Legacy of Iwo Jima Rabbi Lives On
New Beacon - April 2004
The battle of Iwo Jima in February 1945 was one of the bloodiest of World War II. Seventy thousand Marines fought an unknown number of deeply entrenched Japanese defenders for five weeks. The Marines suffered 25,000 casualties including 6,000 killed in action.
Following the battle, Rabbi Roland B. Gittlesohn delivered a eulogy at the dedication of the Marine Cemetery on Iwo Jima which resonates today as clearly as it did then.
Rabbi Gittlesohn was the first Jewish Chaplain for the Marine Corps. More than 1,500 Jewish Marines took part in that invasion.
After the battle, Division Chaplain Warren Cuthriell, a Protestant minister, asked the rabbi to deliver the memorial sermon at a combined religious service dedicating the Marine Cemetery.
Unfortunately, the Marine Corps being a reflection of this country was strongly prejudiced. A majority of the Christian Chaplains objected to having a rabbi preach over predominantly Christian graves.
The Catholic chaplains in keeping with what was then Church doctrine, opposed any form of joint prayer service.
Cuthriell refused to alter his plans for a single nondenominational ceremony until Rabbi Gittlesohn prevailed on his friend to schedule three separate dedication ceremonies.
At the Jewish service, which was attended by approximately 70 persons, the rabbi delivered the eulogy he had originally prepared for the ill-fated joint service as follows:
“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 fathers escaped 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 men of each group are admitted or allowed.
“Among these men there is no discrimination. No prejudice. No hatred. Theirs is the highest and purest democracy.
“Whosoever of us lifts his hand in hate against a brother, or who thinks 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 duty, sacred duty, do we the living now dedicate ourselves to the right of Protestants, Catholics and Jews, of white men and Negroes alike, to enjoy the democracy for which all of them here have paid the price.
“We here solemnly swear that this shall not be in vain. Out of this and the suffering and sorrow of those who mourn this will come, we promise, the birth of a new freedom for the sons of these men everywhere.”
Among the rabbi’s listeners were three Protestant chaplains who were so incensed by the prejudice that they boycotted their own service and attended Gittlesohn’s. One of them borrowed the manuscript and distributed it to his division which led to some copies being mailed home.
An avalanche of coverage resulted including in magazines, in the Congressional Record and in U.S. Army broadcasts.
Gittlesohn in 1995, the last year of his life, reread a portion of the eulogy at the 50th commemoration ceremony at the Iwo Jima memorial.
In his auto-biography, the rabbi 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.”