The Mass on Mount Suribachi

mass-on-mount-suribachi1

Iwo Jima probably has the sad distinction of being the most expensive piece of worthless real estate in the history of the globe.  Expensive not in something as minor as money, but costly in something as all important as human lives.  In 1943 the island had a civilian population of 1018 who scratched a precarious living from sulfur mining, some sugar cane farming and fishing.  All rice and consumer goods had to be imported from the Home Islands of Japan.  Economic prospects for the island were dismal.  Eight square miles, almost all flat and sandy, the dominant feature is Mount Suribachi on the southern tip of the island, 546 feet high, the caldera of the dormant volcano that created the island.  Iwo Jima prior to World War II truly was “of the world forgetting, and by the world forgot”.

The advent of World War II changed all of that.  A cursory look at a map shows that Iwo Jima is located 660 miles south of Tokyo, well within the range of American bombers and fighter escorts, a fact obvious to both the militaries of the US and Imperial Japan.  The Japanese forcibly evacuated the civilian population of Iwo Jima in July of 1944.  Awaiting the invading Marines was a garrison of approximately 23,000 Japanese troops, skillfully deployed by General Tadamichi Kuribayashi  in hidden fortified positions throughout the island, connected in many cases by 11 miles of tunnels.  The Japanese commander was under no illusions that the island could be held, but he was determined to make the Americans pay a high cost in blood for Iwo.

Tasked with the mission of seizing the island was the V Marine Amphibious Corp, under the command of General Holland “Howlin’ Mad” Smith, consisting of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Divisions.

On February 18th, 1945 Navy Lieutenant, (the Marine Corps, although Marines are often loathe to admit it, is a component of the Department of the Navy, and the Navy supplies all the chaplains that serve with it) Charles Suver, Society of Jesus, was part of the 5th Marine Division and anxiously awaiting the end of the bombardment and the beginning of the invasion the next day.  Chaplain Suver was one of 19 Catholic priests participating in the invasion as a chaplain.

Father Suver had been born in Ellensburg, Washington in 1907.    Graduating from Seattle College in 1924, he was ordained as a priest in 1937, having taught at Gonzaga University in Spokane.   Prior to the war, while teaching at Seattle Prep, he rigorously enforced the no running rules in the hall, even going so far as to tackle one errant student!  Father Suver was remembered as a strict disciplinarian but also a fine teacher. Shortly after Pearl Harbor, he joined the navy as a chaplain. 

On February 18th, 1945, Chaplain Suver was discussing the upcoming invasion with other Marine officers.  A lieutenant told him that he intended to take an American flag onto the top of Mount Suribachi.  Suver responded that if he did that, he would say mass under it.

At 5:30 AM the next morning Father Suver said mass for the Marines aboard his ship, LST 684. (The official meaning of LST was Landing Ship, Tank;  the troops designated them Large Slow Target.)  After mass, nervous Marines, more than a few of whom had not much longer to live, bombarded the chaplain with questions, especially questions about courage.  He responded, “ A courageous man goes on fulfilling his duty despite the fear gnawing away inside.  Many men are fearless, for many different reasons, but fewer are courageous.” 

Chaplain Suver landed at Green Beach, the landing zone closest to Mount Suribachi.  He hit the beach in the ninth wave at 9:40 AM into a chaotic hell of combat that would last two days.   Father Suver, as he went about his tasks of tending the wounded and administering the Last Sacrament, time and again almost lost his life.  It was a medium miracle that any Marines got off Green Beach alive, but ultimately after 48 hours they overcame the desperate Japanese resistance at the base of Mount Suribachi.

On February 23, Chaplain Suver joined with the men raising the flag on Mount Suribachi and said mass prior to the raising of the flag.  The photo at the top of this post is of  the mass.  This mass was said in the very teeth of death.  Japanese resistance was still very much alive on Mount Suribachi.  While he was saying mass Father Suver could hear Japanese talking from caves nearby.  For whatever reason, my bet would be on divine intervention, the Japanese did not attack the mass, and the flag was raised.  A controversy has developed as to whether the mass occurred before the first flag raising, or after the second flag raising which was immortalized in this photograph taken by the late Joe Rosenthal. 

flagraisingphotographiwojima

A  good report on this controversy is here in an article for The Remnant newspaper.  Considering that these events were occurring in the midst of a chaotic battle, I am not surprised that memories would differ as to exact times decades later.  I assume that one way to resolve the issue would be by trying to identify the Marines in the mass pictures, but I lack the resources or the time to do so for this post.  Further information on the issue of when the mass was said in reference to the flag raisings is here.  Although interesting it is also beside the point.  The important thing is that Christ in the Eucharist was brought into that scene of death and carnage on Mount Suribachi that day and that Father Suver, at great risk to his own life, did it. 

I would like to be able to tell you that the mass and the flag raising came at the end of the battle for Iwo Jima.  However, the battle continued to rage until March 26, 1945 and the Marines suffered most of their casualties in the days following the flag raising.  Throughout it Father Suver continued to aid the wounded and give spiritual aid to the dying.  Although his own life was constantly at risk, in his letters home he said that he had it easy and all his attention was directed to the combat Marines who he said were going through hell.  In later years he would observe that the most remarkable thing about Iwo Jima was the courage of the ordinary Marines and the care they showed for each other. 

 All things must come to an end, even something as terrible as the battle for Iwo Jima.  The cost of the battle was staggering.  Reflecting their usual fanaticism and, to be fair, raw courage, almost all of the Japanese garrison went down fighting.  1,083 were captured and 21,703 were killed.  19,189 Americans were wounded, and 6,821 Americans, almost all Marines, would never leave Iwo Jima.  The Marines on Iwo well earned this tribute from Chester W. Nimitz, commander of the US Pacific fleet:  “For those who fought on Iwo Jima, uncommon valor was a common virtue.”  Father Suver would note in later years that invasions were a hard thing to get over.

Father Suver went on to a long and illustrious career as a priest.  He died in 1993 of cancer.  He was granted the great privilege, as Father O’Hara my mother’s parish priest deemed it when my mother died of cancer on Easter 1984, of dying on Easter of that year.

I take the liberty of thinking that Father Suver would agree with these words of Eugene B. Sledge which ended his memoirs of his service as a Marine on Pelelieu and Okinawa in World War 2:

“War is brutish, inglorious, and a terrible waste.

Combat leaves an indelible mark on those who are forced to endure it. The only redeeming factors were my comrades’ incredible bravery and their devotion to each other. Marine Corps training taught us to kill efficiently and to try to survive. But it also taught us loyalty to each other – and love. That esprit de corps sustained us.”

“Until the millennium arrives and countries cease trying to enslave others, it will be necessary to accept one’s responsibilities and to be willing to make sacrifices for one’s country — as my comrades did. As the troops used to say, “If the country is good enough to live in, it’s good enough to fight for.” With privilege goes responsibility.””

19 Responses to The Mass on Mount Suribachi

  • Rick Lugari says:

    Yeah, I’ve always appreciated this story. You certainly have knack for writing good history, Don. No doubt it comes in large part from having read so much history, but maybe you missed your calling. ;)

  • Donald R. McClarey says:

    “but maybe you missed your calling.”

    No doubt some of my legal clients have felt the same way in some of my less successful cases!

  • Matt McDonald says:

    Perhaps someone should do a piece on the mass depicted in “Joyeux Noel” during the Christmas “truces” of WWI? The striking thing was that, while they had trouble communicating (Scottish, French and German Catholics)… when it was time for Mass, the priest began:

    “in nomine, patri, et filio, et spiritu sancto”… and all were in unison. Latin unites us… or at least it COULD, if we would only subscribe to Vatican II and all the Holy Fathers for 1000 years.

  • LtCol David T. Penn, (Ret) says:

    Don,
    Written like a true Marine. I have a calendar from Angelus Press with a strikingly similar picture – must be a frame ahead or behind. I am glad to know the name and story of this remarkable priest of God, the Church, and our fellow marines.
    David Penn
    LtCol, US Marines (Ret)

  • Donald R. McClarey says:

    Thank you Colonel. Everyone who cherishes our country has a large debt to the Marines and the members of the other armed services.

  • Georgina - TEXAS says:

    Thank you for sharing, Don. It brought a mix of emotions. The valor and courage are truly unfathomable! LtCol Penn, God bless you, Sir!

    Did you notice it was a Traditional Latin Mass? How incredibly beautiful to see the Traditional Latin Mass (Tridentine Mass) celebrated under these adverse conditions. Thanks to our Holy Father Benedict XVI this treasure of the Church is once again spreading like wildfire and will no doubt bring many blessings to the Church. Many will flock back and find their way back Home.

    Our Military are the brave soldiers of our County and our Priests are the Military, brave soldiers of our Lord! “Milites Domini!” GOD BLESS THEM BOTH!

  • Matt McDonald says:

    It also is worth noting that the soldiers who had spent days fighting for their lives in deplorable conditions with little or no sleep, manage to assist more reverently than what typically occurs at youth retreats….

  • Don the Kiwi says:

    Great story Don.

    You certainly dig up some excellent stuff.

    I’m the last one to approve of war, but doesn’t fear, and the realisation of our mortality in war bring out the best in men (generally) – honour, valour,bravery and self-sacrifice.

    My Almer Mater motto: “Confortare, esto vir.” – Take courage, be a man.

  • Donald R. McClarey says:

    I hope there is a time Don when humanity can relegate the ghastly chronicles of war to the pages of history, although I doubt if it will come this side of the grave. It is important though not to allow hatred of war to ever diminish our respect for those who conduct themselves with honor and courage in the midst of trials that most of us, fortunately, will never experience. I am sure you will be familiar with this quote, although it is less familiar to most Americans, from the memorial to the dead of the 2nd British Division at Kohima: “When You Go Home, Tell Them Of Us And Say, For Their Tomorrow, We Gave Our Today.” When I write about war, I always keep that quote in mind.

  • Donna V. says:

    As the daughter and niece of Navy men who served in the Pacific theater (another uncle was, as he always put it, “touring Europe with Gen. Patton”), I love these stories and am filled with admiration and gratitude for the incredible bravery and valor of our troops in WWII.

    Col. Penn, your service is appreciated.

  • Jordan S says:

    Father Suver also had a nephew on the same Island. This was a great article to read. Especially for me, as Father Suver was a great Uncle of mine

  • Jordan S says:

    I never had the chance to meet Father Suver. But yes the nephew made it, he’s my grandfather; he also made it through Tinian, and Okinawa.

  • Donald R. McClarey says:

    Thank goodness. Your grandfather had the ill luck to fight in three of the toughest battles of the Pacific. I had an uncle who fought in the Pacific as a Marine. He told me that the most surprising thing that happened to him during his life was that he managed to survive that war.

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