During World War II, a black U.S. Coast Guard volunteer named Charles David, Jr. aboard the ship Comanche, braved the bitter February cold to help save hundreds of men. The fallen sailors were aboard the SS Dorchester, which had just been hit by a German torpedo. David was among many men who volunteered to go into the icy waters to rescue any survivors of the 900 man crew. One of the white sailors aboard the ship, Richard Swanson, vividly remembers being saved by Charles David Jr. after he used his last breath to start the climb aboard a cargo safety net.
That night, about 100 miles off the coast of Greenland, Charles David Jr. not only saved Richard Swanson, but he saved the ship’s executive officer and Ensign Robert Anderson, who applauded David’s heroics in a 1944 radio interview. Twenty-six year old Charles David Jr. gave his life for the stranded men, dying of hypothermia on March 29, 1943, 54 days later. His official cause of death was pneumonia, which occurred when he dove into the water to save executive officer, Lt. Langford Anderson.
Out of the 227 survivors of the SS Dorchester, the Comanche saved 93 of them. After his death, Charles David Jr. and several other crewmen were awarded the highest noncombat awards in the Navy: the Navy and Marine Corps Medals. David was also recognized by President Johnson through a certificate issued to his widow. Years later, the Immortal Chaplains Foundation 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.
Last weekend, the U.S. Coast Guard commissioned a new fast response cutter the Charles David Jr., which is now docked in the key west. His family was present for the ceremony.