This Day in Jewish History A U.S. Army Chaplain Makes the Ultimate Sacrifice

Rabbi Alexander D. Goode gave up his life vest to save soldiers after their vessel was struck by a German torpedo in 1944.

David Green
David B. Green
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David Green
David B. Green

On February 3, 1944, Rabbi Alexander D. Goode, a U.S. Army chaplain on the U.S. Army Transport, died after giving up his life vest to other soldiers on the vessel, when it was struck by a German torpedo. As the ship went down, according to testimony of men who survived the attack, Goode, together with his colleagues Methodist Minister George L. Fox, Roman Catholic Priest John P. Washington, and Dutch Reformed Pastor Clark V. Poling joined their arms and prayed together.

The son of Rabbi Hyman Goodekewitz, Alexander David Goode was born May 10, 1911, in New York, and raised in Washington, D.C. Goode attended college at the University of Cincinnati, and was ordained at the (Reform) Hebrew Union College in that city in 1937. In 1941, serving as a rabbi in York, Penn., he founded the first pluralistic Boy Scout troop of its kind in the U.S., which included both and black and white boys of different religious backgrounds. When World War II broke out, he applied for service as an army chaplain (the navy had earlier turned him down), and was sent to the Army Chaplains School at Harvard University, where he met Rev. Fox. Following graduation, Goode was assigned to a base in the U.S., but asked for transfer to a combat posting, and was assigned to sail with the Dorchester to a U.S. Army base in Narsarssuak, Greenland.

On January 23, 1943, the USAT Dorchester, a 5,600-ton converted passenger steamer, sailed from Boston toward Greenland, meeting up with three Coast Guard cutters and two other transport ships at Newfoundland. After the war, it was discovered that the Germans had cracked the Allied naval codes, and knew that the six vessels would be heading for Greenland.

On February 3, shortly after midnight, a German U-boat 223 fired five torpedoes at the convoy just south of Greenland; one hit the Dorchester, which was carrying 904 men. The ship immediately began to sink, and 12 of its 14 lifeboats were disabled. Within 30 minutes, the Dorchester had sunk, before many of the men even understood the seriousness of the situation.

Goode, Fox, Washington and Poling remained calm, according to survivors, and helped guide men to the functioning lifeboats. All four also turned over their life vests to soldiers who lacked them: Whether this was a spontaneous gesture or something they had discussed beforehand is not known.

One survivor, Private William B. Bednar, 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, said that he saw the four with their arms linked as the ship sank beneath the surface of the sea. "It was the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven," he said.

The Coast Guard vessels were able to rescue a total of 230 men, but 674 died that night, including the captain, Hans Danielson. The four chaplains were all posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the Purple Heart, and on this day in 1951, President Harry S. Truman dedicated a chapel in their memory at the Grace Baptist Church in Philadelphia.

The USS Dorchester, pictured in this undated photo.Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Rabbi Alexander D. Goode, a U.S. Army chaplain known as one of the "Immortal Chaplains" who gave up his life to save others.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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