The story of the Four Chaplains has gone down in history as one of the most moving moments to come out of World War II, combining heroism, selflessness, and spirituality.
The four chaplains made up a quartet of US Army chaplains en route to Greenland in 1943 aboard the USAT Dorchester when it was torpedoed by a German U-boat. The chaplains were made up of Reverend George Fox, Reverend John Washington, Reverend Clark Poling, and Rabbi Alexander Goode.
Rabbi Goode was born in Brooklyn in 1911, achieving the rabbinate at the Hebrew Union College. He volunteered to serve as an Army chaplain following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Upon boarding the USAT Dorchester, Rabbi Goode was heading for his first official assignment, as were his three fellow reverends. They each held the introductory rank of first lieutenant.
The Dorchester was originally built as a civilian cruise ship in 1926. At the outbreak of war, however, it was converted as a troop transport, taking on the moniker the United States Army Transport. USAT Dorchester left New York on January 23, 1943, with more than 900 passengers, including the four chaplains.
Dorchester Captain Hans J. Danielsen was leery of German submarines, as several other American ships had already been attacked. As such, he advised all passengers to sleep in their clothing and life jackets. On the morning of February 3, 1943, at 12:55 am, Danielsen’s worst fears came to pass—the Dorchester was torpedoed by the Germans off Newfoundland.
The attack caused the ship to immediately submerge into darkness, leading to much chaos and panic among passengers, many of who were civilians. It was here the four chaplains saw their calling, and set out to calm where they could and maintain order where possible.
Many survivors later recounted tales of the chaplains’ bravery—helping injured passengers onto lifeboats and praying with the frightened. Life jackets were passed around and, when the vests ran out, the four chaplains each took the jackets off their own back and gave them up so that others might live.
The four chaplains went down with the ship. As one witness later recounted, prayers in Hebrew and Latin could still be heard in the final seconds of the ship’s sinking. Only an estimated 230 of the 904 onboard survived.
The story of Rabbi Goode and his three comrades was quickly heralded as the ultimate act of heroism, and is still remembered today. All four were posthumously awarded the Purple Heart, and in 1988 Congress unanimously declared February 3 as Four Chaplains Day. The Chapel of the Four Chaplains was dedicated in Philadelphia on February 3, 1951, by President Harry S. Truman, who said, “This interfaith shrine… 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.”
Stained glass windows commemorating the chaplains also hang in the Pentagon and the National Cathedral in DC, and composer James Swearingen wrote “The Light Eternal” in 1992 to tell the story through music.