In the freezing early hours of February 3, 1943, the American troop ship U.S.A.T. Dorchester was crossing the Atlantic, bound for an Army base on Greenland. These were treacherous waters; German U-boats had already sunk a number of American ships in the area, and the crew was on high alert. One hundred miles from its destination, the Dorchester was blasted in its side by a German torpedo. The ship, designed for 400 passengers, was crammed with 902 servicemen, and those who weren’t killed in the explosion scrambled in a panic to the lifeboats. The ship was sinking fast.
But in the midst of the chaos, four chaplains stood on the deck, calmly handing out life jackets. They were a Methodist minister, a Roman Catholic priest, a Dutch Reformed minister, and a rabbi: 32-year old Rabbi Alexander Goode.
Rabbi Goode had been among the 550,000 Jewish-American soldiers who enlisted in the U.S. Armed Forces during World War II. Born the son of a prominent Brooklyn rabbi, Goode had been living a comfortable and fulfilling life as the rabbi of Temple Beth Israel in York, Pennsylvania, where he lived with his wife and young daughter. There, Rabbi Goode had also founded a mixed-race Boy Scout troop, which became the very first in the United States to offer Catholic, Jewish and Protestant awards. But Rabbi Goode insisted upon serving his country (after he was turned down by the Navy, he joined the Army) and following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, began active duty by attending the Chaplains School at Harvard. There, he met Reverend George Fox, Father John Washington and Reverend Clark Poling — the very same three chaplains with whom, a year later, he’d be on the deck of the sinking Dorchester.
The four chaplains remained calm and courageous. They helped organize the panicked men and distributed lifejackets. When no lifejackets were left, the chaplains each gave their own to a serviceman. After the last lifeboat was filled, the chaplains remained behind to pray with those unable to escape. Survivors later recalled that in their last glimpses of the four chaplains, they were standing on the deck, arms linked, voices raised in prayer.
With only 230 survivors, the sinking of the Dorchester became one of the worst American naval tragedies of World War II. But the death toll would have been higher were it not for the quartet who became known as “The Immortal Chaplains.” Each was posthumously awarded a Purple Heart and the Distinguished Service Cross. A postage stamp was issued in their honor. In 1951, President Harry Truman dedicated a chapel in their memory; called the Chapel of Four Chaplains, it’s located right here in Philadelphia, at the Navy Yard. This Memorial Day, as we remember those who gave their lives for our country, we honor the memory of Rabbi Goode — the first Jewish-American chaplain lost in U.S. military service — and his fellow clergy, who saved lives by sacrificing their own.