Gods work stayed afloat even as the ship went down


Exodus 10:1-13:16

Jeremiah 46:13-46:28

In reading Exodus, we realize what an important model of leadership Moses was. However, Feb. 3 marks the anniversary of four modern heroes: the chaplains of the SS Dorchester, which sank 66 years ago.

A colleague, Rabbi Eric Silver, has written about these heroes and here is some of the story. Their names were Father John Washington (a Roman Catholic priest), the Rev. Clark Poling (a Dutch Reformed minister), the Rev. George Fox (a Methodist minister) and Rabbi Alexander Goode. As chaplains, these men wore the uniform and bore the same hardships as the sailors.

Fox was the oldest of them. He was serving a church in Vermont when World War II broke out, and on that very day, he enlisted in the Army to serve as a chaplain.

Poling was from Ohio and was serving a church in New York when World War II began. He concluded he would enter the Army, and decided to follow his father, who had served as a chaplain himself during World War I.

Washington grew up in the streets of Newark, N.J., and after he became a Roman Catholic priest, went back to serve in the neighborhood he had grown up in.

Goode was a rabbi whose father also was a rabbi. He was serving a congregation in York, Pa., when war was declared. He chose to serve his country by joining more than 300 other rabbis who put on a uniform and thousands of other men of all faiths who served God and country in this special way.

While in chaplain school, the four men quickly became friends. They bonded together in a way that attracted the notice of others. Soon thereafter, they were assigned to the Dorchester with 900 other men, bound for Europe. It was not a luxury cruise and no one was happy, but everyone remembered the four chaplains moving throughout the ship, bringing a message of comfort and cheer.

The part of their story that concerns us occurred Feb. 3, 1943. It was in the Atlantic Ocean about 100 miles off the coast of Greenland, in an area known as “Torpedo Alley” because of the German submarines that were known to be patrolling there. The convoy had several escort ships, and there was concern, because one of the Coast Guard cutters had picked up traces on sonar that sounded like a German submarine.

Then, in the middle of the night, a torpedo struck the Dorchester, and the ship began to sink. On deck there was confusion as men tried to run to the lifeboats, and through it all, the four chaplains were seen on deck, directing traffic, calming the men and getting them into lifeboats. They saved many lives by their actions. One man started running back inside the ship. “Where are you going?” Rabbi Goode called to him. “I need to go back to get my gloves,” the man said. “Here,” Rabbi Goode told him. “Take these. I have an extra pair.” The man only later realized that Rabbi Goode wouldn’t have been carrying a spare set of gloves.

Another man panicked because he couldn’t find his life jacket. “Here, take mine,” Father Washington said. And in moments, each of the four chaplains had given their life jackets to four men who had none.

It took only 27 minutes from the time the torpedo hit the Dorchester for the ship to sink. And the men who had gotten away to safety recalled the last sight they had of the ship: the four chaplains, braced against the rail, their arms linked in prayer, their voices carrying loud and clear across the water, as each one prayed in the tradition of his faith, the words of the Sh’ma mingling with the Lord’s Prayer in English and in Latin, as the Dorchester slipped rapidly into the waves.

In 1960, Congress commissioned a special Medal of Valor, never to be given again, to be presented to the families of these heroes. But real heroes never set out to be such; rather, they simply live by principle. And that’s what these four immortal chaplains did.

They lived by their principles, firm in their faith, secure in the knowledge that God had prepared them to be brothers.

Rabbi Larry Raphael
is the senior rabbi of Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco.