Local Vet, Last Survivor of Infamous WWII Boat Attack, Passes

Benjamin Epstein, 91, remembered for his insurmountable decency.

Ben Epstein was perhaps best known for his military service, an experience that left him with an earnest belief that war is human folly at its worst.

Epstein survived the sinking of the USAT Dorchester in the early morning hours of Feb. 3, 1943. The Army transport ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat and sank in 20 minutes. Of the 902 people onboard, Epstein was one of less than 250 who survived.

The incident is well-known for the story of the "Four Immortal Chaplains," a rabbi, a priest and two ministers of different denominations who decided to give their life jackets to sailors in need. The four went down with the ship, singing hymns as death approached.

Epstein was pulled from the frigid water, too frozen to climb a cargo net onto the deck of the Coast Guard cutter Escanaba, and was laid on a galley table as five men set to work keeping him alive.

He survived, as did the memories of that traumatic night. He had known Rabbi Alexander B. Goode, and had lost a close friend in the attack. It was many years before he could bring himself to talk about it, said his wife, Miriam.

Listen to Epstein's story in his own words at Witnesstowar.org. He was the last survivor of the attack known to be alive. Epstein passed away Jan. 12. He was 91.

Miriam met Ben when he was transferred to the Army division where she worked. They married on Aug. 11, 1946.

"I told my mother, 'He has the disposition and character I think I can live with,'" she remembered. And she did, for 66 years. "He was the best guy in the whole, whole world."

Epstein survived his war to witness his government wage others as the years went on, and the recurring willingness to send troops to solve problems bothered him. His philosophy was that there must be some better way, said his son, Ralph.

"He was very anti-war. He was against the Vietnam War before people knew where Vietnam was," Ralph said.

Epstein and his wife went to Washington, D.C. to protest. His convictions about the human cost of military action finally drove him to start speaking about his experience. He told his story to children, veterans and others, using the story of the Immortal Chaplains as an example of how differing beliefs don't have to prevent people from working together toward a better outcome.

Epstein spoke often on behalf of the American Legion, though he never joined any of the various veterans' organizations.

"He wasn't a person that belonged to groups," said his son. He found his peace in breaking down barriers between people -- barriers of life experience between himself and the younger generations he spoke to, and barriers still lingering between himself and the sailors who sent the torpedo that sunk his ship and killed his friends.

A nephew of one of the Four Chaplains, David Fox, located three men who had been on the U-boat. Two came to a ceremony in the U.S. that Epstein decided to attend, but not without some reservations.

"We said, 'that's not the way you make a world,'" said Miriam. 

"He thought it would be difficult," said State Assemblyman Chuck Lavine, a personal friend of Epstein's. "It's not as if it wasn't hard, but he did it and he was a better man for it. He understood. He didn't have any animus for the individual sailors."

Miriam remembered taking the men and their wives to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

"They had no idea. One of their wives just went out," she said, gesturing to the floor.

Epstein was an avid news reader, digesting whole editions of the New York Times each day. He requested them even as he was hospitalized this past summer after a stroke.

"Whatever he believed, he based it on fact, not emotion," said Ralph.

While many knew him for his war story, those who knew him personally characterize him by his kind spirit.

Having learned of his passing, Lavine posted on his Facebook page: "Saddened over death of my dear friend, Ben Epstein"..."He took nothing for granted and respected all people. A gentleman and a hero who epitomized the very best of the 'greatest generation,' Ben will be missed. He was a true American."

Mayor Ralph Suozzi first met Epstein in 2011. After the stroke, he called Miriam regularly to check on the couple.

"He was a very kind, sweet man. I was glad I got to meet him," Suozzi said.

His sense of decency ran deep; "It was engrained in him," said his son.

"And he engrained it in his children," said Miriam. 

Epstein is survived by his wife, Miriam; son, Paul, and his wife, Tricia; son Ralph, and his wife, Mary George; grandsons Joshua and Scott, and Scott's wife, Sara Payne Epstein; and brother Leon.

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MCM January 22, 2013 at 10:30 PM
Excellent article. I'm glad I knew Ben, too. He was always by Miriam's side like lovebirds. I always got a kick out of that. Thank you for your service, Ben.


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