As age diminishes the generation that fought and survived World War II—and as our nation marks the war’s 75th anniversaries—the words “Iwo Jima” still give us pause. The battle came near the end of a long and costly war, there was an agonizing loss of life, an amazing photograph captured a moment of triumph, and it inspired many classic novels and films.
Abundant bravery and awful sacrifice have, however, overshadowed a significant moment that occurred as the battle closed. A junior Navy chaplain in a humble setting—a rabbi, Lieutenant (junior grade) Roland B. Gittelsohn—gave one of the finest orations in American history. I make this claim: Of all the words that aimed to capture the meaning of America’s role in the Second World War and to chart the way for the postwar future, this is the speech for textbooks, anthologies, classrooms, recitations, YouTube, memorial ceremonies, and movie scenes.
Navy Chaplains with the Marines in Battle
With 71,000 Marines and 22,000 Japanese locked in mortal combat for five weeks in an area of only eight square miles, Iwo Jima was an island of death. Indoctrinated in their schools and propagandized in the army, the Japanese were so unwavering in their resistance that only 216 were captured during the battle, though a few thousand more emerged from caves in the days and weeks afterwards. The tally of American casualties was 26,000, among them 6,800 dead.
Moving with the Marines and the corpsmen as they faced death were Navy chaplains of the three major faiths—Protestant, Catholic, Jewish. Just as World War II forged a new and more unified America, it transformed the chaplain corps and its understanding of ministry in a pluralistic society. Many chaplains developed collegial bonds and friendships unheard of in their civilian pastoral care, and they ministered for people of different faiths (and no faith) without hesitation. Solidarity among chaplains laid the ground for the postwar interfaith movement.
The first Jewish chaplain sent by the Navy to the Marine Corps was Rabbi Roland B. Gittelsohn (1910-95), who left Central Synagogue in Rockville Center on Long Island for the service. He recalled the example of Protestant Chaplain Herbert Van Meter (1915-82), “one of his dearest friends.” In Hawaii for some weeks when the Division had no Jewish chaplain, Van Meter had organized and led Jewish Sabbath services so often that he was called “Rabbi van Meter.” During the battle, Van Meter
would crawl between attacks from one foxhole to another, trying to reassure his weary, frightened Marines. He would grasp the hand of one, squeeze the shoulder of another and hold firmly to the uncontrollably trembling body of a third. He prayed with them, read psalms to them, helped them feel unashamed of their fear by confessing that he was terrified himself.
The Division Chaplain of the Fifth Marine Division, Warren F. Cuthriell (1900-92), a Baptist, received a rare Navy citation—“whenever the situation permitted, he sought to be of help to men of other faiths as well, winning the affection of all in the division who knew of his selfless devotion to his duties.” Soon after the battle, it was Army chaplain Newton C. Elder, a Presbyterian, who “co-opted” a plane, flew to Saipan, and returned with “nearly half a ton” of matzos, gefilte fish, Haggadahs and wine for the three Jewish chaplains on Iwo to celebrate Passover with their Marines. They were surely grateful that the angel of death had passed over their own foxholes.
The transformation from a parochial to a pluralistic chaplaincy was not, however, instantaneous. Chaplain Gittelsohn encountered the anti-Semitism of the times: a drunk Marine who said, “One good thing Hitler has done is kill the Jews;” a chaplain who refused copies of Jewish Welfare Board and Anti-Defamation League pamphlets, saying, “If you want your Jewish boys to read this trash, give it to them yourself. I refuse to put it on the shelf for Christians to read”; chaplains who voiced demeaning stereotypes of Jews.
Even while the battle was underway, two large cemeteries were staked out, and the thousands of dead were interred in long trenches with chaplains providing the appropriate rituals. For the unknowns, Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish rites were administered. Having worked together in the gruesome but sacred task of consecrating burials all day and into the night, “three chaplains—a Baptist, a Methodist, a Jew—wearier than they had ever been before, climbed into the trench, stood there together before the last row of graves, and held the flashlight for each other as they prayed.” Chaplain Gittelsohn said “it was impossible to forget the brotherhood and love of men like these.”
Dedicating the Fifth Marine Division’s Cemetery
The Fifth Marine Division’s cemetery, laid out in the shape of a cross at the base of Mount Suribachi, eventually held more than 2,200 graves, 38 of them unknowns. The final throes of the battle could still be heard in the distance when it came time to dedicate the cemetery on March 21, 1945. According to plan, Major General Keller Rockey (1888-1970) spoke a tribute to the dead for the Marine Corps and the nation. His remarks were to be followed by the religious dedication.
There were 17 chaplains in the division. Division Chaplain Cuthriell wanted Rabbi Gittelsohn to speak at a joint funeral service, and the Jewish chaplain wrote out a sermon by hand on onionskin paper. In a moment that showed the limits of interfaith solidarity, however, some Protestant chaplains protested that it should not be a Jewish chaplain that prayed over the graves of mostly Christian Marines, and Catholic chaplains voiced their traditional objection to holding a single service for all faiths. They proposed that, following the commanding general’s secular tribute, chaplains and Marines of the three major faiths would move to different corners of the cemetery for their own services.
Cuthriell replied that “the right of the Jewish chaplain to preach such a sermon was precisely one of the things for which we were fighting the war.” When he learned of the objections by some of his fellow chaplains, Gittelsohn later wrote, “I do not remember anything in my life that made me so painfully sick.” The rabbi might have stood on principle, but sensing his superior’s distress, he agreed to lead the Jewish burial service, speaking the same words he had written out for the joint service.
Only 40 or 50 men, joined by three of the Protestant chaplains who were upset by the decision to hold separate services, gathered around Chaplain Gittelsohn, but his words rank among America’s finest eulogies. They expressed America’s highest aspirations, and they still speak to our current concerns.
This is perhaps the grimmest, and surely the holiest task we have faced since D-Day. Here before us lie the bodies of comrades and friends. Men who until yesterday or last week laughed with us, joked with us, trained with us. Men who were on the same ships with us, and went over the sides with us, as we prepared to hit the beaches of this island. Men who fought with us and feared with us.1
Gittelsohn’s repeated mentions of “we,” “our,” and “us,” along with his images of shared experiences, set up the sermon’s major theme. “We” have become a brotherhood on this battlefield, and we must carry that spirit back to our country, where Americans are still divided by race, class, and faith. Surely his recent experiences with anti-Semitism suggested the theme. So did seeing how African-American Marines in Amphibian Truck and Depot companies were so often given the grim duty of recovering remains.
Here lie men who loved America because their ancestors, generations ago, helped in her founding, and other men who loved her with equal passion because they themselves or their own fathers escaped from oppression to her blessed shores. Here lie officers and men, Negroes and whites, rich men and poor…together. Here are Protestants, Catholics, and Jews…together. Here no man prefers another because of his faith or despises him because of his color. Here there are no quotas of how many from each group are admitted or allowed. Among these men there is no discrimination. No prejudice. No hatred. Theirs is the highest and purest democracy. [Gittelsohn’s ellipses]
Gittelsohn, with no library at hand and little time to prepare, leaned on the frame of the Gettysburg Address, speaking of dedication.
We dedicate ourselves . . . to live together in peace the way they fought and are buried in war. . . . Any man among us the living who fails to understand that, will thereby betray those who lie here dead. Whoever of us lifts his hand in hate against a brother, or thinks himself superior to those who happen to be in the minority, makes of this ceremony and of the bloody sacrifice it commemorates, an empty, hollow mockery. [Ellipses mine]
A Marine Corps combat correspondent, Sergeant Dan Levin, was within earshot of the service. In his memoir, From the Battlefield, published on the battle’s 50th anniversary, he reflected, “Once I went into the Marines I left the question of our war’s transcendent meaning to others. Let them make the overriding ideal statements, so that these heroes’ deeds (and mine) would be placed within a moral universe. . . . I . . . could quietly go on with the business of falling, one among many, rifle pointed ahead, shielding the simple rose of freedom with my heart.” Hearing “the slight young chaplain” that day, Levin wrote, “I was vaguely thrilled. . . . I was composing a dispatch in my head, and paragraphs of my story and his speech must have shuttled in and out, like alternating presses.” That first, vague impression deepened with time, and in 1949 he would publish his novel of the Marines and the battle, Mask of Glory, with its bracing theme of Americanization.
Grainy black-and-white film clips of the ceremony show immaculately graded and packed sand with perfect rows of white wooden crosses, “with here and there a Star of David blooming,” in Levin’s words. Some Marines still wore their combat dungarees, and others were in new uniforms as they stood in formation around the cemetery’s perimeter until the rifle salutes, the prayers and the hymns were finished. Then they swarmed across the sand to find the graves of lost buddies. No Marine said a word when another Marine sobbed.
A Sermon’s Long Reach
Other chaplains in the Division had Rabbi Gittelsohn’s words typed, mimeographed, and circulated, and many Marines sent copies home. One reached Time magazine, which published excerpts in July. Quotes from the sermon in newspapers and magazines and broadcasts by Robert St. John and Fredric March reached many stricken American families. One grieving mother wrote Gittelsohn, “Our son . . . sleeps there with his buddies. . . . He was killed February 20. . . . I wish I might read all of your sermon—it would be like a service in honor of the boy we love so well. May I have a copy, please?”
After he returned to his congregation in 1946, Rabbi Gittelsohn spoke at a service for Gold Star families in the New York area, seeking to direct their sadness and grief.
Somewhere there’s a miner’s son just the age of your boy who never had a decent chance in life because his father was killed in a mine accident and he himself has had to slave in the mine ever since. Do something for him, and you keep your boy alive. Somewhere there’s a Negro who can’t be the artist or scholar he wants to be because his skin happens not to be the exact shade of yours or mine. Spend the rest of your days achieving justice and fulfillment for him, and you keep your boy alive. Somewhere there’s a Jew, a young Jew like your son, who has miraculously lived through the horror of Holocaust. Keep that young Jew alive, bring him into Palestine where he can rebuild his life with dignity. Thus you will keep your son alive.
Over the next half century, Gittelsohn became a major figure in American Jewish life and President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. His words at the Fifth Division Cemetery were often recalled, and on the 50th anniversary of the battle, less than a year before his death, he repeated many at the national ceremony at the Iwo Jima memorial.
One of his young congregants became a chaplain. Rear Admiral Harold Robinson was the Navy’s senior reserve chaplain when he retired in 2008. Year after year he joined Marines on active duty, traveling to Okinawa, Guam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. I was with him on one trip. Deplaning at an airfield in Iraq during a short refueling stop, he commandeered a chapel Humvee to visit a Jewish Marine at a camp some distance away, telling the Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps, “It’s only a 40-minute drive!” (I had visions of Moses parting the traffic with his staff as they tore across Anbar province.) Amazingly, he reappeared just as the general was ready to board.
The Gettysburg Address still inspires Americans because, after a costly battle, Lincoln’s words drew on the American past, summed up the sacrifices of the present, and helped point the way for the nation’s future. The chaplain’s themes—overcoming racial and religious prejudice, providing a decent living for all Americans, engaging in the world—animated public policy in the postwar period. For the Second World War, it was the young rabbi who best captured, in stirring and memorable prose, the higher meaning of the war.
Chaplain Robinson helped me understand that I was drawn to Gittelsohn’s sermon because it so well expressed my own American beliefs—beliefs that the war had clarified—beliefs my parents had absorbed during the war and passed on to me—beliefs that came to animate so many postwar developments in American life.
Isolationism: “When the last battle has been won, there will be those at home, as there were last time, who will want us to turn our backs in selfish isolation on the rest of organized humanity, and thus to sabotage the very peace for which we fight. We promise you who lie here: we will not do that!”
Inequality: “When the last shot has been fired, there will still be those eyes that are turned backward not forward, who will be satisfied with those wide extremes of poverty and wealth in which the seeds of another war can breed. We promise you, our departed comrades: this, too, we will not permit.”
Profit over principle: “Once again there will be those to whom profit is more important than peace, who will insist with the voice of sweet reasonableness and appeasement that it is better to trade with the enemies of mankind than, by crushing them, to lose their profit. . . . We will not listen!” (Gittelsohn was no doubt thinking of American companies that had sold scrap iron to Japan until the Roosevelt administration issued an embargo in 1940. The chaplain’s words might help us consider American firms that have helped China develop its internet firewall and visual monitoring technology.)
Life: “Somewhere in this plot of ground there may lie the man who could have discovered the cure for cancer. Under one of these Christian crosses, or beneath a Jewish Star of David, there may rest now a man who was destined to be a great prophet to find the way, perhaps, for all to live in plenty, with poverty and hardship for none.”
I recently polled some military historians and Marine Corps University faculty to ask what speech, oration, or proclamation best captured the meaning of World War II, just as the Gettysburg Address and President Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address unlock the deep meanings of the Civil War. Some pointed to Winston Churchill’s exhortation to fight on the beaches and landing fields; others pointed to FDR’s Four Freedoms. One expressed resolve and the other war aims, but both came too early in the conflict. General Eisenhower’s Guildhall Address in 1945 is indeed moving and eloquent, but it viewed only one theater and our ties with one ally.
In 1945, Gittelsohn’s words embraced Protestants, Catholics, and Jews; whites and blacks. There were American Indians among the Marine code talkers, and he knew that Japanese Americans were fighting with the U.S. Army in Italy. Gittelsohn had surely heard the first reports from the death camps.
In 1945, few imagined an American future of immigration from every continent. Few foresaw that American places of worship would come to include Buddhist, Hindu, and Sikh temples, and mosques. Is there any hint in the chaplain’s sermon that America would refuse new peoples and new faiths?
Soldiers of the United Kingdom fought “for King and country,” but British strategy often aimed to secure the British Empire. Stalin spoke of “Mother Russia” when his intent was to keep the peoples of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in tight bondage to his ruthless will. Americans in contrast fought to make the world—and the American nation—a better place.
And there’s this: The ordinary Marine might not have the theology, but his heart sensed what Gittelsohn came to understand of the war. In 1955 he wrote,
To me, mature religion means recognizing that life is a creative partnership of man with God—that God needs man’s cooperation in a sense quite as much as we need His. Just as it was necessary for us as human beings to do our share in cooperation with God in order to win the war, rather than allowing God to take the entire responsibility.
A few years after the war, the remains of the Marines who fell on the island were repatriated and buried in accordance with the wishes of their families. Some lie at the Punch Bowl in Honolulu, but most rest in local cemeteries throughout America. The day before Memorial Day, when veterans place a flag by a Marine grave with a date of death in February or March, 1945, they catch their breath, shake their heads, and say to themselves, “Iwo.” Iwo Jima, the island. Iwo Jima, the battle. Iwo Jima, the prayer. For the lost, and for the living.