A Shot at the Summit
The Forgotten Mass on Iwo Jima

Steve O'Brien




(Posted AUG. 25, 2006) I was once doing research for a paper concerning Fr. Charles Suver, a Jesuit from the Oregon Province who served as a Navy chaplain in World War II.  Suver, from what I ascertained, considered himself a bit of a tough guy and wanted to be assigned to the Marines, where the action was.  He got his wish.  On February 19, 1945, Suver landed with the 5th Marines on the small volcanic island of Iwo Jima in the Bonin chain. 

Four days later, the Marines scaled Mount Suribachi and raised not one, but two American flags on its summit.  Father Suver, meanwhile, had survived the hellish days of fighting and on that same volcano said a Latin Mass for a handful of exhausted young men.  A picture taken of the Mass by a combat photographer, Louis Burmeister, shows Suver before a field-expedient “altar,” surrounded by wreckage and wearing a homemade khaki alb.  In another shot, Suver gives Communion to a man as the high winds on the mountaintop whip at his chasuble. (See picture at left)

Years later, Suver’s assistant Jim Fisk (chaplains were assigned assistants to carry their gear, drive, and perform other handyman duties) published an article stating that the Mass was said under the first flag that was raised, at approximately 10:30 in the morning.  Father Suver, in an unpublished memoir of the battle, also maintained that the Mass was said at the time of the first raising.  The second raising, of a much larger flag, occurred between 12 and 12:30 p.m.  The exact time of this flag raising is still furiously debated amongst Iwo Jima devotees.

The fact that a Mass was said at all under those circumstances on the “Island of Death” is unusual and says much about Father Suver, but this story is not really about him.  It’s about Joe Rosenthal, the AP photographer who took the famous picture of the second flag raising atop Suribachi.  Rosenthal died on August 20th at the age of 94 and his death was extensively reported.  A Google search came up with almost five hundred obituaries, basically the same canned article rehashing the story of his fortuitous shot and how the confusion over the pictures of the first and the second flags led to accusations that he “posed” the Marines.  The controversy, indeed, dogged him until the end of his days.

When I was working on my Suver article, I decided to track down the one man who I was certain was also on Suribachi the day that Suver said Mass, and that was Rosenthal.  It wouldn’t be easy.  I knew he was gun-shy from decades of accusations that he staged the shot and had heard that he would no longer discuss Iwo Jima at all.  Still, I had an ace in the hole.  I knew something about Rosenthal that I hoped would help get me some information from him about Father Suver.  You see, Joe Rosenthal was Catholic.

Just making contact was tough.  A letter sent to his presumed address in San Francisco generated no reply.  Then I tried calling the Press Club there.  They confirmed that he was a member and told me they would have him call me.  Sure.  I next decided that I would have to do it the hard way, like a gumshoe in a 1940s film noir.  I looked up all of the Rosenthals in the Bay Area and started phoning them, one toll call at a time.  I wasn’t too far down the list when one of the Joe Rosenthals told me he was not whom I was looking for, but he could give me the photographer’s number. I gathered this fellow had been bothered this way before.

When I called Rosenthal’s house, I asked if he was the AP photographer from Iwo and got the expected reply.  He was angry and didn’t want to talk about it.  Before he could hang up, I interjected that I wasn’t calling him about the flag raisings and the time discrepancy.  I simply wanted to know if he was acquainted with Father Suver, the chaplain in the Burmeister pictures.  I can tell you that I felt him melting over the phone.  Over the years, this guy had been hit with so many rights that he never expected a left.

I had discovered that Rosenthal was a convert from a wartime issue of America, the once-superlative journal of the American Jesuits.  It was just a small blurb stating that the Iwo photographer was planning on staying in Asia to work on a project regarding the missions.  Rosenthal was obviously a Jewish name and I was surprised when I read this.  I reminded Rosenthal about the story and he filled it in, “A good friend of mine had worked with the Vincentian missions in China.  Before the war I had no wife or real ties.  I offered to go out there but the war intervened and afterwards I had other interests.  I got married in the latter part of ’46. I still remember the missionary Paul Lloyd.  We became quite close.”

Rosenthal revealed that he knew Suver well and was eager to talk about him.  In Iwo Jima mythology, Suver’s Mass had become wound into the tangled skein of flag raising stories and there was no easy way to reconcile the accounts.  Suver and his assistant Fisk, in their separate writings, both insisted the Mass was held after the first flag raising and before the second, more famous one.  Most of the principals who had been on the mountain and left accounts believed the Mass occurred after the second flag raising.  If so, that would mean that Suver and Fisk were liars, or at least drastically mistaken.   After the war, Rosenthal wanted to get the timetable right in his own mind and corresponded with Suver about it, but the exact times of the events couldn’t be resolved.  Rosenthal told me, “I didn’t see Suver conducting Mass.  I think there was a time lag and didn’t want to embarrass Suver and Fisk after Fisk’s article was printed... I think Fisk’s account influenced Suver, who was a bit gung-ho about his intent, since he announced it previously.”

Rosenthal was referring to a now-legendary exchange between himself and a Lieutenant Haynes prior to the landing.  Haynes boasted that he would raise a flag atop Suribachi and Suver replied that if he got it up, Suver would say Mass under it.   Suver plainly enjoyed the manly bravado of the Marine Corps, which closely resembled the esprit d’ corps of the pre-Vatican II Jesuits.

As Rosenthal and I talked, he relived the battle again, straining to remember every detail of that day a half-century before.  He went on, “The fact that a Mass was said up there and was gung-ho... If I was there at noon, how could I have missed the altar set-up?...At a different part of the island I took a picture of a padre, men praying after the Host.  I had to go up and over in a few minutes to the front and didn’t want to make it just Catholic, even though I did have a predisposition.”

We ended up talking for two or perhaps three hours.  I was a graduate student at the time, flat-busted (some things never change) and the long-distance charges from Boston to San Francisco were going to hurt the next month, but I needed to wring everything I could from him.  Suver himself was dead by that time and I’ve never been successful tracking down any of the Marines who were at the Mass.  Some of them, of course, didn’t leave Iwo Jima.  Chesterfields, Lucky Strikes, and six decades have likely eradicated the rest.

What I do regret is not asking Rosenthal directly about his conversion experience. These accounts are always interesting, but especially so when someone comes to the Church from Judaism.  In the 1930s and 1940s, the Catholic Church in America was at its zenith.  Protestant, Jewish, and secular anti-Catholics were as numerous and vociferous as ever, but they were also trembling over the prospect of a Papist conquest, and for good reason. They saw, to their horror, a virile, muscular Church and a Catholic populace finally beginning to stand up for themselves.  It was a brief Catholic moment when those searching for the truth could feel confident that they had found it in the Church of the apostles and the martyrs.  The others hated the Church like poison, but they feared and envied Catholics just the same.  Now they no longer fear or envy the gelded, effete Church establishment and their hatred for authentic Catholics is doubled.

So I didn’t ask Joe Rosenthal if he was still with the Church or not.  Those of us who are born into the Church are faced with particular problems when we consider the structure’s advanced state of decay.  Nevertheless it seems to me that anyone who converted prior to the 1960s has, in a sense, an even greater burden.  They were led to believe that the Church taught unchanging truths, that it was the only certain path to salvation, that the sacraments and the Catholic way assured a reunion with God.  When the Church crumbled into the thing it is now, the feeling of betrayal must have been soul-destroying for many of these people.

Rosenthal, however, still held fond memories of the courageous priests who served as chaplains during the Second World War. “Most of the chaplains were good guys; they could talk the language of the recruits.  They’d often collar a poor photographer for other duties.”  He recalled the type of men who once became Jesuits, a type lost to history. “The Jesuits were admired by all kinds of Marines. They would talk straight talk, ‘listen buddy, you can’t shock me with anything you can say’... If they found a dying Marine, they went right up there, as a matter of course.  They were as heroic as Marines...there was something about the manner of Jesuits.”

Joe Rosenthal, Requiescat in Pace

After all of this, my source was tapped out.  He had dragged himself through the battle again, as he had so many times since 1945.  When he clicked the shutter on the flag-raisers, he not only captured those young men in a moment of time, but he imprisoned himself as well, and from then on he was condemned to recount the events of the day to the press, to critics, to war buffs, to relatives of those lost on the island, and even to meddlesome historians who called him out of the blue to question him about his relationship to a priest. 

When Rosenthal first answered the phone, he played the curmudgeon, but he couldn’t sustain it.  He wanted to tell me all that he knew.  He said to me, “I want to conclude with respect for Father Suver, what he did for the boys, his commitment to them.  I’m quite sure his recollections were not recollections, but assumptions.  In the long run, does it really matter all that much?”

No, it doesn’t matter at all.  What matters is that we Catholics once had priests who were heroes.  Let’s pray for a return of the titans.

And thanks, Joe. Rest in Peace.