Rabbi Alexander D. Goode was commissioned into the US Army Air Forces in August 1942 as a chaplain. At 31 years of age, he was already accomplished before the war: he had followed in his father’s footsteps and became ordained, received a PhD, married, and had a daughter. As a rabbi at the Beth Israel synagogue in York, Pennsylvania, he often led joint services with Christian churches, offering a message of interfaith unity and cultural pluralism. Following studies at the Army Chaplain School at Harvard University and assignments in North Carolina and Massachusetts, Goode received orders to go overseas, to a base in Greenland.
In late January 1943, he boarded the USAT Dorchester in New York City, a former passenger liner converted into a troop ship during the war. Joining Rabbi Goode onboard were three fellow first lieutenants, all chaplains previously acquainted through their duties: Catholic priest Father John P. Washington, Methodist minister the Reverend George L. Fox, and Reformed Church in America minister Reverend Clark V. Poling. The latter two were previously classmates with Goode at the Harvard Chaplain School. Weighed down with nearly 600 soldiers, 171 civilians, and 1,000 tons of cargo, equipment, and food, Dorchester slipped away from the docks at St. John’s, Newfoundland into bad weather on January 29 as part of the convoy SG-19.
The vessel was part of a six-ship convoy crossing the freezing North Atlantic Ocean bound for a US military base at Narsarsuaq, Greenland. Its primary concern was predatory German submarines patrolling the sea lanes for Allied shipping en route to Europe. The constant threat kept most crews traversing the Atlantic on edge. The convoy soon entered one of the most dangerous sections of the Western Atlantic, known to soldiers and sailors as Torpedo Junction. On the night of February 3, with the troop ship nearly in safe waters, the German submarine U-223 sighted the American vessel through the foggy darkness emerging from stormy seas.
Just before 1:00 am, the Germans fired three torpedoes at the slow target 1,000 yards away. One of the torpedoes smashed into Dorchester’s starboard side near the engine room, opening a hole from below the waterline to the top deck. Many of the 870 men and two women were in their bunks, anticipating their impending arrival in Greenland. Only some had followed the captain’s orders to wear their clothes, boots, and life jackets while asleep, a precaution due to the submarine still lurking somewhere in the darkness. Dozens died in the explosion, and freezing water rushed into the ship. The vessel plunged into darkness from a loss of power, making it difficult for those below deck to find passageways topside. Dorchester began a hard list, making some of the lifeboats impossible to deploy.
As soon as they felt the ship shudder from the explosion, Goode and his fellow chaplains jumped from their bunks and made their way outside. In the confusion, they were a much-needed calming influence and offered steady leadership for the men while the crew struggled to untie the lifeboats. Handing out life vests, Rabbi Goode helped worried soldiers fasten them. Goode, likely already resigned to his fate, calmly offered his gloves to a Navy lieutenant who was preparing to return to his quarters for his own.
Even in the face of certain death, Goode and his fellow chaplains refused to panic. Their calming influence and unwavering courage allowed them to offer help and reassurance to desperate men. When supplies of life jackets ran out, each of the chaplains took off their own and offered it to a soldier without hesitation. Only 25 minutes after the torpedo ripped into its hull, the stricken vessel sank. In his final moments, Goode continued to think only of others and made no attempt to save himself. He lived his devotion to interfaith unity to the end. Multiple survivors reported that, under the light provided by flares, they saw the Rabbi and the three other chaplains on deck with arms locked together praying in unison as Dorchester slipped beneath the waves. Even those with life jackets stood little chance of surviving for long in the 34 degree water. The Coast Guard rescue operations were not swift enough to recover all those unlucky enough to make it into a lifeboat. Of the nearly 900 on board, only 230 were recovered.
The story of Alexander Goode and his fellow chaplains attracted popular attention in the United States. Their heroism in the face of fear and their willing sacrifice in the service of their country and others made lasting impressions on witnesses. Public calls for the four chaplains to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor were unsuccessful because the award was restricted to combatants. In 1944, however, Goode, Washington, Fox, and Poling received Purple Hearts and Distinguished Service Crosses. Further recognition followed in 1961 when Congress posthumously awarded them an unprecedented Congressional Medal of Valor. In 1988, Congress unanimously resolved that February 3 was “Four Chaplains Day” in America.