Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Sermon at Iwo Jima Memorial...D.C.

The fight for Iwo Jima in 1945 was one of the bloodiest  of World War II.
A tiny island in the South Pacific dominated by a volcanic mountain and
pockmarked by caves, Iwo Jima was the setting for a five-week-nonstop
battle between 70,000 American Marines and an unknown number of
deeply entrenched Japanese defenders.

The courage and gallantry of the American forces, climaxed by the
dramatic raising of the flag over Mt. Suribachi, is memorialized
in the Marine Corps Monument in Washington, D.C. 
Less remembered however, is that the battle occasioned
an eloquent eulogy by a Marine Corps rabbi that became
an American classic.

The Chaplain at Iwo Jima

An interesting fact that many are unaware of is...
the  historic events that surrounded a Jewish chaplain
on Iwo Jima, where, 1500 were Jewish. 

Rabbi Roland B. Gittelsohn (1910-95) assigned to the Fifth Marine Division, was the first Jewish chaplain the Marine Corps ever appointed.  Rabbi Gittelsohn was in the thick of the fray, ministering to Marines of all faiths in the combat zone. He shared the fear, horror and despair of the fighting men, each of whom knew that each day might be their last. His tireless efforts to comfort the wounded and encourage the fearful won him three service ribbons. 

When the fighting was over, Division Chaplain Warren Cuthriell, a Protestant minister, he.asked Rabbi Gittelsohn to deliver the memorial sermon at a combined religious servicededicating  the Marine Cemetery.  Cuthriell wanted all the fallen Marines (black and white, Protestant, Catholic and Jewish) honoured in a single interdenominational ceremony. Unfortunately, racial and religious prejudice  was strong in the Marine Corpsas it was then throughout America. According to Rabbi Gittelsohn's autobiography, the majorityof Christian chaplains objected to having a rabbi preach over predominately Christian graves.  The Catholic chaplains, in keeping with church doctrine, opposed any form of joint religious service. 

To  his credit, Cuthriell refused to alter his plans.  Gittelsohn, on the other hand, wanted to save his friend Cuthriell, further embarrassment and so decided it was best not todeliver  his sermon.  Instead, three separate religious services were held.  At the Jewish serviceto a congregation of 70 or so who attended, Rabbi Gittelsohn delivered the powerful eulogy he originally wrote for the combined service. 

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 no man prefers another because of his faith or despises him because of his colour.  Here there are no quotas of how many from each group are admitted or allowed.  Among these men there is...
No discrimination!  No prejudices! No hatred! Theirs ... is the highest and purest democracy.

Whosoever of us lifts his hand in hate against a brother, or who thinks of himself superior to those who happen to be in the minority, makes of this ceremony and the bloody sacrifice it commemorates ... an empty, hollow mockery. To this then, as our solemn sacred duty, do we, the living, now dedicate ourselves: 
To the right of Protestants, Catholics and Jews,
of White  men and Negroes aliketo enjoy the democracy
for which all of  them have here paid the price. 

We here solemnly swear this shall not be in vain. Out of this, and from the suffering and sorrow  of those of  who mourn this, will come, we promise, the birth of a new freedom for the sons of men everywhere.    

Among the Gittelsohn's listeners were three  Protestant chaplains, so incensed by theprejudice voiced by their colleagues that they  boycotted their own service to attend Gittlesohn's. One of them borrowed the manuscript and, unknown to Gittelson, circulated several thousand copies to his regiment.  Some Marines enclosed the copies in letters to their families. 

An avalanche of coverage resulted.  Time magazine published excerpts, which wireservices spread even further. The entire sermon was inserted into the Congressional Record, the Army released the eulogy for short-wave broadcast to American troops throughout the world and radio commentator, Robert St. John read it on his program and on many succeeding  Memorial Days.

In 1995, in his last public appearance before his death, Gittelsohn reread a portionof the eulogy at the 50th commemoration ceremony at the Iwo Jima statue in Washington, D.C.  In his  autobiography, he reflected, “I have often wondered whether anyone would ever have heard of my Iwo Jima sermon,  had it not been for the bigoted attempt to ban it.”

(My grateful thanks to Sol, for sending me this eulogy
of such profound and National significance)

Of interest:   The Iwo Jima Memorial,
also known as the US Marine Corps War Monument,
honours the Marines who have died defending the US since 1775.
It is located near the Arlington Memorial Cemetery, VA.

Merle Baird-Kerr . . . written December 16, 2011
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