WW II Dorchester survivor Ben Epstein dies at 91

Ben Epstein attends a ceremony at the Bellmore

Ben Epstein attends a ceremony at the Bellmore Presbyterian Church for the four chaplains that offered their life jackets, and prayed arm in arm as the USAT Dorchester sank. (Feb. 6, 2011) (Credit: Charles Eckert)

Ben Epstein was a young Army draftee aboard the transport ship Dorchester when it was sunk by a German U-boat during World War II. Of the 902 onboard, 672 died including four chaplains who gave up their life jackets to others.

Epstein, thrown clear of the ship by the explosion, went on to a long career as an accountant and is believed to have outlived all of the other Dorchester survivors.

The 91-year-old Glen Cove resident suffered a stroke in August and died Jan. 12 at Parker Jewish Institute for Health Care and Rehabilitation in New Hyde Park.

Born in Brooklyn, Epstein attended local schools before graduating with an accounting degree from City College of New York in the early days of the war.

He was drafted in 1942 and after basic training, he was shipped out to Greenland from Staten Island on the Dorchester.

The voyage ended abruptly off Newfoundland when a torpedo from the U-223 struck early on Feb. 3, 1943. The transport sank in 20 minutes as Epstein, a 22-year-old private, watched from the freezing waters of the North Atlantic, he told Newsday at a 2011 ceremony honoring the "Four Immortal Chaplains" -- a rabbi, a priest and two ministers.

Epstein lost his best friend in the attack and grieved over the loss of one of the chaplains, Rabbi Alexander Goode, with whom he had become close.

The lessons Epstein learned that night: "Never to give up. One must keep going. Don't think negatively. Think positively. And to appreciate life. It's so valuable."

After the sinking, he was stationed for a year in Greenland. He was then reassigned to an Army transportation office in Manhattan. His arrival was noted with great interest by a secretary he would be supervising and who would become his wife.

"I saw him across the room and knew he was the right one," Miriam Epstein recalled this week. "When my mother asked me why I wanted to marry him, I said, 'Because he has the character and disposition I think I can spend the rest of my life with.' "

He left the Army as a master sergeant in January 1946 and began working for a series of companies as an accountant. The couple married in August 1946.

Epstein, who retired in 1986, loved to read and paint and enjoyed music, Miriam Epstein said. The couple also became anti-war activists.

Talking about the chaplains in 2011, Epstein said, "I think they left a personal message to the world, that we must all learn to live with one another."

Besides his wife, Epstein is survived by sons Paul of Wellesley, Mass., and Ralph of Glen Cove; a brother, Leon of Great Neck; and two grandsons.

Burial was Jan. 13 at Beth David Cemetery in Elmont after a ceremony at North Country Reform Temple in Glen Cove.

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