Two hundred and thirty-one thousand men and 10,000 women served in the Coast Guard during World War II. Of these, 1,918 gave their lives in service, and Charles Walter David Jr. was one of them.
Born in 1917 and lived in New York, David joined the United States Coast Guard at a time the service was segregated and limited African Americans to non-senior enlisted ratings. Despite his secondary status serving as Steward’s Mate in the Coast Guard, David respected the core values of his duty while putting the needs of others before his own.
He demonstrated this on the night of February 3, 1943, when he sacrificed for his shipmates without hesitation. David had been assigned to the United States Coast Guard Comanche during World War II, which was assigned to escort a convoy that included the Dorchester. A troop transport, the Dorchester was torpedoed by a U-boat off the coast of Greenland that night. The Dorchester was carrying over 900 troops, civilian contractors, and crew.
26-year-old David volunteered to leave the Comanche to dive into the frigid North Atlantic waters to help rescue crew and passengers from the Dorchester who were struggling and exhausted.
“With waves 10 feet high, David climbed down the cargo net to the lifeboats and hoisted Dorchester’s living yet frozen victims to his shipmates on Comanche’s deck,” according to the Naval Order of the United States. David also rescued several other Comanche crew members who volunteered to dive in and later grew exhausted.
One of them was a fellow Comanche crewman, the cutter’s executive officer, Lieutenant Robert Anderson who had fallen overboard and was unable to pull himself out of the water. David was able to tie a line around Anderson and the crew aboard Comanche helped him back on board the cutter.
That wasn’t all for David, as he also helped rescue his shipmate, Storekeeper Richard Swanson, who had volunteered to dive overboard to help with the rescue but was finding it difficult to get back on board due to his freezing limbs.
That night, out of the 227 survivors of the Dorchester, David helped rescue 93 of them, with Swanson later describing him as a “tower of strength.” But hero David contracted pneumonia after helping rescue his stranded shipmates and died 54 days later — on March 29, 1943.
He was posthumously awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his bravery, which was received by his wife and son, Kathleen and Neil David. The selfless American hero was also honored with a certificate for his heroism by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1963. In 1999, he was recognized with the Immortal Chaplains Prize for Humanity, and recently, the United States Coast Guard named a Fast Response Cutter in his honor.