Monday, May 26, 2014

Fr. Charles F. Suver, S.J. "The Jesuit of Iwo Jima"

Fr. Charles F. Suver, S.J. "Mass at Iwo Jima"
Jesuit Father Charles F. Suver, a native of Ellensburg and a 1924 graduate of Seattle College, celebrated Mass prior to the famed flag raising. What’s more, the idea to plant the Stars & Stripes atop the 550-foot volcano was hatched six days earlier in the priest’s shipboard cabin, 
according to the late Jesuit Father Donald Crosby’s 1993 book, “Battlefield Chaplains: Catholic Priests in World War II.” Father Suver, a Navy chaplain, was among 19 Catholic chaplains and 58 chaplains assigned to minister to the three Marine divisions that wrested Iwo Jima from the Japanese in the war’s bloodiest battle in the Pacific, 
Father Crosby said in his book. On the eve of the landing assault, the then 38-year-old chaplain gathered with friends in his cabin after supper to chat.  “One young officer in the group said that if he could take an American flag from the landing craft, perhaps someone could hoist it on top of the volcano…,” Father Crosby wrote.  “Challenged a young lieutenant, ‘Okay, you get it and I’ll get it up there.’ Not to be outdone, Suver added, ‘You get it up there and I’ll say Mass under it.’ “Six days later he would keep his promise.” But it would be a long six days. Father Crosby, who researched Marine records and contacted several hundred former chaplains in writing his book, chronicled how Father Suver and a fellow Jesuit chaplain narrowly escaped death on several occasions during the battle for Iwo Jima.
Afterwards, “both remain haunted by their memories of the struggle,” the author said. “Most important, both found that the Iwo Jima experience gave them a deepened appreciation of their vocation as Roman Catholic priests, just as it did for their non-Jesuit and non-Catholic colleagues.” 
Father Suver’s landing craft had been among the ninth wave of landing crafts to reach the shores of Iwo Jima the morning of Feb. 19. They hit the beach at 9:40 a.m., which Father Suver thought was “far too early for a priest,” Father Crosby wrote. The chaplain soon discovered his heavy Mass kit would be of no use amid the hazardous surroundings, so he planned to bury it and return for it later. His assistant, however, convinced him to leave the kit out in the open, correctly surmising that another Marine would come along and spot the priest’s name on the kit and bring it to him. The flag raising took place on Feb. 23. 
Father Crosby’s book chronicles how Father Suver celebrated Mass atop Suribachi afterwards on an altar consisting of a board laid across two empty gas drums. 
But Jesuit Father Jerry Chapdelaine, a friend of Father Suver’s, said last week from his residence at Bellarmine Prep in Tacoma that the reverse was true. Father Suver “told me the Mass was said before the raising of the flag – not after,” Father Chapdelaine said. “A lot of people got the deal wrong about the saying of the Mass…Father Suver told me (that he said to his men), ‘I’ll say Mass to you guys and then you raise that flag.’” Father Crosby’s book describes how Father Suver could hear Japanese soldiers chattering in caves nearby as he celebrated the Mass. The capture of Suribachi was a prelude to 29 more days of fierce fighting, in which the Marines suffered most of their casualties, Father Crosby wrote.  
“So many of the men (Father Suver) had seen on top of Suribachi were to ‘remain behind on Iwo.’ One of the severely injured was the brash young lieutenant who had boasted that he would put the flag on top. Tragically, he had been shot in the back before the flag raising and remained paralyzed for the rest of his life. Another Marine had carried the flag to the top.” 
After the war, Father Suver spent more than a dozen years ministering with the Jesuit Oregon Province’s Mission Band, conducting week-long spiritual renewals and other activities. He was pastor of St. Aloysius Parish in Spokane from 1958-66, and later did marriage counseling and retreat work in Seattle, then was chaplain at the Park Rose Care Center in Tacoma, residing with the Jesuit Community at Bellarmine Prep. “I remember him when I was a kid; he was on the Mission Band,” said Father Chapdelaine, who became good friends with the wartime chaplain when they resided at Jesuit residences in Portland and Tacoma. “He was one tough guy…physically strong, and he had lots of courage. But he was a very gentle man, too. “He talked about his fears (on Iwo Jima), but he (said he) didn’t think about that stuff much. He was pretty focused on what was going on. He was sensitive to the guys. 
“And he loved being a military chaplain. He told me they (the military) weren’t going to take him, that he was too old when he applied.” Father Suver died of cancer in 1993 at age 86, 
at the Bessie Burton Sullivan Skilled Nursing Residence at Seattle University. It was Easter Sunday. “He wanted to die on Good Friday – that’s what he told me,” said Father Chapdelaine, who celebrated his funeral Mass at St. Joseph Church in Seattle. “I don’t know if it was connected (to Iwo Jima) or not.”
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Donald R. McClarey said...

Fascinating post. I have also written on the mass on Mount Suribachi:

Priests like Father Suver are torches God sends to us in a dark world.

Anonymous said...

Blessed are the Peacemakers.

Ray said...

Thanks for this story. Have two uncles who were there at the time. When I next see them, I'll ask them about this priest. So many of this once great order were giants of their time. Not so sure if the same statement will hold true 70 years hence. God Bless all the priest who were willing to serve.