February 23, 1945: The Mass on Mount Suribachi

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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.


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.””

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  1. Gysgt. John Basilone was killed in battle at Iwo Jima. If I am not mistaken, Basilone is the only previously decorated Medal of Honor recipient to ever die in battle.

  2. He married Sgt. Lena Mae Riggi at Saint Mary, Star of the Sea near Camp Pendleton before he shipped off. She never remarried, dying in 1999, still wearing her wedding ring. She gave the $10,000.00 insurance money from the death of her husband, worth over 132,000 today, to his family. An extraordinary man had an extraordinary wife.

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