Pacifist to Padre
The World War II Memoir of Chaplain Roland B. Gittelsohn, December 1941–January 1946
Edited by Donald M. Bishop
Marine Corps University Press, Quantico, Virginia, 2021, 376 pages
Book Review published on: July 15, 2022
Roland B. Gittelsohn was a military chaplain who served in the Pacific theater during World War II. The first Navy rabbi supporting the U.S. Marines, this American patriot describes his emotional and spiritual journey providing ministry to military personnel regardless of their faith, his experiences of pastoring to youth, and the influence of racism and bigotry at a time in our history when America seemed united as a Nation against Nazi and Japanese aggression. Almost eighty years after the Battle of Iwo Jima, Donald Bishop and the Marine Corps University Press published the memoirs of Rabbi Gittelsohn in the book Pacifist to Padre: The World War II Memoir of Chaplain Roland B. Gittelsohn, December 1941–January 1946.
This publication is an account of Gittelsohn’s selfless service to our country and consists of three separate sections with fourteen chapters and four appendices. The theme throughout this book is Gittlelsohn’s view of the military chaplaincy in terms of morale, service, leadership, and interfaith understanding. Pacifist to Padre attracts attention because it weaves so many fundamentals of World War II chaplaincy into a captivating and thoughtful narrative.
The story begins with Gittelsohn’s strong belief in pacifism and that violence under any circumstances is unjustifiable. Even when Adolf Hitler became the leader of the Nazi party and Germany invaded Poland, he held his views. However, the vicious Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the loss of so many American lives caused him to reconsider his beliefs and apply for a commission to serve as a chaplain in the U.S. Navy. Although this was a personal crisis of conscience, Pearl Harbor solidified Gittelsohn’s views that war must be a last resort for the good of humanity.
After attending the Navy’s chaplain school at the College of William and Mary, Gittelsohn realized he still had more to learn to effectively perform his pastoral duties. He uses vignettes about how a chaplain builds and preserves troop and family morale; assists individuals with solving problems; and helps others realize that in times of war, the needs of the service and Nation must come before the desires and wishes of any one person. What is interesting in this section is Gittelsohn’s explanation of how nurturing the living, caring for the wounded, and honoring those who made the ultimate sacrifice affected his life. For instance, he describes how attached he became to individuals in his unit, only to see them leave to dangerous parts of the world and then read their names on casualty reports. Gittelsohn’s response to these tragic events was to write emotional letters of condolence to family members. Although he felt a terrible sense of inadequacy, Gittelsohn believed that any words of comfort he was able to provide meant a great deal to the bereaved. These letters also helped him recognize the highest meaning of prayer, faith, self-awareness, and resiliency.
The best part of the book was Gittelsohn’s discussion of anti-Semitism among military chaplains. His most heartbreaking experience occurred during the Battle of Iwo Jima at the dedication of the 5th Marine Division Cemetery. Located at the foot of Mount Suribachi, the original plan was for the division commander, Maj. Gen. Keller E. Rockey, to pay tribute to those who lost their lives for the Marine Corps and the Nation. Following his remarks, a common interdenominational service of dedication was to take place. Gittelsohn was chosen to deliver the memorial sermon. At a moment that displayed the limits of interfaith harmony, some Protestant chaplains objected to a rabbi praying over the graves of mostly Christian marines, and Catholic priests complained of holding a single service for all faiths. They proposed instead that chaplains and marines of the three major faiths would go to different parts of the cemetery for their own services. Gittelsohn’s rage over this incident inspired him to write a powerful sermon titled “The Purest Democracy” that he delivered to a small, Jewish service that day. However, his speech was so compelling and resonated so immensely with the public that it was published in many newspapers and magazines. His thoughts provided some relief to many families who lost loved ones, helped people understand why the United States fought in World War II, and why so many individuals had died. What is sad about this anti-Semitism incident is Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish marines and sailors lived, fought, died, and lay buried together at Iwo Jima. They are resting in peace; however, the living could not unite to pray and mourn for these fallen heroes.
Pacifist to Padre is an exceptional reading for military officers. Gittelsohn’s memoir provides a personal account into the Battle of Iwo Jima and one of the most famous military speeches ever made. The book depicts a personal story of his transition from idealistic prewar pacifism to an active role as a Navy chaplain during World War II. It describes the relationships between chaplains of different religious faiths and Gittelsohn’s philosophy on the role of a military chaplain. What is valuable to officers in the twenty-first century is understanding the important contributions chaplains provide to military personnel and their families each day. From performing religious rites and worship services, providing confidential counseling, advising commanders on spiritual matters, and serving as liaisons to local religious leaders overseas, their support to unit readiness should never be discounted or taken for granted.
Book Review written by: Lt. Col. Mark F. Kormos, U.S. Army, Retired, Fort Belvoir, Virginia