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New memorial honors valor of Jewish chaplains

- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 20, 2011

On a bitter winter night in 1943, four Army chaplains stood on the deck of the torpedoed and foundering USAT Dorchester while hundreds of American soldiers around them prepared to slip into the icy depths of the North Atlantic.

After they removed their life jackets and gave them to others, sealing their fates aboard the doomed Army transport vessel, the men — one Catholic, two Protestant and one Jewish — were last seen with their heads bowed in prayer, offering spiritual comfort to the terrified soldiers.

The story of the four chaplains' sacrifice is not a new one for military history buffs, but the men represent a segment of combat veterans whose sacrifices, some say, have been underrecognized.

At Arlington National Cemetery, monuments honor Catholic, Protestant and World War I chaplains who died on active duty. For decades, fallen rabbis have not been honored in one place at the hallowed military cemetery. But on Monday, inspired by the sacrifice of Rabbi Alexander Goode from the Dorchester, 14 Jewish chaplains who died in service to their country will get the recognition many say they deserve.

"You don't leave anybody behind. You bring everybody home with you," said Rear Adm. Harold L. Robinson, a retired member of the U.S. Navy Chaplain Corps and director of the Jewish Welfare Board's Jewish Chaplains Council. "There were 14 names that had not been brought home. We've finally completed that pledge."

The effort to get the addition to the cemetery started about three years ago, when Kenneth Kraetzer, a member of the Sons of the American Legion Squadron 50 in Pelham, N.Y., journeyed to Arlington and stopped at the other memorials, located at Chaplains Hill, to pay respects to the four brave men from the Dorchester.

He found the names of three of the chaplains engraved on plaques but was unable to locate an inscription for Goode, largely because there was no Jewish memorial.

"This is a group of veterans that deserve recognition," he said.

He began to ask around about why there was no memorial and what it would take to get one erected.

One of the men he contacted was Adm. Robinson, who said "we did a little research and discovered all the monuments there were created by religious groups whose chaplains they were commemorating. Why the Jewish community had not done that, we really don't know."

Sol Moglen, founder of the 9/11 memorial the Brooklyn Wall of Remembrance, spearheaded the fundraising for the Arlington memorial, and he chalked up the oversight to life moving on after the war.

"What happened was everyone was back in their own world. Chaplains came home from the military, they went into their own synagogues, practiced, and no one thought about it," Mr. Moglen said. "It fell through the cracks. At the end of the day, I'm not sour grapes. More people got to know about it now."

As Mr. Kraetzer's idea took hold throughout the Jewish community, supporters researched how and when the monument could become a reality.

They initially thought they could erect the memorial as part of the existing Chaplains Hill display by securing administrative approval from the cemetery's leadership. By June 2010, the group had completed fundraising for the memorial and developed project designs.

But after submitting the proposal, they were told by officials at Arlington that the monument would be considered a new memorial and would require a joint resolution by Congress.

In January, organizers began gathering congressional support, and by Memorial Day the monument had full backing from Capitol Hill — a testament to the support it had generated, Adm. Robinson said.

In the meantime, they contacted Jewish communities and outlets across the country in order to collect the names of chaplains who died while on active duty in past wars. They found four chaplains who died during military service in Vietnam or Southeast Asia, two from the Cold War era and eight who served in World War II, including Goode.

Ben Epstein of Glen Cove, N.Y., agrees that the monument, scheduled for dedication on Monday, is overdue.

At 90 years old, he still has a sharp memory of where he was 68 years ago in February 1943.

Soaked and shaking, the Army private stared in awe from his lifeboat at hundreds of his fellow soldiers in the North Atlantic and the looming silhouette of a ship succumbing to the weight of the rising water.

"It looked like a Christmas tree. On every life preserver we were given there was a red light, and with every red light I saw, it was a human being," Mr. Epstein said. "It was the most sickening feeling one could feel. I couldn't help. It was a sight that will never leave me."

He was plucked from the water by fellow soldiers in a lifeboat, but he never forgot the selflessness of the four chaplains.

"Those are special human beings," he said. "They gave up their lives, their families. They are true heroes and they should be honored."

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