DEPT. OF SURVIVORS
FORMER ENEMIES MEET IN
MEMORY OF FOUR MARTYRS
The New Yorker Magazine
February 21&28, 2000
At breakfast the other day, in a Washington hotel, Kurt Röser was reminiscing about his life in the German Navy
during the Second World War, and especially about the night of February 3, 1943, when his submarine sank an American trooptransport ship, the Dorchester, off the coast of Greenland. Six hundred and seventyseven of the
nine hundred and two men on board were killed. Among the American dead were four Army chaplains a Methodist, a Dutch Reformed, a Catholic, and a Jew who gave their life jackets to others, then
joined hands and, praying aloud, went down with the ship. At the time, of course, Kurt Röser and his U-boat mates had no idea of this scene of martyrdom. As soon as their torpedo
detonated against the American ship, the Germans fled, and before long the pinging of sonar from a Coast Guard cutter told them that they were being pursued. Depth charges began
exploding around them. "We were full of fear," Röser recalled. Then, nodding at a whitebearded man who was seated beside him at the breakfast table, he said, "I can't believe
that such a sympathetic, kindly man would ever have wanted to kill me."
"I feel the same about Kurt," the man with the beard said. He was Dick Swanson, of Mead,
Nebraska, and on the night the Dorchester sank he was the sonar operator on the Coast Guard cutter Comanche, which had hunted Röser's U-boat. Looking back, Swanson found it hard to
comprehend that his ship had been sent after the Germans when there was still an opportunity to save Americans from the freezing North Atlantic. The Comanche did ultimately pick up
several lifeboats from the Dorchester, rescuing a total of ninetythree men. But what stuck most stubbornly in Swanson's memory of the night was the image of the red lights that were affixed to
the life jackets of the men in the water. "We steamed through acres of those little red lights, just acres of them, bobbing," he said. "That meant those men were alive when they hit the water,
because you had to turn those lights on manually. Now they were all dead, and the guys on our deck were all muttering, 'The bastards,' meaning the Germans." Swanson nodded at Röser "Meaning this guy here."
Röser smiled, and Swanson, who is seventyseven, said, "It's a feeling of relief that at last we've met." They had been brought together, along with three survivors of the Dorchester, and one of
Röser's U-boat comrades, by David Fox, the nephew of the Methodist chaplain who gave his life on the Dorchester, and the executive director of the Immortal Chaplains Foundation, in
Minneapolis, whose motto is "If we can die together, can't we live together?"
One of the Dorchester's survivors, Ben Epstein, said that when Fox first proposed a
"reconciliation" weekend with the crew of the German Uboat, he could not accept the idea. But when he met Röser and his comrade, Gerhard Buske, he found them to be "very warm." He
also learned that Buske and Röser knew what it was like to lose one's shipmates; a year after torpedoing the Dorchester, their own submarine was sunk by four British destroyers. Both men
had spent the rest of the war as prisoners. Röser was sent to Mississippi, where he was put to work sandbagging the levee against flooding and picking cotton; and Buske settled into an
officers' camp in Canada, where he played the trombone in a Glenn Millerstyle band.
During their trip to Washington, the German and American veterans visited the Holocaust
Memorial Museum, and Ben Epstein said the Germans "were very affected," sobbing openly. They also paid a joint visit to Theresa Goode Kaplan, the eightyeightyearold widow of the
Dorchester's Jewish chaplain, at her home in Chevy Chase. She shook the Germans' hands, and accepted their expressions of respect for her husband and for her suffering. When the room
was silent, Gerhard Buske produced a harmonica, raised his hands to his mouth, and blew out a slow, warbling rendition of "Amazing Grace." Everyone clapped. Then the room lapsed back into silence.