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This Day in History: Medals of Honor at Iwo Jima

On this day in 1945, United States Marines make a dangerous amphibious landing on the shores of Iwo Jima. One officer would later describe the 5-week conflict that followed as “the most savage and costly battle in the history of the Marine Corps.”


“Decades later,” historian James H. Hallas adds, “veterans of the battle referred to themselves as ‘Iwo Jima survivors.’ It was that bad.”

Twenty-seven men ultimately received Medals of Honor for their actions at Iwo Jima—more than any other battle in U.S. history.  Two of these were awarded for actions on February 19, the opening day of the assault.


Sergeant Darrell Cole was one of these men. He’d enlisted in the Marines in August 1941 and was originally assigned a role as bugler. Let’s just say that he wasn’t a fan of that decision?!? He’d joined the Marines to fight, not to play in a band. He would soon earn the nickname the Fighting Field Music because he habitually took over for fallen Marine machine gunners whenever he could.


By the time he arrived at Iwo Jima, he’d finally gotten the change he’d been requesting: He was no longer a bugler. He was the leader of a section of machine gunners.


Cole was part of the initial assault on the tiny island. His men had become pinned down by unrelenting fire from three enemy pillboxes, but Cole knew what he had to do.  He had only his pistol and one grenade, but he swiftly ran toward the enemy, launching a singlehanded assault.


“Hurling his one grenade at the enemy in sudden, swift attack,” his Medal citation later described, “he quickly withdrew, returned to his own lines for additional grenades and again advanced, attacked, and withdrew. With enemy guns still active, he ran the gauntlet of slashing fire a third time to complete the total destruction of the Japanese strongpoint . . . .”


Cole was unfortunately killed by a grenade as he attempted to return to his men.


The second Marine to receive a Medal that first day was Corporal Tony Stein. He was an Ohio native, but also the son of immigrants who’d fled antisemitism in Europe. He, too, wanted to fight. “He knew [the Marines] were the first sent into battle,” author Bryan Rigg explains, “and he wanted to fight the fascist warmongers who had attacked his country.”


Stein got his wish: He was part of the initial assault on Iwo Jima’s beaches.  As he moved into position, he saw that some of his fellow Marines were pinned down.


“[H]e gallantly stood upright,” his Medal citation later explained, “and exposed himself to the enemy’s view, thereby drawing the hostile fire to his own person and enabling him to observe the location of the furiously blazing hostile guns.”


That single action, by itself, was courageous, but Stein wasn’t done yet. He’d been able to see where the enemy fire was coming from, so now he charged those enemy nests, one by one. After each charge, he ran back to the beach for more ammunition and to bring a wounded Marine back for help.


Would you believe he did this eight times?


Amazingly, he survived that first day at Iwo Jima, but he was unfortunately killed several days later.


Both men posthumously received Medals of Honor after the war, yet they were just two of the 27 men who received Medals for their actions at Iwo Jima. No wonder Admiral Chester Nimitz was prompted to observe that “[a]mong the Americans who served on Iwo Island, uncommon valor was a common virtue.”


Rest in peace, Marines.

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