desperate, as so many lives hung in the balance and the chances of survival were slim. Very nerve-wracking. I understand the chills.

Plantation said...

Another great painting and story!

Elizabeth Krecker said...

Thank you Todd.

Yes, Sandra, and its all so sad, too. I know the impact of my grandfather's death on so many members of my family. And there were 677 other people who also died. The impact on all those's a thought I cannot bear.

Mindy Tarquini said...

Giant Christmas tree of humanity...

Perfect description.

Anonymous said...

Attended a funeral mass today for a neighbor, a marine killed in Iraq. At its conclusion, I stood before the memorial of the four chaplains outside our parish church and offered a prayer. Thanks for sharing the painting and its tragic story. Made me mindful of the courage and the humanity of our service men and women from one century into the next.

Anonymous said...

my dad was one of the sailors abord the USCG cutter Tampa that night.

Bonnie Vaughan said...

I found your blog today while doing research for one I was writing. Seems we both lost our Grandfathers on that ship.

One eye witness saw my Grandfather running the wrong way to get off the ship. The lights were out and confusion took its toll.

My family was rocked by his death. Before he left port he had mailed my mother a birthday present. Her Birthday was February 1st. The present arrived the day they got the news of the sinking. My mother never really got over losing him.

I heard stories of crowds of family members going to the seaboard in New York desparately trying to get information.

I later met a man who was on one of the escort ships. They had no idea the Dorchester was hit. They were experiencing difficulty dealing with the winter weather and had copious amounts of ice accumulating. At times they were stalled in the water.

I'd like to read your memorial when it is finished. Please email me at

Unknown said...

My uncle was lost in the sinking of the Dorchester. Us Army William Grady Ledford. Sad how these losses still are felt today. If anyone has personal information , please email me at

Crystal J Ortmann said...

My uncle, Pvt. Richard Paul Damm, was also lost at sea and his body never recovered after the sinking of the USAT Dorchester on Feb. 3, 1943. He had been in the army a mere 6 months and was on his way to the war, when it came to him. Our family would love to hear from anyone who has information about him. Please contact me at Thank you.