The United States Marine Corps is known as the “First to Fight." The Corps is littered with a roll call of heroes and leaders that make other service branches blush. Names like Puller, Vandegrift, Basilone, LeJeune, Cates, Shepherd, Shoup, Krulak, DelValle, Basilone…the list goes on and on. The battle history of the Marine Corps is similarly filled with places that stand out in American military history. Places like Tripoli, Belleau Wood, Wake, Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Peleliu, Chosin, Khe Sahn, Hue, Fallujah, and many more.
Yet through all of those battles, one stands out among all of the rest. It stands out because of the sheer heroism that seemingly was around every rock and in every foxhole and every pair of filthy, blood-stained dungarees. Heroism that stood out so often that Admiral Chester Nimitz said before the battle was over, “Among the Americans who served… uncommon valor was a common virtue."
The battle is a pinnacle amongst all Marine Corps battles for the sheer amount of American blood spilt in the 36 days on that one sulphur island in the vast Pacific Ocean. It was a name that none of those who fought on the island had ever heard of before, but a name that none of the survivors would ever forget: Iwo Jima.
Over 26,000 Americans were casualties on Iwo Jima. The Americans suffered more casualties than the defending Japanese, the one and only time that imbalance occurred in the entirety of the Pacific War. After the battle was over, three cemeteries were established on the island, one for each division that fought there. The 5th Marine Division’s Protestant Chaplain, Warren Cuthriel, asked his colleague, Jewish Rabbi Roland Gittelsohn, to prepare and deliver a sermon at the nondenominational dedication ceremony for the 5th Marine Division’s cemetery. Rabbi Gittelsohn worked through the night on his sermon for his fallen comrades. However, the prejudice of the day reigned as the other Protestant and Catholic chaplains expressed their concerns that a Jewish Rabbi would be delivering the dedication sermon at a mostly Christian cemetery. Gittelsohn spared his friend any embarrassment and did not deliver his sermon during the dedication, but did deliver it to his Jewish congregation at their own ceremony. Gittelsohn’s friend, Chaplain Cuthriel, got his hands on Gittelsohn’s sermon. He was deeply moved at what he read, and forwarded a copy of the Rabbi’s sermon to those above him.
Once Gittelsohn’s sermon reached more receptive eyes, the power and depth of the words he wrote quickly spread across the nation. Newspapers from coast to coast printed the sermon in its entirety. Radio announcers read it across the breadth of the country as the Rabbi’s poetic, forward-thinking prose fell on astonished and deeply touched American ears.
A native of Cleveland, Ohio, Gittelsohn was a dedicated Zionist and ardent pacifist, before World War II. However, he was a firm believer that the role of a rabbi was to lead by positive example, and therefore when the time came, believing that World War II was a “just war," he volunteered for service with the United States Marine Corps. Rabbi Gittelsohn’s assignment placed him into the 5th Marine Division, just prior to the landings on Iwo Jima. During the vicious fighting on the island, Gittelsohn provided much-needed care for the thousands of Navy and Marine personnel wounded during the fighting. As a result, he was awarded three service ribbons for his role during the fighting.
It was after the fighting on Iwo Jima was over, however, that the Rabbi truly made his mark on history. The sermon he wrote for the fallen has become Marine Corps legend, and holds a hallowed place in the archives of the Corps. His forward-thinking words were nearly revolutionary in the mid 1940s, but were true to their very core. In today’s society, the words that Rabbi Gittelsohn spoke over his deceased warrior comrades are no less true, and frankly, even more important.
Rabbi Roland Gittelsohn's Eulogy
THIS IS PERHAPS THE GRIMMEST, and surely the holiest task we have faced since D-Day. 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. Somewhere in this plot of ground there may lie the individual who could have discovered the cure for cancer. Under one of these Christian crosses, or beneath a Jewish Star of David, there may rest now an individual 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.
IT IS NOT EASY TO DO SO. Some of us have buried our closest friends here. We saw these men killed before our very eyes. Any one of us might have died in their places. Indeed, some of us are alive and breathing at this very moment only because men who lie here beneath us, had the courage and strength to give their lives for ours. To speak in memory of such men as these is not easy. Of them, too, can it be said with utter truth: “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here. It can never forget what they did here.”
No, 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 can even hope to do is follow their example. To show the same selfless courage in peace that they did in war. To swear that, by the grace of God and the stubborn strength and power of human will, their sons and ours shall never suffer these pains again. These men have done their job well. They have paid the ghastly price of freedom. If that freedom be once again lost, as it was after the last war, the unforgivable blame will be ours, not theirs. So it be the living who are here to be dedicated and consecrated.
WE DEDICATE OURSELVES, first, to live together in peace the way they fought and are buried in war. 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 [privates], [Blacks] and whites, rich 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 prejudice. No hatred. Theirs is the highest and purest democracy.
Anyone among us the living who fails to understand that, will thereby betray those who lie here. Whoever of us lifts his hand in hate against another, 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, them, as our solemn, sacred duty, do we the living now dedicate ourselves: to the right Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, of all races alike, to enjoy the democracy for which all of them have here paid the price.
TO ONE THING MORE do we consecrate ourselves in memory of those who sleep beneath these crosses and stars. We shall not foolishly suppose, as did the last generation of America’s fighting, that victory on the battlefield will automatically guarantee the triumph of democracy at home. This war, with all its frightful heartache and suffering, is but the beginning of our generation’s struggle for democracy. When the last battle has been won, there will be those at home, as there were last time, who will want us to turn our backs in selfish isolation on the rest of organized humanity, and thus to sabotage the very peace for which we fight. We promise you who lie here; we will not do that. We will join hands with Britain, China, Russia—in peace, even as we have in war, to build the kind of world for which you died.
WHEN THE LAST SHOT has been fired, there will still be those eyes that are turned backward not forward, who will be satisfied with those wide extremes of poverty and wealth in which the seeds of another war can breed. We promise you, our departed comrades: this, too, we will not permit. This war has been fought by the common man; its fruits of peace must be enjoyed by the common man. We promise, by all that is sacred and holy, that your sons, the sons of miners and millers, the sons of farmers and workers—will inherit from your death the right to a living that is decent and secure.
WHEN THE FINAL CROSS has been placed in the last cemetery, once again there will be those to whom profit is more important than peace, who will insist with the voice of sweet reasonableness and appeasement that it is better to trade with the enemies of mankind than, by crushing them, to lose their profit. To you who sleep here silently, we give our promise: we will not listen: We will not forget that some of you were burnt with oil that came from American wells, that many of you were killed by shells fashioned from American steel. We promise that when once again people seek profit at your expense, we shall remember how you looked when we placed you reverently, lovingly, in the ground.
THIS 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 all humanity everywhere. And let us say…AMEN.
—Rabbi Roland Gittelsohn
Seth Paridon was a staff historian at The National WWII Museum from 2005 to 2020. He began his career conducting oral histories and research for HBO’s miniseries The Pacific and holds the distinction of being the first historian hired by the Museum’s Research Department. In the 12 years he was Manager of Research Services, Seth and his team increased the oral history collection from 25 to nearly 5,000 oral histories.