Marine Corps Base Quantico -- Seventy years ago, the bloody 25-day battle for Iwo Jima, which cost the lives of 4,000 Marines, was winding down and the time to remember the dead began. Fifty Navy chaplains hit the beach with the Marines including Lt. Roland B. Gittelsohn, the first Jewish chaplain to serve with the Marine Corps. Division Chaplain Warren Cuthriell asked Rabbi Gittelsohn to deliver the memorial sermon at a combined religious service dedicating the Marine Cemetery. Cuthriell wanted all the Iwo Jima fallen marines to be honored in a single, nondenominational ceremony.
Unfortunately, his selection caused some consternation, as many felt a Protestant or Catholic chaplain should have the honor. Chaplain Gittlesohn suggested a compromise — that chaplains from each faith provide eulogies at separate services. Several of his fellow chaplains were so incensed by the controversy that they boycotted their own services. Moved by his stirring words, one of those chaplains began circulating copies of Gittelsohn’s remarks which eventually were read into the Congressional Record. His eulogy at the dedication of the 5th Marine Division Cemetery, Iwo Jima — March 1945 embodies the ethos of the Navy Chaplain Corps — to provide, facilitate, advise and care for all:
“… 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… Under one of these Christian crosses, or beneath a Jewish Star of David, there may now rest a man who was destined to be a great prophet — to find the way, perhaps, for all to live in plenty, with poverty and hardship for none. Now they lie here silently in this sacred soil, and we gather to consecrate this earth in their memory.
“… Our poor power of speech can add nothing to what these men and the other dead of our Division who are not here have already done. All that we even hope to do is follow their example. To show the same selfless courage in peace that they did in war. ..”
“… Here lie officers and men, black and white, rich men and poor — 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.”
“…Any man among us, the living, who fails to understand that will thereby betray those who lie here dead. Whoever of us lifts up his hand in hate against a brother, 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. To this, then, as our solemn, sacred duty, do we the living now dedicate ourselves: to the rights of Protestants, Catholics and Jews, of white and black alike, to enjoy the democracy for which all of them here have paid the price.”
“…Thus do we memorialize those who, having ceased living with us, now live within us. Thus do we consecrate ourselves the living to carry on the struggle they began. 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 the sons of men everywhere. Amen.”