From the Archive: Ash Wednesday and Iwo Jima

The Living Church has been published continuously since 1878. In 1945, when Lent arrived earlier than this year, TLC carried this dispatch in the issue dated March 4, 1945. 

By Clifford P. Morehouse

Approaching Iwo Jima

Dear family: this is Sunday. At least, out here in the Western Pacific it is Sunday, February 18, 1945. Back in the United States it is Saturday, February 17th. But to the thousands of Marines in this convoy, the will land tomorrow on a hostile little island virtually in Tokyo’s front yard, it is neither Saturday nor Sunday, but “Dog minus One,” the day before D-Day.

Iwo Jima is not just another Pacific island. It is the first part of the Japanese Empire itself (as distinguished from occupied and mandated areas) to be attacked by Allied ground forces. Only 660 miles from Tokyo, it is the key bastion to the enemy’s strong inner defense ring.

The target itself is an island only five miles long and two and one-half miles at its greatest width, yet it is one of the most heavily fortified spots in the world. In American hands, Iwo Jima will be a constant threat to every square inch of Japan. From its airfields fighters as well as bombers can attack Tokyo, Nagoya, Kobe, and other centers of industrial activity, and can raid Japanese air and naval bases. Vital supply lines between the Empire and its conquered overseas dependencies will be menaced. Oil from the East Indies, and reinforcements to Jap[anese]-held islands in the Pacific will alike have to run the gauntlet, subject to the constant threat of attack from American-held Iwo. And if the power of the United States, with its great and ever-growing naval and air strength, take this island fortress at Japan’s front gate, where may we not strike next? The enemy is well aware of these things, and will doubtless use every ounce of its strength to hold this vital island at any cost.

Tomorrow, at the time designated as H-hour, the curtain will rise. Grim and determined, thousands of Marines will storm ashore. They know from bitter experience – from Guadalcanal through Tarawa and Saipan to Peleliu –that the island, which may seem dead while it is undergoing the preliminary shelling and bombing, will come to life as soon as the as the landing craft near the shore; and from then on to be a deadly struggle until the last Jap[anese] on the island is eliminated.

*  *  *

On this transport, and on the other ships in this convoy, last minute preparations are being made. Gone is the lazy holiday air that characterize the earlier days of our journey. No longer do officers and enlisted men pass the time with card games, reading, or lying in the sun. They have more important things to do.

Some are writing letters to mothers, wives, or sweethearts. Many are cleaning their firearms, making sure they are in perfect condition, fondling them almost lovingly; for when chips are down and the landing craft leave the line of departure, a Marine’s best friend is his rifle.

Still others are sharpening their knives. It is a wicked instrument that “knife, fighting and utility,” with its ten-inch blade engraved with the initials USMC where it joins the haft. You can use it for many things, and it will not fail you. You can plunge it into a Jap[anese soldier] when he leaps out of the midnight black into your foxhole. You can pare your nails with it. You can use it to open a can of the pork-and-egg paste that comes in the breakfast K-ration, and spread that paste on the protein-crammed crackers that we call dog biscuits, but at which dogs wrinkle their noses. It may be necessary to use it for any or all of those purposes within the next 24 hours. A good knife is a Marine’s second-best friend.

*  *  *

Spiritual preparations have not been neglected. Both Protestants and Roman Catholics have been holding daily services, and there were Jewish ones on several occasions. This morning nearly all the Marines attended either Chaplain C. E. Bauman’s Mass, or the Protestant service at which Col. A. A. Gladden of Long Beach, Calif., read the lesson.

The growth of the Protestant daily service is well worth at least a passing note. Begun by a Marine officer Capt. Cyril Millbrath of Duluth, Minn. early in the voyage with five men, it has developed into a regular service with 50 or 60 men in attendance. The first little group met, towards sunset, on the crowded forward deck – just a knot of worshippers surrounded by hundreds of indifferent men talking, playing games, jostling their elbows. Heedless of the noise and confusion about them, the little group sang hymns, memorized and discussed Bible verses, and took turns at offering extemporaneous prayer. Out of this group, and the interest it aroused, developed a regularly scheduled, though still informal service, held at 4 each afternoon in a place set apart for it on the ship’s fantail. There is no doubt that this simple, evangelistic service has meant a great deal to many of the men, some of whom had not attended church for years.

*  *  *

Chaplain Bauman, formally pastor of the Mother of Consolation parish in Chestnut Hills, Philadelphia, was worried. We were standing together at the rail, the night of Shrove Tuesday, watching the dim shapes of the other blacked-out ships, silent and grim beneath the splendor of the star-studded sky. “Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday,” he said, “and I have no proper ashes for my men.”  He had hoped to go ashore at one of our re-fueling ports to obtain palm branches to burn and bless, but had not had the opportunity to do so. After a pause, I was about to make some commonplace remark, but the padre’s thoughts had moved along more serious lines. “By this time next week,” he said softly, “many of these boys will themselves have returned to ashes.”

*  *  *

The Marines are ready. When the word is passed tomorrow morning they will go over the side, down the cargo net into their seagoing tractors and their landing boats, and set out for the forbidding, hostile, shore…May God go with them.

Clifford P. Morehouse (1904-1977) was editor of The Living Church from 1932 to 1952. He served in the Marine Corps from 1942-1945, when he was also assistant editor of the Marine Corps Gazette.


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