Charles David, Jr. enlisted in the Coast Guard as soon as it was clear the U.S. was entering World War II. Though the military was segregated and David was Black, he wanted to serve.
Charles David, Jr. (1917-1943), was born in New York City in 1917. By the time, David enlisted in 1941, he was married to his wife, Kathleen, and they had a son, Neil.
He began service as a mess attendant and rose to be Steward’s Mate. Janitorial and kitchen jobs were all that were open to Black Americans in the military. Charles David felt if the country was going to be at battle on two fronts, he felt it was important to be a part of it.
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The Job of the Coast Guard Cutters
During World War II, trips across the Atlantic for American troops were very dangerous. The Battle of the Atlantic, as it was known, was ongoing throughout the war.
The Germans possessed sophisticated U-boats (submarines) that they used to prevent the arrival of men and/or equipment on the way from the United States to the European Theater. The American military referred to these U-boats as “wolf packs.” They tailed all ships leaving the U.S., waiting for an opportunity to strike.
To protect the larger ships carrying troops and supplies, the ships traveled by convoy with cutters traveling alongside to deter the submarines. The convoys also traveled via zigzag courses. While the trips across the ocean took longer by taking an indirect path, the maneuvers helped prevent the Germans from predicting exactly what route the convoy would travel.
David Assigned to Coast Guard Cutter, The Comanche
In 1942, Charles David was assigned to the Coast Guard cutter, The Comanche. In 1943, they were part of a convoy escorting two merchant marine ships and one troop transport, the Dorchester. The Dorchester was a luxury passenger ship that was commandeered for war use by the military. Almost 1000 Army specialists were aboard, on their way to Greenland. The merchant marine ships carried needed supplies.
In addition to the Comanche, two other cutters traveled alongside the Dorchester, The Escanaba and the Tampa. All three of the cutters were watchful and doing their best to safeguard the bigger ships.
The path from the United States to the Army Command base in Greenland required passing through “Torpedo Alley.” This was a part of the ocean where the ships could not be protected with air power, so the Germans generally staked this area out as a time when they could sink or damage the American fleet. Attacks were generally at night when the submarines could surface without being seen.
On February 2, the convoy was a little over a day from its destination of Greenland, but the weather turned bad. Gale force winds were blowing, whipping the already impressive waves even higher. Rain pelted the ships. According to one of the men on the Comanche, they could barely make out the troop ship because of the bad weather.
At 12:55 a.m., on February 3, a German U-boat torpedoed the side of The Dorchester. The ship was immediately engulfed in flames. As one fellow aboard The Comanche said: “It was blown out of the water!”
The massive ship was so badly damaged that the luxury liner immediately listed to one side and began to sink. Since lifeboats and jackets are stored along the decks, the men had no way to access those that had already sunk into the water.
Many men jumped into the available lifeboats and grabbed those nearby. But the lifeboats were no match for the choppy waters. A good number of the men who made it into a lifeboat were almost immediately pitched into the ocean. The water temperature was so cold that for some, hypothermia set in almost immediately. Ultimately, the ship went down in less than 20 minutes.
The first priority for the captains of the cutters was to take evasive action to prevent the German U-boat from coming in for another hit. While this was going on, the men on board the cutters strategized how to rescue those who were going overboard from The Dorchester.
Some members of the the Coast Guard had been trained in what was called “retriever rescue.” This was a safety method that was felt to be the best plan of action in this type of accident.
This maneuver, involving grabbing each man to be rescued and tying a rope around his chest, had not been used frequently. Those who were trained to perform it, started immediately. Others were told they could try it if they thought they understood the process. The danger was enormous. The night was pitch black, and both rescuers and victims were at risk of freezing at any time.
The Guardsmen 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. The rescuers were hindered by the fact that those in the water were weak from cold and had little strength to help themselves. The fingers of many had almost instantly become frozen stiff. 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 men’s chests so they could be pulled to safety.
Charles David had not been trained in the method, but he was a large, strapping man. Though segregation meant that he was only allowed kitchen or janitorial assignments, that didn’t stop him. He observed what the men were doing and stepped in to help. (Eleven other untrained Coast Guardsmen did as well.)
Charles David Saved Many
In addition to his size and strength, Charles David was also a good swimmer. He quickly got into a lifeboat and was among those trying to reach the desperate men from the Dorchester. He and many of the sailors from the Comanche were successful in rescuing many. But at one point, David needed to step in to rescue two of their own. The cutter moved away from one of the life rafts. David knew there was still a Comanche Coast Guardsman working rescue from the raft. He alerted the Comanche’s captain to go back.
The weather continued to bedevil them, but thirty minutes later, The Comanche got close enough to the life raft that a rescue could be attempted. By this time, Ensign Robert Anderson, the Comanche’s sailor on the lifeboat, was in bad shape himself. Charles David scrambled to the life raft, tied a rope around Anderson’s chest, and he and others pulled Anderson to safety.
Another fellow who owed his life to Charles David was Richard Swanson, who happened to be one of Charles David’s closest shipboard friends. Swanson was a white farm boy from Nebraska who shared a love of music with David. 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.)
When all who could be found were saved, the Comanche continued on its way to Greenland. 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 the Comanche and the other cutters docked at the Greenland port, all who needed medical care were taken to the base hospital. Both Anderson and Charles David were among those treated. Anderson was discharged shortly, but Charles David remained in the hospital. Fifty-four days later, he died of pneumonia.
Great Loss of Life
The loss of life from this sea accident was the largest reported in World War II. Robert W. Anderson, who became a lieutenant, was frequently interviewed about his experience. Each time, he made sure to acknowledge that Charles David saved his life. First, David notified the captain that a man (Anderson) had been left behind on a life raft. And most important, that Charles David had enough strength to haul Anderson in.
Eventually both men were among those who were selected to receive the Navy and Marine Corps medal. This award is given to anyone in the service who perform an act of heroism not involving direct combat with the enemy. Lieutenant Anderson was among those at the ceremony to receive the medal. Standing nearby was Charles David’s wife, Kathleen, holding their toddler son, Neil.
Charles 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.
Charles David, Jr.’s Grave
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 the time the bodies were moved, no one could locate members of the David family.
Then about twenty years ago, someone from the military spoke to Charles David’s granddaughter and learned that she had no idea where her grandfather was buried.
In 2004, the family was taken to his gravesite 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.
And there were still more honors.
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.
Testimonial From a Descendant
In attendance at the commissioning ceremony for the cutter were members of Charles David’s family as well as family members of Richard Swanson and Ensign Robert Anderson (later to become a Lieutenant).
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.”
For another story about a World War II hero, see the story of Dorie Miller, who was a hero at Pearl Harbor.