A HIGHER DUTY
The story of Rabbi Alexander David Goode and his three chaplain colleagues stands out as one of the Second World War's most poignant and enduring legacies.
s a teenager in Philadelphia, I belonged to the Four Chaplains AZA, part of the B'nai B'rith Youth Organization, and wore with pride a fraternity jacket emblazoned with a Star of David and the name Four Chaplains sewn below it. To me, and to a great many others, the story of Rabbi Alexander David Goode and his three chaplain colleagues--George Lansing Fox (Methodist), Clark Vandersall Poling (Dutch Reformed), and James Patrick Washington (Roman Catholic)--stands out as one of the Second World War's most poignant and enduring legacies.
Alexander David Goode
Born in Brooklyn in 1911 and raised in Washington, D.C., Alexander decided as a teenager to follow in the footsteps of his father, Rabbi Hyman Goodekowitz (the original family name). After receiving ordination from the Hebrew Union College in 1937, Alexander first served Temple Beth Israel in York, Pennsylvania. By the late 1930s he was already widely known in the Reform Jewish community and beyond for his scholarly writings on contemporary issues.
As early as 1933 Rabbi Goode was deeply concerned about the Jews in Germany, prophesizing an amazingly accurate vision of what the next decade would bring. "[Hitler's] policy now means utter ruin, not only to the Jews, but to the whole of Germany itself," he wrote to his wife Theresa. "I see no hope for our kinsmen abroad...."
In early 1941 he sought to join the Navy, but was told he was not needed. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor he tried again, this time with the Army, and was accepted. Upon completing the Army Chaplains School at Harvard University (which prepared new chaplains to serve all soldiers, regardless of religion), he was assigned to a base in the U.S., but soon applied for transfer to a combat area.
On January 23, 1943, the 32-year-old rabbi boarded the USAT Dorchester, an 18-year-old coastal steamer that had been converted to a troop transport. The Dorchester sailed north from New York to Saint John's, Newfoundland, where it joined three U.S. Coast Guard cutters (the Tampa, the Comanche, and the Escanaba) and two merchant ships to form Convoy SG 19. Their destination was the Army's new command base, Bluie West 1, at Narsarsuaq in southwestern Greenland.
While waiting for transport to Greenland, Rabbi Goode and his friend from chaplains school, the Rev. George Lansing Fox, 43, met and befriended two other chaplains who had similarly responded to Pearl Harbor by enlisting: the Rev. Clark Vandersall Poling, 31, and Father John Patrick Washington, 33. Rev. Fox, of Altoona, Pennsylvania, had served as a combat medic in World War I, receiving a Silver Star for bravery and a Purple Heart for his combat wounds, as well as France's Croix de Guerre for bravery under fire. Reenlisting in the Army after Pearl Harbor, this time as a Methodist chaplain, he entered active duty the same day his 18-year-old son Wyatt joined the Marines. Rev. Poling, of Columbus, Ohio, was serving as pastor of the First Reformed Church (Dutch Reformed) in Schenectady, New York when he decided to join the Army. At first he considered enlisting as a combatant, but after talking to his father, who'd been an Army chaplain in World War I, Rev. Poling decided to become a chaplain as well. Father Washington, the son of Irish immigrants, was serving his hometown Roman Catholic parish in Newark, New Jersey when he saw many of the young men in his parish joining the military and felt he could do no less. He asked for duty in a combat area.
Life at Sea
The slow-moving Dorchester had a top speed of fewer than ten miles per hour. The seas were rough, and many men became dreadfully seasick. The four chaplains worked tirelessly to boost morale among the troops through humor, singing, and prayer. On his first Friday aboard, Rabbi Goode searched for a suitable place to conduct Shabbat services. The only possibility on the jammed vessel was the ship's mess hall, where some of the soldiers were shooting dice, but their leader, the ship's burly cook, rejected Rabbi Goode's request. Father Washington came to the rescue, persuading the cook and his pals to take a break. A short service ensued, after which the dice game resumed.
The Dorchester made a stop at St. John's, Newfoundland, where the men heard the rumor that German spies in St. John's had radioed intelligence about the convoy to waiting Nazi U-boats. That was never proven, but after the war it was discovered that the Germans had broken the Allied naval codes and knew that the six ships had left the port and headed north.
At 12:55 am on February 3, 1943, a torpedo from U-boat U-223 slammed into the starboard side of the Dorchester below the water line. No sirens had warned of the attack. Hundreds of shocked and panicked men emerged from below deck. The ship rapidly listed to starboard, rendering twelve of the fourteen lifeboats inaccessible. Despairing soldiers called out for their mothers. All the while, the chaplains worked to calm the men and locate life jackets in the deck's storage areas. A few minutes before the Dorchester would sink, all the life jackets had been distributed; yet dozens of men were without one.
At that moment, Rabbi Goode, Rev. Fox, Rev. Poling, and Father Washington performed an extraordinary act of heroism. All four men removed their life jackets and handed them to others. It will never be known whether the chaplains had made the decision beforehand, or if they acted spontaneously. One of the chaplains was overheard saying to a young soldier without a life jacket, "Here, take mine. I won't need it. I'm staying." Petty Officer John J. Mahoney remembers that he tried to go below deck to get his gloves, but was stopped by Rabbi Goode, who said: "Take mine, I have two pairs." It occurred to Mahoney only later that Chaplain Goode didn't really have a second pair. The chaplains remained calm, offering words of solace and prayer to the frightened and wounded men trapped aboard the sinking ship. Their demeanor, noted by many of the survivors, restrained some of the panic, probably contributing to the survival of additional men.
Only 227 of the 902 Americans on board the Dorchester survived. One of them was Private William B. Bednar, who floated in the freezing waters surrounded by the bodies of his comrades. He later recalled "hearing men crying, pleading, praying. I could also hear the chaplains preaching courage. Their voices were the only thing that kept me going." Another survivor, John Ladd, witnessed the four chaplains standing arm in arm, praying aloud and singing hymns with others as the ship disappeared beneath the waves. He would later say, "It was the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven."
The experience of meeting the four chaplains aboard the Dorchester has had a profound effect upon two Jewish survivors. Ben Epstein, a 22-year-old private in the Army Air Corps (now retired in Delray Beach, Florida), says that in the last sixty years "there has hardly been a single day that I have not thought about the Dorchester and what it taught me--not to take anything for granted and to respect my fellow man." Framingham, Massachusetts resident William Kramer, also a young private in 1943, still remembers the prayer book that Rabbi Goode gave him during the Shabbat service in the ship's dining hall (it did not survive the 1943 disaster). Says Kramer: "Since then, I live each day one at a time, as if it were the last."
Because of eyewitness accounts such as these, on December 19, 1944, Lt. General Brehon Somervell, commanding general of the U.S. Army Special Forces, awarded all four chaplains with the Distinguished Service Cross for "extraordinary heroism," America's second highest award for valor, and the Purple Heart. Four years later, the United States Postal Service issued the "Immortal Chaplains" commemorative stamp extolling their bravery as "Interfaith In Action." Then on January 18, 1961, Secretary of the Army Wilbur Brucker presented, at the base chapel in Fort Myers, Virginia, the "Four Chaplains Medal," a unique medal for heroism on the level of the Medal of Honor. The Star of David, Tablets of Moses, and Christian Cross appear in relief on the reverse side of the medal, along with the chaplains' names.
To further the legacy of these legendary American heroes, in 1950 Chaplain Poling's father, the Reverend Daniel Poling, secured the financial assistance of several foundations and built the Chapel of the Four Chaplains within a church on the campus of Temple University in Philadelphia. President Harry Truman would dedicate the chapel on February 3, 1951. "This interfaith shrine," he said, "will stand through long generations to teach Americans that as men can die heroically as brothers, so should they live together in mutual faith and goodwill."
In the late 1990s, in an effort to reinvigorate the legacy of the four chaplains, David Fox, the nephew of Chaplain George Fox, and Rosalie Goode Fried, the daughter of Chaplain Alexander Goode, created the Immortal Chaplains Foundation. Other descendants of Chaplains Goode, Fox, and Poling (Father Washington's could not be located) soon became active in the organization, which is dedicated to promoting the values of the Immortal Chaplains by presenting two annual Awards for Humanity each February on the anniversary of the Dorchester's destruction. Awards are bestowed upon individuals who have demonstrated courage in helping others at their own risk, regardless of racial, religious, or other differences. Recipients since 1999 have included Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa; Charles David, an African American Coast Guardsman from the Comanche who died of pneumonia after repeatedly jumping into the freezing waters to rescue Dorchester survivors; Omri Abdel Al-Jada, a young Palestinian man who died while saving a Jewish child from drowning in Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee); and the villagers of Le Chambon, France, who saved 5,000 Jews from the Nazis.
Four years ago, David Fox decided to travel to Germany to find survivors of the U-223, the submarine that had sunk the Dorchester. He hoped to achieve a measure of reconciliation between the Germans and the Americans--Dorchester survivors, sailors from the Coast Guard cutters, and the families of the four chaplains. Traveling throughout Germany, he located three U-223 survivors--Gerhard Buske, who'd been the engineering officer; Kurt Roser, who had helped load the torpedoes; and crewman Erich Passler. Roser and Buske accepted his invitation to travel to Washington, D.C. (Passler was too ill to make the trip). At the first meeting in the apartment of Rabbi Goode's widow, Teresa Goode Kaplan, the Germans could not believe that the Americans would be willing to seek reconciliation with men who had caused them so much pain. Indeed, it was very difficult. Originally, Teresa Kaplan had trouble accepting Fox's mission, but recognizing the importance of making peace with the past, she had given her consent and opened her home. Ben Epstein, too, could not accept the idea at first, but he came to Kaplan's apartment anyway and found Roser and Buske (who speaks fluent English) to be warm and remorseful. Buske told him of the friends he had lost when the U-223 itself was sunk in 1944, and he wept for all those who had been lost on both sides. Then Buske played "Amazing Grace" on his harmonica. He would perform the song again at the Foundation's 2003 humanity awards ceremony. The audience responded with stillness, then long applause.
This past February, at the Foundation's annual gathering in St. Paul, Minnesota, I witnessed Gerhard Buske speaking with Rabbi Goode's son-in-law Paul Fried, and Buske's grandson Heinrich speaking with Rabbi Goode's grandson Alexander David Goode Fried. What a poignant moment. These older men were affirming the power of reconciliation as a way to mitigate the still-present pain of the war. And the grandsons of the rabbi and the German represented the future hope that men of goodwill could get along, preserving the legacy of the four chaplains.
Soon, the tragedy of February 3, 1943 in the waters of the North Atlantic will no longer be told by those who witnessed the sinking of the Dorchester and the four chaplains, arm-in-arm, preaching courage to all. Thankfully, others, including Germans like Gerhard Buske, are committed to ensuring that this heroic story of the four chaplains truly remains immortal.
Barry M. Sax, a federal administrative judge and a member of Temple Adat Elohim in Thousand Oaks, California, is writing a book on the circumstances surrounding the sinking of the Dorchester.
Copyright © 2003, Union of American Hebrew Congregations