A dedication ceremony was held October 24 at Arlington National Cemetery for a monument honoring the fourteen Jewish U.S. military chaplains who gave their lives in service of their country. Noted among them was Alexander B. Goode, the fourth and last of the “Immortal Chaplains” commemorated on Arlington’s Chaplains’ Hill.
The four chaplains were Methodist minister George L. Fox, Reformed Church in America minister Clark V. Poling, Roman Catholic priest John P. Washington, and Rabbi Goode. They embarked from New York harbor on the converted troop ship USAT Dorchester on January 23, 1943, bound for Greenland with 904 troops and crew. Just before 1:00 a.m. on February 3, the Dorchester was torpedoed by the German submarine U-223. The damage was severe; the ship immediately lost steam and electrical power. Troops below decks were stranded in darkness in the severely listing ship, scrambling to get out. Those who could rushed for life boats, some of which immediately capsized. Others leapt into the freezing North Atlantic waters and were overcome by hypothermia.
The four chaplains worked together to help calm the panicked troops. They distributed life vests, which would not protect the men from the cold but would at least give them a fighting chance until rescue vessels arrived. When the supply of life preservers ran out the chaplains without hesitation took off their own vests and handed them to four other soldiers.
The Dorchester was sinking quickly from the bow. It was only 18 minutes from the torpedo’s impact until the ship slipped under the waves. U.S. Coast Guard cutters Comanche and Escanaba rushed to the scene to pick up survivors, but despite their heroic efforts the toll was heavy. Of the 904 people aboard the Dorchester, 674 perished. Many never got off the ship, others succumbed to the chill of the 34 degree waters. Survivors recounted seeing the four chaplains by the light of signal flares standing arm in arm at the ship’s rail, praying and singing hymns with the remaining troops who were going down with the ship. They could hear the chaplains’ prayers in their last moments of life, reaching out into the cold night in English, Latin and Hebrew.
Dorchester survivor Ernie Heaton, 89, who witnessed the chaplains’ sacrifice, was present at Monday’s dedication ceremony. Also attending was Storekeeper Second Class Richard Swanson, USCG, who was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his heroic actions rescuing passengers and crew of the Dorchester. Survivor Ben Epstein, who could not attend, sent a letter in which he wrote, “these four immortal chaplains who removed their life jackets so others might have a chance to survive are true heroes who should be immortalized for all history.”
The thirteen other chaplains named on the bronze plaque also died on active duty, some in combat, some by accident, but all in service to the country. The plaque is mounted on a granite stone at the top of a small hill in Arlington’s Section 2, next to the monuments honoring Catholic and Protestant chaplains, and those killed in the First World War. The field behind the monuments is the final resting place for chaplains who served in four of America’s conflicts. Major General Cecil Richardson, the Air Force chief of chaplains, praised these men and all those who have volunteered to serve in the military chaplaincy. “They made the sacrifices the warriors made,” he said. “They lived the lives that the warriors lived. And that’s what made them military chaplains.”
The West Point Jewish Chapel Cadet Choir, which was featured throughout the event, closed with a rousing rendition of “God Bless America.”
Postscript: The role of the military chaplain was memorably portrayed by Leon Ames in the 1949 feature “Battleground.” Screenwriter Robert Pirosh, who had fought in the Battle of the Bulge as a Master Sergeant with the 35th Infantry Division, won the Academy Award that year for his script.