A new monument to military chaplains of all faiths now stands at a unique American cemetery: It’s located inside the crater of a volcano formed 75,000 to 100,000 years ago.
Nicknamed the “Punchbowl Cemetery” for its unusual location, the spacious grounds are the resting place for members of the military including winners of the Medal of Honor and Purple Heart. The cemetery draws five million visitors per year.
The Chaplain Memorial, a 1,600-pound black granite stone from India, honors all chaplains associated with the Pacific theater. It was dedicated at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, Hawaii, last December when participants sprinkled sand from Iwo Jima on and around the memorial.
In early 1945, the US sustained over 26,000 casualties taking Iwo Jima from Japan in one of the final battles of the Pacific theater in World War II — symbolized by the iconic photo of six Marines raising the American flag atop Mount Suribachi. March 26 marks the end of the Battle of Iwo Jima.
When the Marine Cemetery was dedicated 73 years ago for those who died in the battle, one of its veterans — Rabbi Roland Gittelsohn, the first Jewish chaplain appointed by the Marines — delivered a stirring eulogy at a Jewish service. Last December, Gittelsohn’s words were read once again when the Chaplain Memorial was dedicated.
The memorial was created by a partnership of two historic organizations: JWB Jewish Chaplains Council and the National Conference on Ministry to the Armed Forces. JWB, which celebrated its centenary last year, is a signature program of JCC Association of North America. (It was originally founded as the Jewish Welfare Board.) NCMAF, founded in 1901, is an interfaith group that endorses chaplains for service in the US armed forces.
The organizations teamed up for a project with an ambitious scope. While the Pacific theater is perhaps most commonly associated with WWII, it also represents other wars throughout American history, from the Spanish-American War to the Vietnam War. The Chaplains Memorial encompasses them all.
“Hundreds of thousands of people served in the Pacific theater,” said retired Navy chaplain Jack Lea, a United Methodist and the executive director of NCMAF, who served as master of ceremonies at the dedication.
Many who died in the Pacific theater are buried at Punchbowl. “A chaplains monument there is sort of like the chaplains’ presence in death and life,” Lea said.
The memorial contains three five-inch bronze seals — one each for the Army, Navy and Air Force. Below, an inscription reads: “Honoring military chaplains for service to God and Country in the Pacific Theater, placed by The National Conference on Ministry to the Armed Forces and The Jewish Welfare Board.”
“The memorial has no names,” Lea noted. “It’s just dedicated to all chaplains. It’s very simple. Its simplicity is its power.”
There are over 5,000 military chaplains in the US, including the National Guard, the reserves, and active duty, Lea said, adding that in WWII and Korea, that number probably increased to 15,000 to 20,000.
Rabbi Irving Elson — the director of JWB Jewish Chaplains Council who retired from the Navy in 2016 as the highest-ranking Jewish chaplain in the Marines — said that there is “no way of knowing” how many Jewish chaplains have served in the Pacific theater.
“I would assume it’s more than 50, less than 100,” said Elson.
Several Jewish chaplains served in Vietnam and Korea, Elson said, including Rabbi Mayer Engel, the first rabbi to serve and die in Vietnam; and Rabbi Morton Singer, who also died in Vietnam.
And, of course, there was Gittelsohn in WWII, whom Elson calls his personal hero.
From the beaches of Iwo Jima
Gittelsohn was among the Marines who stormed the beaches of Iwo Jima 73 years ago last month. He would win three combat ribbons for his service in the campaign, which lasted over a month.
When it was time to honor the Marines who had died in battle, Gittelsohn received a request from the chaplain of his division, Warren Cuthriell, a Protestant minister.
“[Gittelsohn’s] senior chaplain [asked him to] deliver the eulogy when they dedicated a cemetery for the thousands upon thousands of US military killed in action at Iwo Jima,” Elson said. “He accepted.”
But, Elson said, “other Christian chaplains objected.” Gittelsohn withdrew from giving the eulogy so as “not to embarrass” anyone, with there being instead “three separate memorials — Jewish, Catholic, Protestant.”
Gittelsohn delivered his eulogy at the Jewish service. Its title, “The Purest Democracy,” refers to one section of the address.
“Here lie officers and [privates], [Blacks] and whites, rich and poor…together,” Gittelsohn told his audience of about 70. “Here are Protestants, Catholics, and Jews… together. Here no man prefers another because of his faith or despises him because of his color. Here there are no quotas of how many from each group are admitted or allowed. Among these men there is no discrimination. No prejudice. No hatred. Theirs is the highest and purest democracy.”
“His words were not able to be recited at the [Marine Cemetery] dedication,” Elson reflected. “It was one of the highlights of my life [to recite them].”
Today, Elson said, “I’m very proud there’s a joint memorial for all of the chaplains who served in the Pacific.”
A memorial with lasting impact
The path toward the Chaplain Memorial began in December 2015, when another retired chaplain, Dick Stenbakken, made a visit to Punchbowl.
Stenbakken, a Seventh Day Adventist, first visited the cemetery decades earlier while serving as an Army chaplain in Vietnam. It left a “rather lasting impact,” he said.
But on the return visit, as he looked down into the bowl of the volcano and noticed the gravestones and memorials to different groups, Stenbakken said he felt “there should be something to commemorate the service of chaplains.”
A chaplain provides a key connection between servicemembers and their faith, Stenbakken said, even if their faith is different from the chaplain’s.
“If a Jewish kid comes to me and says, ‘I want to participate in the High Holidays,’” Stenbakken said, “I’ll get the kid and his family in touch with a rabbi, work with the command so they could get [the time] off.
“Likewise, if a rabbi [has someone come] to him who is Catholic and needs to go to confession, the rabbi would say it’s not something I do, but I’ll get you in touch with my friend,” he said.
A chaplain must sometimes improvise: Stenbakken used stacks of tires as a Communion table during Vietnam. And there are continually unfolding accounts of chaplains who have made the ultimate sacrifice.
“A couple months ago, they identified a Catholic chaplain aboard [the battleship USS] Oklahoma that was hit [at Pearl Harbor],” Stenbakken said.
“He was getting ready for services, in his clerical garb. He pushed back in [to the ship], to help other people out. They identified his remains through DNA. On December 7 [the anniversary of the attack], the Navy Chief of Chaplains awarded his family the Silver Star,” said Stenbakken.
Stenbakken said his idea for a Chaplain Memorial received a favorable reception from Punchbowl — as well as from NCMAF and JWB. He described the latter two organizations’ support as crucial to filing the 88-page application and supporting documents.
“There’s a formidable application process,” Stenbakken said. “It has to be either [from] a military organization or an organization closely affiliated. NCMAF and JWB were able to do that.”
Previously, in 2011, JWB had produced and dedicated another tribute: the Jewish Chaplains monument at Arlington National Cemetery. The monument was the first to commemorate all 250 US military chaplains who died while on active duty, including 14 Jewish chaplains. It stands on Chaplains Hill, beside Catholic and Protestant chaplain memorials.
Takes a miracle to overcome formidable logistics
For the Punchbowl memorial, JWB and NCMAF faced complex logistics.
“The marker had not only to be designed, approved and funded, [but] we had to locate someone in Hawaii to engrave the stone, and contract with them,” Stenbakken said.
The original plan was “to ship the stone from India, from India to California, and transport it to Hawaii by boat,” Stenbakken said. But once the stone arrived in California, the plan changed dramatically — in part because of last year’s wildfires, and in part because of tighter time constraints that required the stone to go to Hawaii by plane instead of boat.
“That a truck brought it through the fire to LA was a miracle,” Stenbakken said. “That an aircraft was there to deliver it to Hawaii was a miracle. That people were willing to work on it that weekend was a miracle.”
The dedication took place on the second day of Hanukkah. (Elson called it “the other Hanukkah miracle.”) Stenbakken, Elson and Lea all spoke, and each sprinkled sand from Iwo Jima on and around the memorial, which Lea described as a way to consecrate and dedicate it.
“To hold it in my hand was tremendous, very powerful, meaningful, emotional,” Elson said of the sand.