York County’s Four Chaplains Memorial keeps story of World War II heroism alive

Show Caption

Hide Caption

Four Chaplains Prayer Breakfast in York (2011)

Archive of the Four Chaplains Prayer Breakfast held at the Yorktowne Hotel in 2011.

Paul Kuehnel, York Daily Record

It’s in the early morning hours of Feb. 3, 1943, 80 years ago, and World War II is at its midway mark.

A torpedo from a German submarine strikes the troop transport Dorchester carrying about 900 American fighting men in the North Atlantic.

Things went dark, but four men became a light in this darkness, heroically running order through the chaos.

They were the four chaplains, aboard this transport on their way to the European Theatre of War. Their group included two Protestants, George L. Fox and Clark V. Poling; one Roman Catholic, John P. Washington; and a rabbi, Alexander D. Goode from York.

The chaplains opened a locker and handed out life jackets until it was empty. They then took off their own vests and handed them to those without.

Those life jackets gave those four soldiers a chance at life in the near freezing water. The Dorchester went down in minutes, the four chaplains aboard, their arms locked, praying to the end.

That story is familiar to some York County residents, but maybe the number is diminishing as the years pass and the World War II heroism of the Greatest Generation fades.

The York County-based Four Chaplains Memorial wants to change that.

More from McClure: Plans call for investment in this York neighborhood after decades of neglect

Story comes into focus

I’ve written about this story for years. But in preparing for an upcoming episode of the YouTube/podcast series “Hometown History,” three parts of the Four Chaplains story came into focus.

I had always thought that Goode was in his 40s, with his doctorate from Johns Hopkins and his tenure as rabbi at Temple Beth Israel and all.

In fact, he was a few months short of his 32nd birthday and left behind his young wife and one child.

If he had survived and lived to be, say 80, many York County residents alive today likely would have known him. Our history is that short.

And then there is the story of the gloves. I had read that one of the chaplains had given up his life jacket — and gloves. That was Goode. John Mahoney, the recipient, later said that he was headed back to his quarters for his gloves when Goode stopped him and offered him his. Mahoney objected, but the rabbi said he had another pair.

Mahoney later doubted that Goode carried a second pair and concluded that the rabbi knew he would not be leaving the ship. Estimates vary about how long the Dorchester was afloat after the strike, but let’s consider about 22 minutes.

Goode’s intervention in turning Mahoney back toward lifeboats might have kept him from drowning.

Then there’s the story of Charles Walter David Jr., a Black man and a crewman of the Coast Guard cutter Comanche, a Dorchester support vessel.

He climbed into Dorchester lifeboats to hoist freezing survivors to safety.

“Even though David was one of the lowest-ranking men on his ship and his own nation considered him a second-class citizen,” a National World War II Museum story states, “he willingly put his life at risk to save his fellow Americans.”

David also entered the freezing water to save his executive officer, the Comanche’s Lt. Landford Anderson, and helped a second shipmate back onto the vessel.

David died just days after from pneumonia that set in after his heroic work.

Spring Grove history: Hoke House facing possible demolition after efforts to save it

Remembering these heroes

There were many heroes that night, one of the worst maritime disasters of the war, a strike in which about 230 of the 900 men on board survived.

The names and deeds of the Four Chaplains and Coast Guardsman Charles David are kept alive in York County by the Four Chaplains Memorial.

A week after I was named a co-recipient of the Four Chaplains award, I asked two of the group’s leaders, Nathan Lightner and Lou Lavetan about local initiatives to remember these heroes.

Q. Why is the story of the Four Chaplains so important for the public to know?

Nathan Lightner: I feel the story is more important to know now more than ever because of the selfless act shown by the Four Chaplains, from four different faith perspectives, but yet they put aside their differences for the good of others.

A message that might be more relevant today than ever before in the history of our nation. The fact that one of the chaplains was from the York community is all the more reason their story should be embraced and cherished by the community. The Four Chaplains have often been referred to as the Immortals and this story should always remain immortal.

Q. Please tell us about Rabbi Alexander D. Goode’s contributions in York County and his family’s connections here to today.

Lou Lavetan: There is an amazing story behind Rabbi Goode’s presence in York. Within the Boy Scout world, he is well known for starting the first nondenominational troop. Prior to that, traditionally Boy Scout troops were organized according to faith or specific groups. Troop 37 was founded by the rabbi and other Jewish leaders in the community.

My great grandfather was a contributor to the rabbi’s efforts. I discovered this one evening while reading through a post on Facebook from George Hay Kain III, and in the photos that he published were pictures of Rabbi Goode’s Boy Scout troop and included in that was my father. That was the beginning of a search into other photos and more history about the troop.

The troop welcomed all faiths, and no doubt was some of the framework for the current status of the Jewish Community Center here in York, which has always been a place where everyone is welcome. Keep in mind I suspect that with the presence of the KKK in York County — in the early 1930s and through the Great Depression — they inspired to unite everyone.

The founders of the Four Chaplains Memorial Prayer Breakfast — Gordon Freireich and Alan Dameshek — have kept the Rabbi’s message alive, which is service over self. We have been lucky enough to be able to carry that message to the next generation of youth who need to hear all messages of the past and be inspired by those who want to make this world a better world.

We maintain a wonderful connection to Rabbi Goode’s son-in-law and grandson, who is his namesake. They have attended our event and are a wonderful ambassador to the world about carrying on the rabbi’s name.

Equally important is that we also are connected to Charles David’s granddaughter, who lives just outside of Washington.

It is said that he brought half of the 200-plus survivors to the Comanche’s rescue ropes. And he died four days later from his acts of heroism. There is an award for heroism within the Four Chaplains honor awards.

While we talk about Rabbi Goode extensively, I think it is important that we also keep in mind other heroes who were influenced by this tragedy and their impact on generations moving forward.

3. What is one thing that most interests you about the Four Chaplains and Rabbi Goode?

Lightner: What interests me most is how, in one instance, they made a decision to sacrifice their lives and how that decision of selflessness still resonates today as much as it did in 1943. It is easy to see why these Four Chaplains are referred to as the Immortals, as their message will live forever.

Lavetan: I like and admire his focus on serving his community and the people in his congregation. And much like my other grandfather who at age 45 tried to enlist in the Army yet was denied, he didn’t give up.

When my grandfather told the recruiter that he knew how to run a kitchen, they allowed him to enlist, and he ran the Camp Pendleton kitchen during World War II. He knew his purpose and mission in life was to serve others much like Rabbi Goode did during his time.

Q. Every year, York County’s Four Chaplains Memorial adds to the memory of these heroic clergymen. Please explain the annual events, scholarship program and other activities of this group.

Lightner: As we enter the 31st year of celebrating the Four Chaplains, the relevance of this group continues to grow. As we celebrated our 30th anniversary in 2022, our scholarship reach expanded to include the issuance of a four-year scholarship as well as the awarding of three school-specific scholarships for schools located within York City.

Looking forward, we hope to continue to expand our scholarship activities as well as develop a curriculum for our local high schools for their local history class offerings. In addition, we are exploring ways in which we can further expand the story of the Four Chaplains in the York community and beyond

Lavetan: My favorite Margaret Mead quote is: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” It certainly applies here as to how we got started.

In February 1993, under the auspices of the York County Chamber of Commerce, we began our journey. The leadership of the Chamber believed that its membership and the York community would be inspired by a prayer breakfast to honor the legacy of the Four Chaplains and to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the sinking of the Dorchester.

The Chamber’s Economics Club became the core audience, and a small committee of volunteers led by Alan Dameshek and Gordon Freireich went to work. The Chamber’s Economics Club hosted the breakfast for a number of years until the community audience became large enough to sustain it.

Our purpose and mission are to provide scholarships for children who wish to go on to post-secondary education whether it be college or trade school and our goal is to assist them and get there in honor of the sacrifices of the Four Chaplains.

In the early 1950s, President Harry Truman honored the Four Chaplains’ sacrifice by creating a Legion of Honor award. York has many incredibly talented and committed citizens who tried to change the world, and we honor their efforts every year.

These are prominent businesspeople, and sometimes they are simply people who have made a difference, as in this year’s award recipient Sandra L. Stockton, who created a foster home for over 100 children in her lifetime. Think about the impact that she created.

And look at Jim McClure. this year’s co-recipient, in which he has made an impact to our community by creating reflections in history, and those reflections should and will inspire others to repeat acts of impact for our community moving forward.

Q. What else would you like others to know about Rabbi Alexander D. Goode and the Four Chaplains?

Lavetan: I can’t help but to personalize this: My grandfather was a financial supporter of Rabbi Goode, and his Boy Scout efforts, as was my father. Additionally, my father was in Rabbi Goode’s Boy Scout troop.

One of the founders with Rabbi Goode of the Boy Scout troop was Harry Welber. Prior to Harry’s passing, he and I had a conversation, and he told me of a family ritual, which I never knew about. Apparently, my great grandfather, grandfather and father all sponsored a two-week Boy Scout camping trip for troop members who could not afford to go. This probably has some bearing on the fact of my commitment to furthering the legacy of the Four Chaplains.

About the Four Chaplains

“Hometown History,” hosted by Jamie Noerpel and Dominish Marie Miller, will tell the Four Chaplains story at 6 p.m. Feb. 1 at Temple Beth Israel. The presentation is free and open to the public and will be livestreamed in the Retro York and Preserving the History of Newberrytown Facebook groups.