It Happened Here: Ellensburg Chaplain Celebrates Mass on Iwo Jima | Past
The photo of U.S. Marines and a Navy medic raising the American flag on Iwo Jima during World War II is one of the most iconic images in American culture.
The image of Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal on top of Mount Suribachi has been reproduced and reimagined countless times, was featured on a US postage stamp, was the official image of a demo bond campaign war and reproduced in sculpture at the US Marine Corps Memorial in Arlington, Virginia.
Although this image is well known, the story of an Ellensburg Catholic priest and his role in this event is almost a footnote in comparison.
Reverend Charles F. Suver celebrated mass atop the mountain shortly after the flag was raised, fulfilling a promise he had made shortly before the Marines landed on the island.
Suver was born September 7, 1906 in Ellensburg to John and Josephine Suver. He graduated from what is now Seattle University in 1924, and in 1937, after teaching at Gonzaga University, he was ordained a priest in the Society of Jesus, commonly known as the Jesuits.
He then taught at Seattle Preparatory School, where he earned a reputation as an excellent teacher and strict discipline. He allegedly attacked a student who broke a school rule against running in the hallway.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Suver joined the Navy as a chaplain and was assigned to the 5th Marine Division. He was one of 19 chaplains in the 28th Marine Regiment as it made its way to Iwo Jima.
The Marines were going to need all the help they could get, spiritually and otherwise.
The volcanic island was an important part of Allied strategy in the Pacific, as it provided an airfield for bombers and escort fighters within striking distance of Japan’s home islands.
The Japanese realized this too, garrisoning the island with 22,000 troops firmly entrenched and determined to fight to the last man.
While on his landing ship on February 18, 1945, awaiting the order to disembark the next day, Suver and Navy officers were talking about when they would hit the beach the next day. One of the officers said that if he could get a flag from the ship, he would take it to the top of Mount Suribachi, the 550ft mountain on the island.
Another officer said he would make sure the flag reached the top, and Suver said if they raised the flag he would celebrate Mass below.
The next day Suver celebrated Mass for the Marines on the ship and afterwards told some of them “A brave man does his duty, despite the terrible fear.”
Suver, who landed on the beach with the Marines, proved he was a brave man. Under fire, Suver worked in an aid station, helping the wounded and dying.
Suver wrote to his parents to assure them that he was fine.
“Don’t worry about me: I’m where I want to be and doing the things I want to do,” Suver said in the letter.
Five days after their landing, Suver learned that the Marines were climbing the slopes of Mount Suribachi. Even though the Marines on the mountain were under fire from the entrenched Japanese troops, Suver headed for the top, with his assistant carrying what they would need to administer the sacrament from the church to the top.
The Marines managed to take the peak and hoist a flag. After a few hours, the Marines obtained a larger flag that could be seen better from the beaches and raised this instead of the first flag.
This flag raising was captured by Rosenthal, the AP photographer.
Although there is a question in the historical record as to which flag raising Suver celebrated Mass after – Suver, his assistant and Rosenthal said it was after the first flag, while some of the Marines there said he did so after the second flag was raised – which is It is not disputed that Suver held a church service even as they could hear Japanese soldiers talking in the nearby caves.
Using a plank and two empty fuel barrels as an altar, Suver, dressed in khaki clothes, performed the ceremony for 20 Marines on the mountain.
While Rosenthal’s image became a symbol of America’s progress towards the end of the war, it was not the end of the fighting on Iwo Jima. After 36 days, the Marines finally took the island, killing nearly all of its defenders.
It was the bloodiest battle in Marine Corps history, with nearly 6,900 Marines killed and 19,217 wounded.
Iwo Jima and the subsequent Battle of Okinawa were seen as harbingers of what Allied forces could expect if they landed on Japan’s home islands. These battles were part of President Harry S. Truman’s reasoning for using atomic bombs to force Japan to surrender.
After the war, Suver returned to the Pacific Northwest, conducting spiritual renewal sessions in parishes in the region and in California.
In 1971, Suver began doing marriage counseling, attending retreats in Spokane and Seattle where couples could come and work on their marriages.
Suver would later serve as a chaplain at Park Rose Care Center in Tacoma until 1992. He died on April 11, 1993, Easter Sunday, in a nursing residence on the Seattle University campus after being diagnosed with inoperable brain tumour.
He is buried in Mount St. Michael Cemetery in Spokane.