The Five Chaplains of the SS Mallory
7 February 1943 proved to be one of the deadliest days of combat for Army chaplains during World War Two. The U.S. Army Chaplain Corps reported the following chaplain deaths occurred on that day: Chaplain (1LT) Horace E. Gravely, Chaplain (1LT) James M. Liston, Chaplain (CPT) Ernest W. MacDonald, Chaplain (1LT) Valmore G. Savignac, and Chaplain (CPT) David H. Youngdahl.1 These five chaplains all died in the attack on the S.S. Henry R. Mallory while being transported through the North Atlantic to their next wartime assignments.
Before departing on the Mallory many, if not all, of the chaplains who would be traveling together got to know each other, as well as the four famous chaplains who would later die when the U.S.A.T. Dorchester was sunk just a few days before the Mallory experienced the same fate. “According to a story told afterwards by Rabbi David Max Eichhorn, both Rabbi Alexander Goode (one of the [Dorchester] Four Chaplains) and Liston [(later to die on the Mallory)] had premonitions that their ships were not going to make it. ‘Jimmy [Liston] told me he had contributed $50 to a Boston church for masses to be said for the repose of his soul if he should be lost at sea.’ Father Liston’s fears were not without some basis, given the success of the German U-boats in the North Atlantic in the fall of 1942.”2
The Sinking of the S.S. Henry R. Mallory
The “Henry R. Mallory, a troop transport, was built by Newport News Shipbuilding & Drydock Co., Newport News, Va., in 1916, and operated by Mallory Lines before being acquired by the Navy 13 April 1918. She commissioned 17 April 1918. [During World War I] the transport was used to carry members of the American Expeditionary Force to Europe through the submarine-infested waters, carrying up to 2,200 troops per passage. After the war, she was transferred to the War Department, 23 October 1919, and later acquired by Agwilines, Inc.”3
“After the United States entered World War II, the Henry R. Mallory was once again used as a troop ship. Only this time, the ship was under U.S. Army direction and had primarily a civilian crew, although the ship also had a Naval Armed Guard detachment on board. Henry R. Mallory made several voyages to Ireland; Halifax, Nova Scotia; and Iceland from July 1942 to January 1943.”4
In early February 1943, “The Mallory was part of Convoy SC-118 heading for Liverpool. Her crew consisted of 9 officers, 68 crewmen, and 34 Naval Armed Guards (who manned the 11 guns on deck). Also on board were 383 passengers: 2 civilians, 136 Army soldiers, 72 Marines, and 173 Navy sailors.
“As the convoy, which consisted of 60 ships and 26 escorts, sailed near Iceland, a ‘wolfpack’ of approximately 20 Kriegsmarine U-Boats attacked the convoy repeatedly over a four-day period, ultimately sinking 12 Allied ships. On the morning of 7 February 1943, the Mallory was traveling in station 33 approximately 600 nautical miles south-southwest of Iceland of the convoy when she was hit by a torpedo fired from German submarine U-402. Hit in the number three hold on the starboard side, the ship began settling by the stern and listing to port, and sank at about 0730. Of Henry R. Mallory’s ten lifeboats, only three were successfully launched, holding 175 men. Many other men jumped overboard for rafts in the water.
“None of the other ships in the convoy were aware of the Mallory’s predicament. American Destroyer Schenck was searching for survivors [of] another sunken ship and saw lights but was denied permission to investigate. Only when survivors were found by U.S. Coast Guard cutter Bibb some four hours later was the fate of Henry R. Mallory made clear. Bibb rescued 205 men, 3 of whom later died. Another Coast Guard cutter, Ingham, rescued a further 22, of whom 2 later died. Among the 272 dead was the ship’s master, 48 crewmen, 15 armed guards, and 208 passengers.”5
There were seven chaplains on board the Mallory the day it sank. Only two were able to safely make it off of the ship and were rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Bibb: Chaplain (CPT) Gerald J. Whelan, a Catholic priest, and Chaplain (CPT) Ira A. Bentley, a Baptist minister. Later in the day of their rescue, Chaplains Whelan and Bentley performed a brief burial service for three men rescued from the Mallory who did not survive the day, while the Bibb briefly paused in the icy waters after dark, for the service to be quickly performed.6 No doubt, both Chaplains Bentley and Whelan continued to minister to the survivors of the Mallory, and likely the crew and other passengers of the Bibb, until arriving in Iceland.
After the Mallory tragedy, Chaplain Whelan went on to serve both the 208th General Hospital and the 327th Station Hospital at Meeks Field in Iceland, until December 1944. Returning to the States, he served at Kelly Field in San Antonio, Berry Field in Nashville, Charleston Army Air Base then Stewart Field. He separated from the Army on 5 June 1946 as a Major. “Between his discharge from the Army and 1975, Father Whelan would serve in several places. Among them were as the Rector of Notre Dame of Canandaigua, New York; and as the Rector of St. Mary’s College, North East, Pennsylvania. Thirty-two years after the sinking of the Mallory, Father Whelan, in February of 1975, would be the founding priest of the new church parish being started at Lookout Mountain, Georgia.”7
Chaplain Bentley remained in Iceland until November 1943, then was assigned to the 8th Air Force Redistribution Station in England. After returning to the States in May 1945, Chaplain Bentley served in assignments in Tampa, Florida and Ardmore Air Force Base in Oklahoma. Bentley separated from the Army in September 1945 then pastored the Connell Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas until his death in 1977.8
Chaplains Who Perished
Of the seven chaplains on board the Mallory when it departed the United States, five of them perished when the ship sank. As noted above, these were Chaplain (1LT) Horace E. Gravely, Chaplain (1LT) James M. Liston, Chaplain (CPT) Ernest W. MacDonald, Chaplain (1LT) Valmore G. Savignac, and Chaplain (CPT) David H. Youngdahl.
Chaplain (1LT) Horace E. Gravely, Methodist
Horace Gravely became an ordained minister in the Methodist church in 1932. “Over the course of [a] dozen years, he served six appointments, always with several congregations on the charge except for one occasion.
“Just two months after Pearl Harbor Horace, who had been a member of the Officers’ Reserve Corps and who had been a pastor for Civilian Conservation Corpsmen during the New Deal, was ordered to report for active duty in the U.S. Army on March 7, 1942.” His first assignment was to Camp Robinson where he wrote to the editor of the Southern Christian Advocate: “I especially like my personal contacts with the boys, many of them need a friend to whom they can talk freely. I am trying to be that kind of a friend…We hope the war will soon be over so that we can all get back to our homes, and help build a world in which war will not be possible.
“Later, he wrote to a family member “that he had ‘been especially busy,’ since one of the chaplains had been transferred leaving him with 2000 men to look after. His duties involved three services on Sunday, and he was required to stay at the Camp all through the week until 11 p.m. nightly.” He wrote to another family member, “Tell Mary … she should hear ‘my’ choir sing; 50 men made up of Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Mormons! They are good though. I have several Indians who come to my services. Some Mexicans too. Last week we had a Chinese boy to help clean up the Chapel. We have all kinds.”
In December, Chaplain Gravely received orders to the Chaplain School at Harvard University in Boston, then on to Camp Myles Standish to prepare for deployment a few months later. “During his training at … Harvard University he underwent 240 hours of specialized instruction.” Interestingly, Gravely “made a firm impression on his colleagues by retaining his Methodist and family ethic of refraining from consuming alcohol as other chaplains did routinely.”9
After reports of Chaplain Gravely’s death came in, The Southern Christian Advocate published several reflections from chaplains and others who knew Gravely: “Reflecting both on ‘the uncertainty of [Horace’s] safety and the possibility of his on-going,’ they summarized ‘a three-fold splendor in his charming life’ as ‘His Innate Capacity for Noble Living,’ ‘His Deep Capacity for Love’ and ‘His Rich Capacity for Faith.’ They quoted a story about the Episcopal priest Phillips Brooks, of whom it was said ‘every time I look at you, I think of God,’ and applied the same sentiment to Horace, saying ‘Ah, there walked with us here at Camp Robinson such a man.’ They added in their second point: ‘Here was a lover of all men, ever aware of the needs of all.’ And they concluded: ‘His dear life was shot through with faith- it was an unbroken prayer pointing to the heart of God for the solution of all human problems.’”10
A couple of months later, the same publication printed a letter from an soldier who had experienced Chaplain Gravely to be ‘as a regular fellow to all the soldiers in camp. He was one of the boys in all phases of army life,’ he continued. ‘He visited in the tents with the fellows, he ate in the mess hall with the boys, he went on hikes with them, he was ever ready to share in their parties around the campfire, and above all he was ever ready to hear the problems of the home-sick soldiers and to aid in ironing out their little problems with the commanding officer… He invited the men out into his home for fellowship and home-cooked food.’”11
Chaplain (1LT) James M. Liston, Roman Catholic
“[Liston] graduated from St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in 1931 and was ordained in the Roman Catholic Church. In Naperville, Illinois on 22 April 1942 Father James M. Liston entered the U.S. Army. He was given the rank of 1st Lt… His first assignment in 1942 was at Camp Croft, South Carolina. Later, orders came for Chaplain Liston to be assigned to duty in Iceland in late 1942 and by the end of January 1943 he found himself along with [six] other chaplains sailing on the SS Henry R. Mallory bound for Iceland.”12
“Chaplain Liston was not among the men rescued from the sinking of the Mallory but his body was identified along with Alfred Wolf of the Naval Armed Guard. Both were already dead from the effects of the cold water. Due to the pressing need to get the men who were alive there was no time to recover those who had already perished.”13
But, the difficulty in accepting the loss of a child, especially when there is no body to bury, is evidenced by the reaction of Liston’s father related in a newspaper article a short time after the Mallory was sunk:
SOUTHTOWN PRIEST TORPEDOED IN ATLANTIC, FATHER LEARNS
There is still hope for the safety of Lt. James M. Liston, 37 years old, a chaplain in the army, who has been missing in action in the Western European war area since February.
This was the declaration made yesterday by the lieutenant’s father, James J. Liston, 6613 Honore St., who received a telegram from the War department February 23 in which his son was reported missing.
Last week that message was confirmed by a list of casualties issued by the War department. It was also revealed that the lieutenant was reported missing after his ship had been torpedoed.
’I am sure my sons is safe,’ said his father. ‘I feel that he has been picked up by an enemy ship and is safe somewhere in a hospital.’
Lieutenant Liston is the first Diocesan priest from the Archdiocese of Chicago to be reported missing in the present war.
Lieutenant Liston attended Quigley Preparatory seminary and St. Mary of the Lake seminary. He was ordained a priest in April 1931, by Cardinal Mundelein. His last assignment before entering the army was at SS. Peter and Paul church in Naperville.
His father is a street car conductor assigned to the 69th st. car barn. The chaplain has one brother, Corporal Thomas, who is stationed in Georgia, and a sister, Sister Mary Vianney of St. Xavier college, 4928 Cottage Grove ave.14
“Memorial services [for Chaplain Liston] were conducted at Chicago in June, 1944. He received the Purple Heart Medal posthumously.”15
Chaplain (CPT) Ernest W. MacDonald, Congregational
“After [MacDonald’s] graduation from Dalhousie University and Andover Newton School of Theology, he was called to the Newington Church, where he was ordained and began his ministry. In 1940, he accepted a call to Community Church in Garden City, Kansas., from which Parish he entered the service of his country. Just before leaving for overseas he was promoted to Captain.”16
The commander of the Headquarters Iceland Base Command wrote a letter to MacDonald’s mother in which he quoted Chaplain G. J. Whelan’s memories of Chaplain MacDonald:
I got to know Chaplain MacDonald fairly well en route…He was a likeable chap.”
On the night of 6 February 1943 – a Saturday, we were alerted about 2300 hrs due to the fact that some other ships had been hit and that the U-boats were on our trail. The weather had gone sour and the sea was rough. After standing around in readiness for a few hours we decided to go to bed. At 0200 hrs on Sunday, 7 February 1943, there was another alert but only for the gun crews. At 0400 hrs there was a terrific explosion. We had been hit after of midship on the lee side. The torpedo struck way below the waterline and blew a hole large enough for a two and half ton truck to go thru [sic]. This I saw. Practically all the men – sailors and marines, who were in the hold, were killed instantly. There was confusion down there in the hold and much running down the companionways. The last I saw of Chaplain MacDonald was when he left his stateroom, which was adjoining mine and the other chaplains. From accounts with other men who were saved with me I learned that he was washed off a raft. He had done heroic work in calming the men, as did the other chaplains.”17
“One of the survivors [of the Mallory], George K. Dunningham of Winthrop, visited Captain MacDonald’s parents. He told them of his having begged their son (whom he met in the companion way, after the torpedo hit the ship) to accompany him to a lifeboat. This, Captain MacDonald refused to do. Instead, he went below to help bring the injured men up on deck.”18
Chaplain (1LT) Valmore G. Savignac, Roman Catholic
“After graduation from LaSalle Academy, Valmore attended the Providence College for 2 years of studies. Valmore went on to get his bachelors degree from the House of Philosophy in 1932 and then went on to the Grand Seminary in Montreal, Canada where he graduated in 1936 with an S.T.B. and S.T.L. degree.”19
By 1936 Savignac was registered as a priest in Rhode Island20 then in 1939, he was listed as an Assistant at St. Rita’s Catholic Church in Oakland Beach, Rhode Island.21
“Valmore on June 9, 1942 enlisted into the Army Chaplain Corps at Oakland Beach, Rhode Island. On June 20, 1942, 1st Lt. Valmore G. Savignac reported to Ft. Eustis, Virginia. He was later assigned to Camp Myles Standish in Massachusetts.
“As 1943 began a new year of war, Lt. Savignac was called on for duty in Europe. This would mean duty on the battlefield where he would enter combat armed only with a set of rosary beads a Bible and a communion set. He was going where his services to his fellow men were desperately needed. A duty that had to be done and Valmore knew he was called on by a higher power to do it.
“Orders came about the middle of January 1943 and by the 23rd of January, 1st Lt. Valmore G. Savignac was one of several Chaplains sailing aboard the transport S.S. Henry R. Mallory. This trip would be Chaplain Savignac’s one and only combat experience, as his convoy of 61 ships was sailing into a blood bath at the hands of the German U-boat crews. There was no way the men aboard the Mallory could know their fates as they sailed past the Statue of Liberty for the last time.”22
Chaplain (CPT) David H. Youngdahl, Northern Baptist
“Little is known of David H. Youngdahl except that he was attending and graduated in 1930 with a Bachelors of Theology degree from the Bethel Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. After graduating from Bethel, by April of 1930 he was, according to the Federal Census, a licensed Clergyman in a Baptist Church in New Richmond, Wisconsin. He was at the time 25-years of age and single. This was likely the First Baptist Church in New Richmond and he may have been the Pastor there or may have been an assistant pastor. Within a short time Mr. Youngdahl had moved to the state of Washington where he attended the Seattle Pacific College and earned a B. A. degree in 1933. The following year he again moved, this time to Berkeley, California where he attended the Berkeley Baptist Divinity School, earning a B.D. degree in 1934.
“As America in December of 1941, entered into the growing war, David H. Youngdahl was called to serve in the Military and on 8 April 1942 entered the army at San Francisco, California. David Youngdahl entered into the Army Chaplain Corps at the rank of First Lieutenant…He was assigned to the 53rd Field Artillery Regiment then located at Camp Myles Standish, in Taunton, Massachusetts, as Chaplain in early 1942. Sometime shortly before he was assigned to duty in Iceland, Lt. Youngdahl was promoted to the rank of Captain.”23
The Chaplains’ Ministry on the Mallory
There isn’t much of a record of the ministry performed by the chaplains traveling on the Malory either before -or after- it was struck by a German torpedo, but snippets of can be found from a few sources. According to Chaplain Whelan, who survived the Mallory’s sinking, “They took turns with the other Protestant chaplains in holding services for the men of the Protestant Faith. On the day before the fatal disaster, as the weather was clear, we had boxing matches on the quarter deck…”24
“On the evening of February 6th, the evening of the disaster, the Chaplains aboard held a service for the men. In the words of Wilson Flartey one of the Mallory’s survivors he relates of the service that evening: “Word was passed that there would be a prayer meeting in the mess hall at 1900 hrs. Several of us decided to attend. The leader of the meeting was a chaplain, denomination unknown. His sermon was on the Lord’s Prayer. He took the prayer phrase by phrase and explained its meaning. The phrase ‘Thy will be done’ made a particularly strong impression on me. After the meeting we went below to our quarters. It was soon time to turn in…this was an example of the work that the Chaplains did on board the ship to help the men from their fears.
“Another example of how the Chaplains were always looking out for the men was told by Manny Silvia. He had been waiting until the Mallory had almost gone under before leaving her. As the side of the Mallory got lower and lower in the water a Chaplain came over to Silvia and gave him a chocolate bar saying ‘you might need this.’ Eventually Silvia was able to walk right off the side of the ship from where he was standing into the water. Silvia started to swim and watched the Mallory go under. He swam to some wreckage where several others were clinging. The energy Silvia used to swim to the wreckage may have come from the chocolate bar given to him by the unknown Chaplain.25
Without much testimony, we can only speculate, but with much assurance, that the chaplains on board the Mallory served those in need as they faced death, just as they did while enjoying life. The tales of compassion and care offered to those whose grave was ultimately the dark North Atlantic, lie with them, lost and unknown to anyone but those who received it.
1Gushwa, Robert L., “The United States Army Chaplaincy, 1920-1945, Washington, D.C.: Office of the Chief of Chaplains, Department of the Army, 1977, pp 215-217.
2http://freepages.rootsweb.com/~cacunithistories/military/HR_Mallory_Army_Stories.htm, accessed 5 February 2020.
3https://www.history.navy.mil/research/histories/ship-histories/danfs/h/henry-r-mallory.html, accessed 5 February 2020.
4http://navalwarfare.blogspot.com/2012/12/uss-henry-r-mallory-id-no-1280.html, accessed 5 February 2020.
5https://etvma.org/veterans/james-r-jennings-iii-8744/, accessed 5 February 2020.
6HR_Mallory_Army_Stories, accessed 5 February 2020.
12http://www.schistory.net/campcroft/people/whoswho.html, accessed 5 February 2020.
13HR_Mallory_Army_Stories, accessed 5 February 2020.
14Southtown Economist, April 11, 1943, pgs. 1, 9.
15“KILLED IN ACTION, WORLD WAR II.” Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia 57, no. 3 (1946): 195-200. Accessed February 5, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44210485.
16HR_Mallory_Army_Stories, accessed 5 February 2020.
17Letter to Patience MacDonald from MG William S. Key, Commander, Headquarters Iceland Base Command, dated 11 September 1944, cited in http://freepages.rootsweb.com/~cacunithistories/military/HR_Mallory_Army_Stories.htm, accessed 5 February 2020.
18HR_Mallory_Army_Stories, accessed 5 February 2020.
20“The Catholic Church in Rhode Island,” Reverend Thomas F. Cullen, July 1936, pg 471.
21“Directory of Churches and Religious Organizations of Rhode Island,” The Rhode Island historical Records Survey Project, Division of Professional and Service Projects, Work Projects Administration, Providence, RI: The Rhode Island Historical Records Survey Project, December 1939, pg 74.
22HR_Mallory_Army_Stories, accessed 5 February 2020.
24Letter to Patience MacDonald from MG William S. Key, Commander, Headquarters Iceland Base Command, dated 11 September 1944, cited in http://freepages.rootsweb.com/~cacunithistories/military/HR_Mallory_Army_Stories.htm, accessed 5 February 2020.
25HR_Mallory_Army_Stories, accessed 5 February 2020.