Shabbat Service Memorial Day Speech
By Colonel Donald Gilner
A tiny island in the pacific dominated by a volcanic mountain and pockmarked with 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 was climaxed by the dramatic raising of the American flag over Mount Suribachi. Less remembered, however, is that the battle occasioned an eloquent eulogy by a marine corps rabbi that has become an American classic.
Rabbi Roland b. Gittelsohn (1910-1995), assigned to the fifth marine division, was the first Jewish chaplain the marine corps ever appointed. The American invading force at Iwo Jima included approximately 1,500 Jewish marines. Rabbi Gittelsohn was in the thick of the battle, 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 his last. Rabbi Gittelsohn’s 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, asked rabbi Gittelsohn to deliver the memorial sermon at the combined religious service dedicating the marine cemetery. As the division chaplain, he was superior in rank above all the chaplains. Cuthriell wanted all the fallen marines – black and white, protestant, catholic, and Jewish – honored in a single, nondenominational ceremony. Unfortunately, racial and religious prejudice was strong in the marine corps, as it as throughout America. According to Rabbi Gittelsohn, most Christian chaplains objected to having a rabbi preach over predominantly Christian graves.
The rabbi and minister were close friends. To his credit, Cuthriell, the division ranking chaplain, refused to alter his plans. Gittelsohn, on the other hand, wanted to save his friend Cuthriell further embarrassment and so he decided it was best not to deliver his sermon. Instead, three separate religious services were held. At the Jewish service, 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 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 duty, sacred duty to 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 that 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.
Among Gittelsohn’s listeners were three protestant chaplains so incensed by the prejudice voiced by their colleagues that they boycotted their own service to attend Gittelsohn’s. One of them borrowed the manuscript and, unknown to Gittelsohn, 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 wire services spread even further. The entire sermon was inserted into the congressional record. Radio commentator Robert St. John read it on his program and on many succeeding Memorial Days.