SS DORCHESTER'S CALL SIGN REISSUED

by Bruno Yoka

It seems strange to have an incident from World War II days come back to haunt me.

Dabbling in amateur radio, the Military Affiliate Radio System (MARS) and even mass media broadcasting, I agreed in 1984 to assist an education community radio station in danger of losing their license. But, over time, the adults—rather than the student body—seemed to be carrying the load of programming and maintaining the station. A new radio call sign, WOBO, was issued by the Federal Communications Commission. The station shared the same frequency with the student station, but broadcast at different times, mostly after school hours and on weekends.

Radio call signs are usually selected from a long list of call signs that have once been issued to various ships and land stations in past years. Upon checking, the FCC reported that our station’s call sign, WOBO, was once assigned to the SS DORCHESTER, a transport ship used to supply war materials to a World War II air base in Narssarssuaq, Greenland, known as Bluie West One.

This was the main base to ferry planes to England to support the war effort. The DORCHESTER was torpedoed 150 miles west of Cape Farewell, Greenland, by the German submarine U-223, the GERLACH, on February 3, 1943.

During the attack, four U.S. Army chaplains of various denominations gave up their lifebelts to soldiers who had none, and all four chaplains went down with the ship.

I was the chief radio operator aboard the Coast Guard Cutter COMANCHE, the ship that found Lifeboat 13 from the DORCHESTER, rescuing a total of 97 survivors. A sister ship, the ESCANABA, rescued another 132 survivors. Later, even the ESCANABA fell victim to a German submarine, being torpedoed in the Belle Isle Straits with only two members of the crew surviving.

The GERLACH, U-223, which claimed to have sunk the DORCHESTER, was eventually sunk north of Palermo, Sicily, by the HMS LAFOREY in the company of other corvettes on March 30, 1944.

With the invasion of Denmark in 1940, the COMANCHE was assigned to Greenland, establishing the consular offices at the capital of Godthaab and tasked with protecting the kryolite mines and their Danish population.

Kryolite was mined from underneath the fjord, and was a valuable ore for processing aluminum. Regular shipments went to the Philadelphia area. The danger of someone dropping a large explosive material on the fjord bottom that would flood the mines was a major concern. This is where World War II began for the COMANCHE, participating in many rescues while opening frozen areas to establish bases.

Self-styled experts have often second-guessed just how the sinking of the DORCHESTER came about, as ships continually avoided the ice-choked waters in and around Greenland. Speculators thought that a loose word in St. Johns, Newfoundland, where the convoy originated, had precipitated the sinking.

The Air Corps and Coast Guard uncovered a German weather station on Eskomonies Island, on the northeast coast of Greenland. False weather reports to planes being ferried across the Atlantic were traced to this station.

Air Corps planes repeatedly bombed it, but without success. It took the newly commissioned Coast Guard icebreaker EASTWIND to go in and capture the German weather station. In this operation the Germans at first thought that the EASTWIND was a new type of large tank coming across the frozen sea to capture the fleeing meteorological crew and a Nazi agent.

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