Marines.Together We Served

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

All Men's Blood is Red

February 19th was the sixty-fourth anniversary of the invasion of the Japanese island of Iwo Jima. It took a little over a month to secure the island. You see, the twenty-two thousand Japanese soldiers were ordered to repel the enemy or die in the effort. A little less than two hundred survived to surrender to American forces and return to their homes in Japan.

The Marine Corps had one of its finer moments, forever immortalized by the raising of the Stars and Stripes on top of Mount Suribachi four days after the invasion began. When the admiral of the fleet could not see the flag from his ship, he ordered that a second, larger flag be raised. This is the one that was captured on film by photographer Joe Rosenthal. It is still the most famous and most recognized photograph in the world. One of my proudest possessions is a personally signed print of this from Mr. Rosenthal when he was eighty-nine. I met him at a Marine Corps Combat Correspondence Association (MCCCA) Joe Rosenthal Chapter luncheon in the spring of 2000. He passed from our midst in August of 2006.

Once the island of Iwo Jima was secured in late March 1945, a cemetery for the more than six thousand Marines and sailors killed was established on the island. Row upon row of white crosses and Jewish Stars of David stood peacefully where only a few weeks before the land was filled with the clash of war, the screams of men mortally wounded, and with their blood mixed in the soil of this otherwise innocuous island. The commemoration of this cemetery was a solemn event befitting the immense struggle required to attain control of this piece of real estate.

One of the many chaplains who helped officiate at this ceremony was Rabbi Lieutenant Roland B. Gittelsohn, United States Navy. This chaplain was the first rabbi to be assigned to the Marines – specifically, the 5th Marine Division. Of the nearly seventy thousand Marines who fought at Iwo Jima, 1,500 were Jewish. Rabbi Gittelsohn moved in amongst these Marines, offering prayers and words of encouragement to all Marines during the entire invasion irrespective of faith or ethnicity. When the fighting was over, the 5th Division Command Chaplain, Warren Cuthriell, a Baptist, was so impressed with the ministry of Rabbi Gittelsohn during the invasion that he asked him to give the sermon at the dedication of the Marine cemetery. It was Chaplain Cuthriell’s intension to have all Marines honored, regardless of race, religion or creed, in the same non-denominational ceremony. Other chaplains raised a ruckus over this, but Cuthriell wouldn’t budge. Rabbi Gittelsohn did not want to cause any difficulties for his boss and friend, so he offered to oversee a separate ceremony for the Jewish Marines being buried. Ironically, the sermon offered by Rabbi Gittelsohn was copied by one of the Protestant chaplains and distributed to thousands of Marines, who in turn mailed it home to their families. It was picked up by news services and radio programs across the United States, giving it a life that no one could have ever imagined.

As I read again the words of his sermon that he offered these many decades ago, I could not help but think of how applicable they are to today. The following are portions of what he said.

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 prejudices. 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 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 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 who mourn this, will come, we promise, the birth of a new freedom for the sons of men everywhere.

There were that day three Protestant chaplains so incensed by the prejudice voiced by their colleagues towards Rabbi Gittelsohn’s participation in the ceremony that they boycotted their own service to attend the service conducted by Chaplain Gittelsohn.

How true the words written by the Bard of Avon, William Shakespeare, lo these four centuries ago: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; for he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.”

No comments:

Psalm for the Day