KEY WEST -- During World War II, on a frigid February night about 100 miles off the coast of Greenland, Storekeeper second class Richard Swanson was clinging desperately to a cargo net that had been draped over the side of the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Comanche.
About three hours earlier, a German U-boat had torpedoed the SS Dorchester. The onetime luxury liner, which had been pressed into war duty as an Army transport of troops, had sunk in about 20 minutes. More than 900 were aboard.
Swanson was one of 12 men on the escort cutter Comanche who volunteered for the dangerous mission of going over the side, into lifeboats and rafts being tossed around by six- to eight-foot seas. They rescued the dying Dorchester survivors who were too cold and weak to climb the net.
Swanson had performed heroically, but now he, too, was near hypothermia, chilled to the bone from his clothes soaked by the sea spray, and exhausted from helping to lift man after man about 10 feet up to the deck.
“I was about halfway up and I couldn’t go any further,” Swanson, now 91, said Friday. “My friend Charles David and a boatswain mate Art Backer came down the rope, grabbed me by each side and lifted me up the rest of the way. David saved my life, he and this other fellow, they did.”
David also saved two other members of his crew that night, Lt. Langford Anderson, the ship’s executive officer, and Ensign Robert Anderson, who said in a 1944 radio interview: “Well, I’d probably still be there [in a lifeboat] if it weren’t for the Negro steward who was on the other end of my line. He was a big strapping fellow and managed to pull me up in time. I’m certainly grateful to him.”
While David saved many lives that night, he never recovered from his own hypothermia and exhaustion, dying 54 days later of pneumonia in a base hospital in Greenland. He was just 26, leaving behind a young wife and 3-year-old son.
Seventy years later, there’s now a shiny, fast response Coast Guard cutter docked in Key West Harbor — newly commissioned to patrol the Caribbean and Florida Straits. Its name: the Charles David Jr.
“It’s moment like these … that we proudly honor the heroic contributions of our enlisted shipmates throughout our 223 years of history,” Coast Guard Vice Admiral Robert C. Parker said during the commissioning ceremony at sunset Saturday in Key West, where the boat will be ported.
Beaming on the stage was Sharon David, official sponsor of the 154-foot cutter. “I’m so proud. So proud the Coast Guard named a boat after my grandfather,” she said.
Swanson and his family are proud, too. The same goes for Robert Anderson’s daughter, Gale Anderson Artigliere, and 21 more of the Anderson clan who came from around the country to attend the commissioning.
“I think Charles David is the ultimate volunteer and hero,” said Ralph Artigliere, a West Point graduate, Vietnam vet and son-in-law of Anderson. “The officers have to lead. Bob was being a true officer when he deflects credit. He had to be down there in the water, but Charles David did not. That’s what makes what he did so extra special.”
The sinking of the Dorchester has been immortalized due to the brave actions of four U.S. Army chaplains — a Methodist minister, Jewish rabbi, Roman Catholic Priest and Reformed Church in America minister. The chaplains helped the men off the sinking Dorchester and then gave up their own life jackets so that others may live. They went down with the ship, arm in arm. The chaplain’s courageous heroism has been the subject of a TV documentary, several books, a song, a U.S. postage stamp, artwork, a chapel in Philadelphia and their own “Four Chaplains Day,” passed by a unanimous act of Congress in 1988.
“All these years, the chaplains have been famous for this and rightly so,” said Barry Sax, a retired Department of Defense administrative judge and board member of the The Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation. “But there were other heroes, too, like Charles David, who are now getting their due.”
David was born in 1917 and grew up at a time when segregation was a way of life. When he enlisted in the Coast Guard in 1941, blacks were not allowed to be officers. The primary jobs available for them were working in the galley, so David became a cook, rising to the rank of mess attendant first class.
In the wee hours of Feb. 3, 1943, David was the fifth-lowest ranking member of the Comanche, with a crew of 104. He also was the lowest-ranking member to volunteer for the risky rescue mission.
That did not surprise Swanson. During a year together on the Comanche, Swanson, a 20-year-old white man from Nebraska, had struck up an unlikely friendship with David, who not only was black but a city dweller from New York.
They had a common love of music. Swanson brought a saxophone on board, and David brought his harmonica. “He would come into my office and we would play, while all the guys would line up in the passageway and listen,” Swanson said. “We called it the Comanche Blues.”
It was not easy for David. Swanson said there were “some boys from the South that would use the N word sometimes. That would make me so mad because I was from the Midwest and had not heard things like that. They would get pretty hateful sometimes. But he’d always come in with a big smile. Big grin. We became real good friends.”
During port calls, Swanson said: “There were places he couldn’t go and places I couldn’t go, but we’d find a place where we could both go. We made it work.”
On Jan. 29, 1943, the Comanche left St. John’s, Newfoundland, as part of a six-ship convoy bound for the Army Command Base in Greenland. They were taking a route known as “Torpedo Alley,” a reference to all the Allied ships that had been lost in those waters at the hands of German subs. The convoy included the Dorchester, transporting about 800 troops, two freighters (the SS Lutz and the SS Biscaya) and three Coast Guard escort cutters, the Tampa, Escanaba and Comanche.
For most of the first three days of the trip, official reports from the Comanche stated: “The vessel was of little use as an escort vessel since our mousetraps, guns and depth charges were covered with anywhere from one to 12 inches of ice.”
But the air temperature was still near freezing, with a water temperature of about 40 degrees, when the alarm sounded about 12:55 a.m. that the Dorchester had been hit. Swanson, who was manning the sonar at the time, could hear the ensuing explosion. David was asleep, trying to fight off a nagging cough.
The immediate orders were for the Tampa to escort the two freighters to Greenland, the Escanaba to pick up survivors and the Comanche to search for the German sub.
“We found the sub and went after it,” Swanson said. “But it finally went down so deep, about 500 feet. [Decades later] I talked to the executive officer of that sub and he said they lay down at the bottom in fear and terror. And we couldn’t find them.”
At that point, the Comanche was ordered back to the site of the Dorchester to screen for enemy subs to protect the Escanaba, which was still rescuing survivors.
“As I looked out over the sea, I saw acres of red lights on life jackets,” Swanson said.
But the commanding officer of the Comanche decided that while it was a risk to have both cutters picking up survivors at the same time, there was precious time left to save the soldiers who had made it into lifeboats and rafts, most wearing only cotton clothing. It already was too late for the men who jumped into the sea with only life vests.
“Many of the crew were green and were so shocked at seeing numerous bodies of men, who had perished, mixed with those still alive that they were helpless to do anything but stare until snapped out of their daze by such acts of courage and leadership,” said Comanche commanding officer R.R. Curry in a Feb. 12, 1943, report.
The Comanche began to search for survivors. Some were able to climb up the net on their own. But as the rescue went on, conditions worsened at sea, and the survivors inched closer and closer to death.
The 12 men of the Comanche who volunteered to go into the lifeboats knew they also were taking a risk because if enemy subs were spotted, their ship would be forced to pull away full steam and leave them behind.
During the rescue, the Comanche pulled away from one lifeboat, not realizing that Ensign Robert Anderson was still aboard, searching for anybody still breathing among all the dead.
In a 1944 WABC radio show, Report to the Nation, a broadcaster gives this account: “David’s normal job was fetching a cup of coffee when somebody called for it, but on that sad night Anderson noticed something strange. David, on his occasional trips back to the Comanche, seemed to instinctively know what orders to give, what tools to ask for. He was brave and he was smart. Smart enough, even in the terrible confusion, to run once to the captain and tell him he was sailing off, leaving Anderson somewhere in the ocean on a life raft.”
The broadcaster continues: “Charles Walter David did great work that night. And he kept at it so long he killed himself through exhaustion and pneumonia. And you can’t do any more than that … whether you be a mess boy or an admiral.”
Anderson talked about that night several times upon his return to the United States while his job was to sell war bonds. But after that, Anderson rarely mentioned it.
When Anderson’s two children were in college, he simply gave them each a scrapbook about his life, saying very little.
It was not until a few months before he died in 2003, while visiting a sister ship of the Comanche in Charleston, that Anderson tried to tell his daughter about the night. “He said he looked out at the sea and saw all the little red lights on the life vests and then he said he couldn’t talk about it,” Gale Anderson Artigliere said.
During that same trip, Anderson managed to tell his son, Brian Anderson, a little more of the story of being in a lifeboat, checking for any signs of life, when he hopelessly watched his ship sail away. Anderson thought he would die, too.
“My dad told me: ‘The cook told them to come back, Ensign Anderson was still aboard one of the life rafts,’” Brian Anderson said. “It took about a half-hour to come back for him. My dad at that time couldn’t climb up the net. Charles David had a rope around himself and held my dad. That’s the way they did it.”
Early accounts also show that David saved the life of Lt. Langford Anderson, the second-highest ranking member of the Comanche. One report says: “[David] contracted pneumonia and died as a result of diving into the icy waters to assist Lt. Anderson, whom a drowning man had pulled under the water. The powerful, 26-year-old Negro rescuer broke the stranglehold of the drowning man, bringing both the survivor and the officer to safety.”
There were 227 survivors of the Dorchester. The Comanche rescued 93 of them. When it arrived in Greenland, David was among those taken to the hospital. Swanson was trying to make plans to visit him when he learned his friend had died, on March, 29, 1943. With the country fighting wars in Europe and the Pacific, he was buried temporarily at a cemetery in Greenland with other American military members.
About a year later, he and the other 11 who volunteered from the Comanche were awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, the highest noncombat award for heroism.
His story was featured in True Comics, radio shows and newspaper accounts. President Lyndon B. Johnson sent a certificate of recognition “by a grateful nation” to his widow, Kathleen David.
“My grandmother kept everything, and before she died put it all in a scrapbook,” Sharon David said. That scrapbook of memories was given to her father Neil, who was 3 when his father, Charles, died. And after Neil died, Sharon became its caretaker.
In one newspaper account in the scrapbook, it said that Kathleen David “believes a number of good things for the Negro people have come already from this war against fascism. One of the things she believes is more cooperative spirit between the Negro and the white people.”
Sharon David began to cry. “You have no idea how hard it was for me to read that. We’ve gone from n----r to Negro to brown to black and now we’re African Americans. I’m just human. Period. That’s what I am.”
While the David family has always known about the heroism of Charles, his story disappeared from the public consciousness for decades. It was not until 1999 that his legacy resurfaced when the Immortal Chaplains Foundation posthumously gave David the Prize for Humanity, along with Amy Biehl (an American Fulbright scholar who was stoned to death in South Africa while helping in the struggle against Apartheid) and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984.
But at the time, David’s family could not be located and Swanson accepted it on their behalf.
It was not until 2004, that Sax, the retired judge, was able to track them down through the second wife of the late Neil David. Another ceremony was held in Cape May, N.J., where all Coast Guard entrants go through boot camp, to honor David and give his family the Prize for Humanity award. There’s now a permanent display of David by the chapel at the Coast Guard Station in Cape May.
Sax also had one more surprise for the family. He knew where David’s final resting spot was located. For years, Kathleen David had thought her husband was buried at sea.
But that was not the case. After the war in 1947, about 60 military members buried at Greenland were disinterred and most of the families were contacted to ask where in the United States they wanted their loved ones to be reburied.
“For some reason, the David family was never informed,” Sax said.
Sax took the family to see the gravesite, which was just 40 miles away from where they had been living for many years: Long Island National Cemetery, Plot 7800, Farmindale, N.Y.
“Everybody was kneeling in front to the headstone, crying,” Sax said.
But on Saturday, there were mostly smiles for Charles David Jr. Sharon David told the crowd, filled with Coast Guard Brass, political dignitaries and the crew of the new cutter, that while she was inside the cutter she could feel the spirit of her grandfather looking down on them.
The ship is the seventh of the new Sentinel class of fast response cutters that is part of the Coast Guard’s modernization. The first six are ported in Miami, and this is the first of six to be ported in Key West.
Their missions include search and rescue, national defense, law enforcement of marine resources and interdiction of drug and migrant smugglers.
Lt. Kevin Beaudoin, who took over command of the cutter at Saturday night’s ceremony, said he had not heard of David’s story until being named to the ship. He searched the Internet to learn about the man.
“I’m reminded every time I cross the brow, who the namesake is,” Beaudoin said. “It’s a good humbling ego check if you will, to be reminded of the hero and all the acts he performed saving those lives.’
Beaudoin showed Sharon David the ship’s seal, with all its symbolism. There is a polar bear holding a life ring with the No. 93 in the middle, representing her grandfather’s strength and the lives he helped save. And there’s the motto: “Steward of the Seas.”
Ralph Artigliere, the son-in-law of Robert Anderson, said: “What makes this so special is Charles David did not just save Bob’s life that night. Our whole family existence and our history we owe to Charles David.”
The David, Anderson, Swanson and Sax families have all become close, like one big family, Sax said.
And what would Charles David himself have thought of all the fuss being made over him now?
Swanson, the last living person to have been aboard the Comanche, Dorchester or Escanaba that fateful night 70 years ago, said his friend always wanted to help people. “I can just see him here, with a big smile, that big grin he always had. He was a happy guy.”