For Veterans Day : A Forgotten Story

This evening, in honor of Veterans Day which we observed last Wednesday, I am going to tell you a little known and long forgotten story of courage. The courage that I am going to tell you about was not ONLY about courage on the battlefield.  It is also about the courage to overcome bigotry and discrimination. It is about the courage to hold a vision of America as a country where all people, no matter their race, religion or country of origin, could live in freedom and equality. It is a vision of the United States as a country free of prejudice, hatred, and discrimination. It is a vision of America that truly honors the men and women of our armed forces who serve our country so bravely.

Of all of the battles in United States history, the battle for Iwo Jima during World War ll is one of the most famous. Iwo Jima is a volcanic island only 650 miles from Tokyo. It lay midway between Japan and the American bomber bases in the Marianas, an archipelago in the western North Pacific. It was crucial for Japan to maintain control of Iwo Jima to prevent a United States invasion of mainland Japan. It was equally important for US forces to evict the Japanese from this island fortress and use its air fields as staging grounds for bombing Japan.

Twenty two thousand Japanese soldiers defended Iwo Jima. These soldiers were burrowed in underground fortresses. There were no front lines in Iwo Jima. American soldiers fought above ground, and Japanese soldiers fought from underneath them. American soldiers rarely caught a glimpse of the men they were fighting. One hundred and ten thousand Marines, among them approximately 1500 Jewish marines, were transported on 880 ships to invade the island.

The Japanese were given the order to fight to the death. There was to be no surrender. In 36 days of fighting, 6,825 Americans were killed and 19,000 wounded. Virtually all 22,000 Japanese soldiers were killed.

When the fighting was over, Division Chaplain Warren Cuthriell, a Protestant minister, asked Rabbi Roland Gittelsohn, a Marine chaplain, to deliver a memorial sermon at a joint religious ceremony dedicating the Marine cemetery. Rabbi Gittelsohn had been in the thick of the fighting, ministering to Marines of all faiths during the battle. He was awarded three combat ribbons for his service under fire. Yet, the majority of Protestant chaplains objected to Rabbi Gittelsohn’s preaching over predominantly Christian graves. Catholic chaplains opposed any form of combined worship, basing their opposition on Church doctrine.

To his credit, Chaplain Cuthriell refused to change his order, but Rabbi Gittelsohn convinced him that it would be better to have three separate services. Seventy soldiers attended Rabbi Gittlesohn’s service, where he delivered the sermon that he had originally prepared for the joint worship. The following is an excerpt from that sermon:

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, 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 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. “

Although few people heard the sermon that day, a number of Christian chaplains did attend in protest of the cancellation of the joint worship.  A Protestant chaplain who heard Rabbi Gittlelsohn borrowed a copy of the sermon. He made more copies and circulated them among thousands of soldiers. Some sent it home in letters to their family. The story was picked up by Armed Forces Radio and broadcast throughout the world. Parts of the sermon were published in Time Magazine. Shortly before his death in 1995, Rabbi Gittelsohn read from the sermon at the 50th anniversary of the dedication of the Iwo Jima Memorial in Washington DC. He said, “I have often wondered if anyone would ever have heard of my Iwo Jima sermon if not for the bigoted attempt to ban it.”

Each year on Veterans Day, November 11th, we honor living veterans and the memory of veterans past, especially those we know and love.

We acknowledge the horrific risk they willingly took and the appalling sacrifices they made for the sake of others, not least ourselves.

We also honor the millions of veterans who never saw combat but who confronted its real possibility in their lives, and the 1.2 million Americans now on active duty — including more than 10,000 Jews serving in our armed forces today.

We remember the families and loved ones, worried at home while their veterans are off at war.

Let us never forget the sacrifices made by our men and women in the armed forces, past and present, who serve so that we may live in freedom.

To that let us say to that: AMEN!