Tales of heroism, self-giving and compassion abound in accounts from two world wars.
Everyone knows the World War II photo of Marines raising the American flag on Iwo Jima. But few people talk about the chaplain who celebrated a Catholic Mass in the shadow of that historic event.
Fr. Charles F. Suver was a 39-year-old Jesuit priest who was one of almost 60 chaplains accompanying the Marine divisions invading Iwo Jima or working offshore with the invasion fleet. The 1945 battle was the bloodiest in the Pacific.
“There was, as one chaplain put it, ‘a grand rush to the Sacraments’ before the assault waves went in,” wrote historian Robert Barr Smith on the website Warfare History Network. “One young officer promised to hoist an American flag on the peak of Mount Suribachi. Chaplain Charles Suver answered, ‘You get it up there and I’ll say Mass under it.’ Suver’s days on the beach were, in his words, “a jumble of misery and torture and suffering.” He did not exaggerate. On Iwo Jima, the attacking Marines suffered nearly 30 percent casualties. Suver spent three days in a makeshift dressing station, comforting the wounded and the dying.
Although Suver slept the sleep of sheer exhaustion on his first night ashore, Chaplain James Deasy did not. He spent most of the night crawling through Japanese shell fire from foxhole to foxhole, encouraging the men, praying over the hurt, the dying, and the dead. For five nights, Deasy kept on with almost no sleep. On the third night, he was totally buried by a Japanese shell. When Marines came to his aid, his muffled shouts ordered them to stay under cover until the Japanese shelling stopped. Only then was the chaplain pulled from his grave, shaken but still alive.
Though more than 22,000 Marines were killed or wounded during the fighting on Iwo Jima, the U.S. eventually prevailed over the Japanese, and the month-long battle proved to be a turning point.
And Fr. Suver made good on his promise. “On the fifth day of the fighting, as the national colors broke out on Suribachi and the Marines cheered, Suver and his assistant reached the top and promptly celebrated Mass while other Marines were still clearing nearby caves of diehard defenders,” Smith wrote. “A board propped across two empty fuel drums was Suver’s altar, and his vestments were khaki.”