The Immortals Summary
During World War II, on January 29, 1943, the SS Dorchester and a small convoy sailed the perilous route from Newfoundland toward the Army Command Base in Greenland. Four chaplains were assigned to the Dorchester with more than 900 men on board. Alexander Goode, a Jewish rabbi; John Washington, a Catholic priest; George Fox, a Methodist minister; and Clark Poling, a Baptist minister. All offered comfort, reassurance, and prayers following a warning from the captain that a German submarine was hunting their convoy. The Nazi U-boat captain, Karl-Jurg Wachter, had been stalking the Americans for days. When the weather finally gave him an opening, Wachter was ready to strike.
After midnight, on February 3, just hours from their destination, the Dorchester was torpedoed and sank, throwing its passengers into the frigid waters and creating the worst single loss of an American personnel convoy during WWII. Many of the survivors credit the four chaplains with saving their lives. Those chaplains would become known as “The Immortal Chaplains” for their heroism. Selflessly, they calmly helped men to safety through the chaos of their severely damaged ship and searched for spare life jackets for those without. They eventually gave away their own life jackets and encouraged men in the freezing waters.
The celebrated story of the Immortal Chaplains is now joined for the first time in print by the largely untold story of another hero of the sinking of the Dorchester: Charles Walter David, Jr. David was a young Black petty officer aboard a Coast Guard cutter assigned to the convoy who bravely dived into the glacial water repeatedly, even with hypothermia setting in, to rescue the men the chaplains had first helped and inspired to never give up. Because of his tireless efforts, he joins the Chaplains as one of “The Immortals.”
Thoroughly researched and told in an engrossing non-fiction narrative, the book alternates between accounts told from the perspective of the Nazi U-boat captain and his crew (as found in their journals and later interviews), and the hunted–the men of the American convoy. Using his expertise as a law professor specializing in religious freedom and constitutional law, the author, Steven T. Collis, also paints a thought-provoking portrait of religious life in America during wartime. And he demonstrates how American views of faith affected the chaplains and the men they served.
Page-turning and inspiring, The Immortals explores the power of faith and religious conviction and powerfully narrates the lives of five heroic men who believed in something greater than themselves, living lives of service and sacrifice for their country and their fellow man.
The Immortals Review
As history goes, The Immortals is one of the most moving and compelling stories I’ve read in a long time. Before I received this book, I had not heard of the Dorchester nor of any of the subjects. While I know this is not the first telling of this story, it is the first time that Charles Walter David, Jr., has been included, to my knowledge.
I found his story to be even more moving than the chaplains. To willingly dive into the dark frigid waters over and over amazes me. I was a competitive swimmer in my younger years. While I know how difficult cold water swimming can be, I cannot imagine waters quite so frigid as that.
I enjoy histories written in narrative fashion (as opposed to like a reference book). I like that footnotes and references do not interrupt the flow of the story. The footnotes are grouped at the end of the book, making for a cleaner reading experience.
Mr. Collis included an afterword from the family of Charles David, Jr., shedding additional light on his too-long ignored legacy. Don’t skip it.
Alternating between the stories of our heroes, and that of the German U-boat commander adds additional depth to the story. While we learn a little of the role he played in the event, I didn’t find enough to really get a sense of who he was, as I did with our heroes. I found the perspective interesting, but I didn’t learn enough for it to change the story.
Most of the first half of the book focuses on getting to know our heroes. We learn about their upbringing, their families, and how religion and society interacted. Once they take their shipboard assignments, the story centers on their relationships with one another and with the men they serve. And here we see their true characters.
I recommend The Immortals to anyone who is a student of history, who enjoys learning about WWII, or who wants to read an uplifting story of true heroism.
About the Author
Steven T. Collis is a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin, founding director of the school’s religious freedom clinic. And he is founding faculty director of Texas’s Bech-Laughlin First Amendment Center. He received an MFA in creative writing from Virginia Commonwealth University, and graduated from the University of Michigan Law School. Mr. Collis is also the author of Deep Conviction: True Stories of Ordinary Americans Fighting for the Freedom to Live Their Beliefs. He and his wife are parents to four children.
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