Up to what extent are you willing to give in order to perform your sworn duty? To Rabbi Alexander Goode and his fellow chaplains aboard the USAT Dorchester, they were willing to give more than what was expected of them. They all sank with the ship after performing their sworn oath and more, living their faith and devotion up until the very end. The last sight of the Rabbi and the three other chaplains: the four of them arm in arm, praying together as the unforgiving waves slowly enveloped Dorchester.
Answering his Calling
Alexander Goode was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1911. He was one of the four children of Hyman Goodekowitz, who was also a rabbi, footsteps that he would follow later on in his life. He became a rabbi after graduating from the University of Cincinnati and then Hebrew Union College in 1937. After three years, he received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University. He also had a small lovely family with his wife Teresa Flax and their daughter, Rosalie.
He would often lead joint services with Christian churches as a rabbi at the Beth Israel synagogue in York, Pennsylvania, emphasizing interfaith unity and cultural pluralism. Alexander Goode was already living a fulfilling and accomplished life before he joined the army. However, perhaps it was his calling that Goode still chose to study at the Army Chaplain School at Harvard University and was soon deployed to Europe and briefly served at an airbase in North Carolina. In October 1942, he met and joined the other member of the Four Chaplains before he received orders to go overseas to a base in Greenland.
Embarked on a Journey
In January 1934, Goode boarded his last ship in New York City, the USAT Dorchester. It was a former passenger liner converted into a troopship during World War II. With him were his three fellow first lieutenants that were all chaplains, too: Catholic priest Father John P. Washington, Methodist minister the Reverend George L. Fox, and Reformed Church in America minister Reverend Clark V. Poling.
The ship slipped away from the docks at St. John’s, Newfoundland, into a bad weather condition on January 29, carrying the four chaplains, 600 other soldiers, 171 civilians, and 1,000 tons of cargo, equipment, and food. Dorchester was part of the SG-19 six-ship convoy crossing the freezing North Atlantic Ocean and headed for a US military base at Narsarsuaq, Greenland. The voyage was laced with dangers as German submarines were patrolling the sea lanes for Allied shipping headed to Europe. Dorchester soon reached the most perilous sections of their journey, as the soldiers and sailors called it: the Torpedo Junction.
On February 3, the ship was almost in the safe waters when the German U-223 spotted the vessel amidst the dark foggy, and stormy seas. Before 1 AM, the Nazis locked their target and fired three torpedoes 1,000 yards away. One of them crashed into the vessel’s starboard side near the engine room, causing a gap from below the waterline to the top deck. At that time, the people on board were in their bunks, ready for their arrival in Narsarsuaq.
No Attempt to Save Themselves
The people were startled as they realized what was happening: the vessel was slowly sinking, and the darkness engulfed them after the ship lost its power. People were understandably panicking, so Goode and his fellow chaplains immediately jumped into action by influencing the people to calm down as the lifeboats were being untied. Goode helped the other soldiers to fasten themselves, even offering his gloves to a Navy lieutenant. It was no question a terrifying situation, but the chaplains remained calmed and offered help and reassurance to the people around them. When the life jackets ran out, the chaplains all took off theirs and offered them to other soldiers.
It only took 25 minutes before the vessel sank.
As the flares lit up and the cold waves slowly enveloped Dorchester, the survivors saw Goode and his fellow chaplains on deck, arms locked together, and praying along with the others who were not given life jackets, holding on to their devotion up until their last moments.
In the end, only 230 were recovered in the Coast Guard rescue operations. Many of those in life jackets died, too, as the water was freezing at 34 degrees Fahrenheit.
In 1944, the four chaplains were posthumously awarded the Purple Hearts and Distinguished Service Crosses. In 1961, they were also given the Congressional Medal of Valor, and in 1988, Congress announced February 3 as the “Four Chaplains Day” in the US.