The Sermon I’ll Never Forget

Dateline: 18 August 2005
Updated: 18 April 2013

Iwo Jima and Suribachi today.

When I was halfway through the 9th grade, my family moved from our tiny ranch house in a suburban subdivision outside Syracuse, New York, to a big old farm house with 25 acres out in the countryside.

A half mile down the road from our new place was a tiny one-room schoolhouse that had been abandoned in the 1960’s. Shortly before our arrival in the community, a handful of local families made a church building out of the schoolhouse. They painted and repaired the structure, moved in a piano, lectern, and lots of folding chairs, before putting up a sign: Calvary Baptist Church. My family started attending regularly.

Prior to that, we had irregularly attended a medium-size suburban Methodist church. Whereas I did not really like going to church before, I thoroughly enjoyed the small, rural, community church. We were packed to the walls on Sunday mornings. If there were any fire codes with maximum capacity allowances, they were surely violated.

Our pastor was Ralph West. He and his wife lived in a neatly-kept trailer next to the church. Pastor West drove a school bus to supplement his income. I remember Pastor West doing his best to teach his flock the complicated Baptist doctrine of dispensational eschatology (a.k.a., rapture theology), complete with diagrams on the blackboard. I remember Pastor West baptizing me. The schoolhouse had no water to dunk me into so we had a ceremony at the bigger Baptist church in Moravia. And I remember Pastor West preaching a sermon that has been lodged in my mind now for 32 years.

In his younger days, Ralph was a soldier in the Marine Corps. On the morning of February 19, 1945 Ralph was among the tens of thousands of soldiers who stormed the black volcanic sand beaches of a jerkwater Japanese island named Iwo Jima.

Iowa Jima is an eight-square-mile speck of creation where God, in His providential plan, foreordained that 6,821 American Soldiers and more than 20,000 Japanese would die in brutal, bloody warfare.

When young Ralph and his fellow Marines swarmed onto the beach that fateful day, they had to make their way uphill in deep sand, with 100-pound packs on their backs. All the while they were totally exposed to the withering gunfire of a well-entrenched enemy (the Japanese had 800 pillboxes and over three miles of tunnels). This attack has been described as “throwing human flesh against reinforced concrete.”

Men were dropping, wounded, dead, and dying, all around him, but Ralph pressed on. Ralph turned to look at his best friend beside him and saw the greater portion of his head instantaneously blown away. This is the way Pastor West’s sermon began. He took his congregation into the battle and he had my rapt attention.

Later, during that first day, having found his way to a secure area, Ralph was part of a body of soldiers who were ordered to march to a tall mountain in the distance. It was Mt. Suribachi, the highest point on the island, and the primary target of the invasion.

After what those men had been through, they were too physically exhausted to make the march. To make matters worse, it was a brutally hot day. Pastor West told us that Suribachi looked so far away. But it was not a voluntary exercise. They started out. Many soldiers fell by the wayside from exhaustion and heat stroke. Ralph felt he would be one of them before he reached the mountain. He did not see how he could possibly make it.

But private West did make it when so many others with him did not. He told us he was able to overcome the pain and fatigue by keeping his eyes on the Mountain and taking it one step at a time. Step. Step. Step. Step. Surely he could take one more step. Each was a challenge. Step. Step. Step. Step. And each step was a small victory. Pastor West told us that he never would have made it if he did not take it one step at a time.

As he preached his sermon that day, he kept returning to those five words: “One Step At A Time.” At one point, he said the words over and over in a crescendo. It was a powerful sermon.

His objective was to associate the struggles involved in the Christian walk with the hardships of a soldier in battle, and to encourage his little congregation to keep their eyes on Jesus as they take life’s journey, one step at a time. It is a fine and compelling analogy.


Five days after the start of the invasion, at 10:20 A.M. the first Marines reached the summit of Suribachi and Lt. Harold Schrier raised a small American flag. Ralph West saw it go up. Later on, a group of marines raised a much larger flag. This raising of the 2nd flag was staged and photographed by Joe Rosenthal. It is the most famous and recognizable war photograph in American history. Private West saw it firsthand.

I have read that the U.S. underestimated the Japanese strength on Iwo Jima by as much as 70 percent. It took 33 days to completely take the island. In addition to the 6,821 American dead, there were more than 20,000 wounded. Only 1,083 Japanese survived.

On top of Suribachi


Anonymous said...

This was a beautiful post. Do you still attend this church? Is Pastor West still around? The Battalion that I served with (3rd Battalion 23rd Marines) was there on Iwo Jima. I served with this same Battalion between '88 and '91 and again in '93 and '94. On the subject of Iwo Jima and some of the men who fought there, go to and look for Faith of Our Fathers. There are some very touching and incredible stories.

Thanks for posting this and thank you to all who gave all.

Semper Fi Devil Dogs!

Matt Davis

Herrick Kimball said...

Thank YOU Matt for being a Marine My dad was an orthopaedic surgeon at Camp Pendleton during the Vietnam War. My stepfather was a Marine. He's the toughest guy I've ever known.

I do not still attend this church. Sadly, it broke apart due to slander and gossip and interfamily bickering. People who called themselves Christians did not act like Christians. It was not a good witness to the community, nor to me, being the new Christian that I was. The whole thing left its scars in my life. I learned a lot from the experience. I learned not to get caught up in such pridefull foolishness. Pastor West and his wife ended up moving to Florida and I do not know what became of him. He was a good man who I respected and I have always felt badly about what happened.

Trish said...

thanks very much for the post my husband is a former marine young and not in war but really respects the sacrafice and bravery of all those who went before him. again semper fi...God bless

Anonymous said...

I was just browsing the net for sermons about Pastor Ralph West. The good news is that he never quit preaching. He is senior pastor of the Church without walls down in Houston Tx. He is doing phenominal and has three locations with about 21000 members.

Herrick Kimball said...

Thanks for commenting. But the Ralph West you're speaking of is not the same person that I wrote about here. My pastor West was older, and he was a white man. :-)

Best wishes,

Herrick Kimball

Anonymous said...

Great story about what sounds like a powerful sermon. One nitpick though. The picture you posted is the staged picture. The famous flag raising shot was taken on the fly. In fact he almost didn't get it. Rosenthal was messing around, checking light levels and so forth. Someone had to tell him he was about to miss it. He wasn't even sure he got the shot until weeks later (film was sent off each day to be developed at rear bases). The larger flag was ordered by a general for psych purposes. He wanted both American and Japanese forces to see that big flag on top of Suribachi. Rosenthal had nothing to do with that.