Jeff Jacoby / May 30, 2022

‘Like Hearing Lincoln at Gettysburg’

On Iwo Jima, Rabbi Roland B. Gittelsohn was deeply touched that the senior chaplain had designated him to preach the memorial sermon.

When three US Marine divisions invaded the tiny but crucial Pacific island of Iwo Jima on Feb. 19, 1945, they expected the fight to be over within a few days. Instead it lasted more than five weeks. By the time it finally ended on March 26, 1945, nearly 7,000 Marines had been killed in action and another 20,000 wounded. It had been one of the bloodiest battles in Marine Corps history.

Even as the fighting raged, arrangements were being made to bury the dead. Three cemeteries were prepared, one for each division. The 5th Marine Division’s cemetery was laid out at the foot of Mount Suribachi, the hill at the southwest end of the island where the iconic photograph of six Americans raising the US flag had been taken a month earlier. Eventually more than 2,200 men, 38 of them unidentified, would be laid to rest there.

The cemetery was dedicated on March 21. The plan was for Major General Keller Rockey, the division commander, to deliver a secular address, paying tribute to the fallen on behalf of the nation and the Marine Corps. Then the division’s 17 chaplains were to jointly hold a nondenominational religious service. The highest ranking division chaplain, Commander Warren F. Cuthriell, asked the division’s only Jewish chaplain, Rabbi Roland B. Gittelsohn, to deliver the sermon.

A native of Cleveland, Gittelsohn had been ordained at Hebrew Union College and appointed to the pulpit of a synagogue in Rockville Center on Long Island. From his teens he’d been an ardent pacifist, bitterly opposed to war and against military spending of any kind. “If there was one absolute in my personal credo, it was the absolute of pacifism,” Gittelsohn wrote in a 1946 memoir. “I vowed never to aid or bless any war of any kind. I told my friends that I was prepared to spend the next war in prison. I argued with my father that submission to the worst evil was better than resisting it by force.”

Then came Pearl Harbor and the scales fell from his eyes. “I felt inwardly happy that the monies I had called wasted were appropriated and the ships I had not wanted were built,” Gittelsohn wrote.

As it became clear that war against Japan and Germany was an urgent moral necessity, he decided to enlist as a chaplain. The memoir in which he told his story was never printed during his lifetime; it lay undiscovered in the Hebrew Union College archives until long after his death. Only now has it been published for the first time by the Marine Corps University Press. Titled Pacifist to Padre, Gittelsohn’s narrative focuses on his two and a half years as a Navy chaplain. He writes with eloquence and compassion of the struggles — moral, psychological, social — faced by young people caught up in the terrible experience of war. He conveys with almost unbearable intensity the “desperate, longing needs” of Marines about to head into combat and knowing they might never again see the people and things they love.

On Iwo Jima, where so many thousands of American lives were cut short, Gittelsohn was deeply touched that Cuthriell, the senior chaplain, had designated him, a member of “the smallest religious minority in the division,” to preach the memorial sermon. Gittelsohn labored over his remarks through the night, writing them out by hand. Then he learned that several of the Christian chaplains had objected to having a rabbi preach over graves that were predominantly those of Christians. Cuthriell, insisting 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,” didn’t want to back down. But Gittelsohn withdrew, unwilling to mar such a solemn the occasion with controversy. Instead, he delivered the words he had written at the small service held later at the Jewish section of the new cemetery.

“I do not remember anything in my life that made me so painfully heartsick,” he subsequently wrote in his memoir. “We had just come through nearly five weeks of miserable hell. Some of us had tried to serve men of all faiths and of no faith, without making denomination or affiliation a prerequisite for help. Protestants, Catholics, and Jews had lived together, fought together, died together, and now lay buried together. But we the living could not unite to pray together!”

That was not entirely true. Several of the Protestant chaplains, upset by the snub to their colleague, attended the Jewish burial service and were therefore among the first men to hear the sermon he had written. That sermon is now legendary in Marine Corps history. This is how it began:

“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.”

It was not a sermon about religion or God that the Jewish chaplain preached that day. It was a call and a commitment to brotherhood — an exhortation to embrace the equality of Americans not just in the graves of Iwo Jima but back home in America, where prejudice was rife, bigotry rampant, and the ideal of liberty and justice for all, then as now, very much a work in progress.

“We dedicate ourselves, first, to live together in peace the way they fought and are buried in war… . 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… . Among these men, there is no discrimination. No prejudices. No hatred. Theirs is the highest and purest democracy.”

Copies of Gittelsohn’s sermon were typed up and circulated. Many of the men sent copies home. One of those copies reached Time magazine, which printed excerpts that were read nationwide. The sermon was quoted in newspapers and broadcast over the radio. Today it is renowned as one of the great memorial addresses in the annals of America. In the Marine Corps, it is known simply as “The Purest Democracy.”

In 1995, just a few months before his death, Gittelsohn was asked to give the invocation at a ceremony in Washington, DC, marking the 50th anniversary of the battle of Iwo Jima. He spoke the same words he had delivered on that sorrowful day at the foot of Mount Suribachi half a century earlier. It was, said a three-star general who was there, “like hearing Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg.”

“Whoever of us lifts his hand in hate against another, 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,” Rabbi Gittelsohn said. “Too much blood has gone into this soil for us to let it lie barren. Too much pain and heartache have fertilized the earth on which we stand. We here solemnly swear: This shall not be in vain. Out of this, and from the suffering and sorrow of those who mourn this, will come — we promise — the birth of a new freedom for all humanity everywhere. And let us say: Amen.”

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