- Enlisted in the military as soon as it was clear the U.S. was entering World War II
- Worked his way up in the positions open to him in a segregated military
- Selflessly forgot his own safety in order to rescue others
Charles David, Jr., was born in New York City in 1917. When Pearl Harbor occurred on December 7, 1941, it was clear that the United States would have to enter World War II, and men, including Charles David, were ready to enlist; David chose to enter the Coast Guard.
At that time, the military was segregated so there were only certain jobs that were available to African-Americans; David started as part of the kitchen staff and worked his way up to Steward’s Mate, a position where he was responsible for tending to the officers’ quarters and also helping to serve meals.
By late 1942 he was assigned to the Coast Guard cutter the Commanche. In February 1943, the Comanche was part of a convoy escorting two merchant marine ships and one troop transport, the Dorchester (a former luxury passenger ship commandeered by the military) on its way to an Army Command base in Greenland. The Comanche and two other cutters, The Escanaba and The Tampa were along to try to assure the safety of the bigger ships carrying men and supplies.Aboard the Dorchester
The path to Greenland required passing through “Torpedo Alley,” so called for the number of ships that had been struck there by German submarines, and unfortunately for the convoy, the unthinkable happened. On February 3, at 12:55 a.m., with 904 men on board the Dorchester, a German U-boat torpedoed the ship. So great was the damage that the huge luxury liner immediately began to sink, going down within 20 minutes.
Because the ship listed heavily to one side once hit, some of the lifeboats and jackets were inaccessible. The men grabbed what they could, and the available life rafts were quickly overloaded. The water was extraordinarily rough and very cold, so many men got pitched into the water, where hypothermia could set in in a matter of moments.
The Rescue Operation
“Retriever rescue” was the safety training method that the Coast Guard staff learned for this type of rescue operation. The guardsman put on wet suits (rubber suits that can help retain some body heat) and started out in lifeboats to reach the men in the water. Those being rescued soon found that their fingers totally stiffened from the cold, and they were unable to grip a rope or a safety line. The “retriever” maneuver anticipated this, and the Coast Guardsmen looped the rope around the struggling men so they could be pulled to safety.
This maneuver was not used frequently so while officers were expected to set the example for their men, other participants were left to volunteer as it was an exceedingly dangerous mission. They, too, could get hypothermia, or in the chaos of a dark night they could easily be left behind.
Only 12 men from the Comanche participated—one of whom was Charles David, Jr., one of the lowest ranking men on board and certainly not of a level where others would have expected him to be among the first volunteers.
But David, who was described by shipmates as a “strong, strapping, cheerful” man, wouldn’t have it any other way. He got into a wet suit and started working to save the men who were still in the water. At one point, the cutter moved away from one of the life rafts where David knew there was still a Coast Guardsman working rescue, so he alerted the captain to go back; though it took about 30 minutes to get back to the raft where Ensign Robert Anderson was helping others, they got to him just in time. Anderson was in bad shape so David wrapped a rope around his chest and the group hauled him in.
Another fellow who owed his life to Charles David was Richard Swanson, who happened to be one of Charles David’s closest shipboard friends. A white farm boy from Nebraska, Swanson shared a love of music with David, and the two of them often entertained the others, David on harmonica and Swanson on saxophone. The two friends also liked socializing together on leave, but they had to pick their bars carefully to find one that would serve both blacks and whites.
Out of the 227 survivors of the SS Dorchester, the men from the Comanche saved 93 of them. The others were rescued by men on the other cutters.
When all who could be found were saved, the Comanche continued on its way to Greenland, and once there, Charles David and others were taken to the base hospital for care. David contracted pneumonia after the ordeal and died 54 days later. He left behind a widow and a three-year-old son.
After his death, Charles David Jr. and several other crewmen were awarded the highest noncombat awards in the Navy: the Navy and Marine Corps Medals. David was also recognized by President Johnson through a certificate issued to his widow. The citation read, in part:
For heroic conduct in effecting the rescue of survivors from the torpedoed SS DORCHESTER on 3 February 1943 when the benumbed survivors were unable because of heavy seas and freezing wind to make any effort to climb on board the rescuing ship David volunteered for the dangerous task of going over the side and working in the rough water to assist the exhausted survivors in reaching the safety of the USCGC COMANCHE. Disregarding all discomfort and danger to himself, he worked until he and fellow volunteers had rescued a total of 93 survivors from certain death in the steadily mounting sea.
Years later, the Immortal Chaplains Foundation (honoring four chaplains who died rescuing others that same night) awarded David their prestigious Prize for Humanity. David is also honored with a display by the chapel at the Coast Guard Station in Cape May.
Most recently, in November 2013, the U.S. Coast Guard commissioned a new fast-response cutter, The Charles David Jr., which will operate out of Key West, Florida. The cutter is one of a new Sentinel class of fast-response cutters, that can travel at double the speed that the old cutter could travel. The fleet will be responsible for search and rescue, national defense, law enforcement of marine resources and watching for drug smugglers along the straits of the Caribbean and Florida.
Along with members of Charles David’s family was Ensign Robert Anderson (later to become a Lieutenant), as well as family members of Richard Swanson, all of whom who have been particularly vocal about what Charles David, Jr. did for their families.
Adam Artigliere, grandson of Ensign Anderson, described his thoughts of Charles David and his sacrifice: “If it were not for [Charles David], my grandfather would have been left by the Comanche in the confusion and would have surely died. My understanding is that there were only a few volunteers to go into the water to attempt to save the soldiers from the Dorchester. For someone in Mr. David’s position to step up and volunteer to go into the water to save those men clearly shows what kind of a person Charles David was. What a selfless act. . .My family and the families of the dozens of men Mr. David helped to save that evening are forever indebted to him.”
Wartime circumstances meant that the men who died on or near Greenland were buried quickly at a cemetery near the Greenland base. In 1947 the government arranged to move the bodies to the United States. However, at that time, no one could locate members of the David family to inform them of where David’s body would be interred.
Finally about ten years ago, someone put together that Charles David’s granddaughter—now located—hadn’t a clue where her grandfather was buried. In 2004, the family was taken to his grave site at Long Island National Cemetery in Farmingdale, only 40 miles from where his family members now live.
At last, Charles David’s family had peace, knowing where their grandfather, the hero, rests.