PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. (BP)–Since he wrote “Sea of Glory” to honor all who contributed to the Allies’ World War II victory, Ken Wales expects his first book to receive notice as part of upcoming Veterans Day observances.
But the longtime filmmaker hopes the story’s central figures — four army chaplains who sacrificed their lives aboard a sinking troop ship — will be remembered year-round.
“I’m hoping and praying that those who read it can grasp from the four chaplains that the ultimate act of giving up one’s life so that someone else might live is a direct example of what Christ did for us,” said Wales, producer of the “Christy” television series.
“That four men — three Christians and a rabbi — would choose to give of their lives so four other men could live is a remarkable sacrifice. This wasn’t an accident. They made a choice to give up their life jackets.”
Released in September by Broadman & Holman, the trade book publishing arm of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention, the novel is based on a true story of the 1943 sinking of the Dorchester. A domestic vessel, the ship was pressed into service as part of a top-secret mission to install radar systems in Greenland.
However, 90 miles away from their destination, a German submarine torpedoed the ill-equipped ship. Less than one-fourth of the 900 people on board survived the attack.
According to survivors’ accounts, a panic followed. Because of overcrowded, overheated conditions, many had removed their life jackets and couldn’t retrieve them in the rush for survival.
Amid the confusion, the four chaplains removed their life jackets and handed them to others. Then they joined hands and sang hymns as the ship sank.
The chaplains included Methodist minister George Fox, Dutch Reformed minister Clark Poling, Catholic priest John Washington and Rabbi Alex Goode.
Clark Poling was a cousin of David Poling, coauthor of Sea of Glory. A retired minister, David Poling met Wales while both were researching a book. They agreed to collaborate on the novel.
Wales’ father was a classmate of Clark Poling’s at Yale Divinity School. First hearing of the four chaplains at age 10, Wales promised to continue sharing the story in the future. When he received his copy of the novel, Wales took it to his father’s favorite beach at Santa Monica. There he remembered his dad’s admonition to never let people forget the story.
“I had a time of prayer and re-read the book and finished it just as the sun set,” Wales recalled. “It was a joy to have that reconnection.”
The primary reason for the fictional approach was to demonstrate the event’s impact. While more than 200 men survived, no one who received a chaplain’s life jacket ever came forward, Wales said.
So, he created Wesley Adams, a hard-bitten sergeant whose attitude undergoes a remarkable transformation after he receives Father Washington’s jacket. The book opens and closes with Adams’ reflections at a mythical soldiers’ reunion.
“You can see it through the eyes of Wesley Adams and how it affected him,” said Wales, who teaches a class in film production at the University of Southern California.
“I’m mainly a storyteller. It’s told in a visual way; that’s an occupational hazard for a filmmaker. You can see it in the film, when he looks up.”
Despite the reference to a movie, none exists yet. Wales is negotiating with two motion picture firms who don’t want to be identified. He hopes to produce a film version within the next two years.
In addition to their heroic sacrifice, Wales said it is important to recognize the chaplains’ contributions to the troops during the two weeks prior to the attack.
“There was already a lot of life-saving going on before the ship sank,” he said. “They showed them life lessons and helped them straighten out their lives by being with them. That helps make the chaplains’ deaths not in vain.”
Still, after reading Sea of Glory, some may question why Uncle Sam sent such a vessel through the dangerous waters known as “Torpedo Junction.”
But Wales pointed out that Germany’s continual, successful attacks on Allied ships in 1941-42 left the outcome of the war in doubt. Sending the Dorchester and similar ships out was a desperate move, he said, which ultimately paid off with the development of radar and B-24 bombers that helped turn the tide.
“This was a classic struggle of good and evil,” Wales said. “This was a war we had to win. Otherwise, Germany would have controlled the East Coast and Japan the West Coast. And there would have been a big struggle somewhere around Omaha.”
Every American can all be grateful that the nation remains free, Wales said, and able to commemorate the bravery of men like chaplains Poling, Fox, Washington and Goode.