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This Day in History: Charles W. David, Jr., WWII Hero

On this day in 1943, a hero passes away. Coast Guard Mess Attendant 1/c Charles W. David Jr. had been battling pneumonia for weeks, ever since he jumped into frigid waters to save the survivors of a torpedoed American ship.


That ship was USAT Dorchester, torpedoed on February 3, 1943, at about 1:00 a.m. Dorchester is best known for her four chaplains: When the ship was hit, they sacrificed themselves for their troops. They were last seen going down with the ship and praying for the survivors in the water.


It’s been suggested that Charles David was an answer to those prayers.

David was then serving on USCGC Comanche, part of the convoy accompanying Dorchester. When Dorchester was hit, Comanche was not allowed to search for survivors at first. Instead, Comanche and another cutter were ordered to search for enemy submarines that might remain in the area.


It was 3:00 a.m. before Comanche joined the rescue effort. Her crew could see frozen corpses floating by. It was eerie, and many wouldn’t volunteer to go into the water.


David certainly didn’t have to volunteer. As a black Coast Guardsman at that moment in history, he was the 5th-lowest ranked man aboard ship. Others would be expected to act first.


As Comanche approached the first lifeboat, a cargo net was thrown down to the survivors, but huge waves made it nearly impossible for the half-frozen men to climb to safety. The rope climb had to be timed perfectly with the waves, or the climber would be bashed against Comanche’s side.


The survivors were weakened by the cold. They simply couldn’t do it.


David leapt into action, clambering down the net towards the lifeboat, along with Ensign Robert Anderson and his friend Dick Swanson. The men soon had a system, pulling the freezing men out of the lifeboat and up the net.


Just as David was hauling the last man aboard ship, disaster struck. Comanche began pulling away from the lifeboat. The captain had received a report that the last survivor was aboard but apparently didn’t realize that Anderson was still in the lifeboat, making sure no one had been missed.


David tore across the deck toward the control room. “It was not his place,” Professor Steven T. Collis explains, “as a steward’s mate, to tell the commander of the vessel what to do . . . A lesser commander may have considered it an impertinence. To his credit, [the captain] listened.”


Comanche returned for Anderson, but the elements had taken their toll in the meantime. Naturally, David went down and pulled Anderson up himself. “He was a big strapping fellow,” Anderson later remembered, “ and managed to pull me up in time. I’m certainly grateful to him.”


The night was just beginning, and Comanche continued to look for survivors. Time and time again, David braved the icy waters, pulling men to safety. Swanson, too, was still helping, but he couldn’t outlast David.


“More than anyone else, Charles never let up,” Swanson later said, “even though he had a severe cold at the time. At the end, I was too tired to pull myself more than halfway up the net. I heard Charles yell from above, ‘Come on, Swannie, get on board!’ Then he came down and pulled me up himself.”


Comanche ultimately rescued just over 90 men. As the last person came out of the water, David collapsed on the deck. He never recovered from what he’d done. Instead, he contracted a case of pneumonia and passed away on March 23. His wife and young son (pictured) would later receive a Navy and Marine Corps Medal on his behalf.


Yet another member of the Greatest Generation, giving everything he had to give.  Where would we be, but for men such as these?

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