On this day in 1945, a 17-year-old hits the beaches of Iwo Jima. The next day, Jack Lucas would engage in an action that would make him the youngest recipient of the Medal of Honor since the Civil War.
Lucas wasn’t supposed to be there at all. He was too young to be a Marine, but the attack on Pearl Harbor had shaken him to his core. “That very day a cold chill ran down my spine,” he later described. “I just, I just became obsessed. I had to do something.”
He forged his mother’s signature on a consent form, lied about his age, and joined the Marines when he was only 14 years old. He was a big kid, and the recruiter believed him.
Lucas was incorrigible, right from the beginning. He was supposed to stay in South Carolina after basic training, but he hopped on a train with troops who were headed to Hawaii. Once there, Lucas convinced officers that it was all about a clerical error. Not too long afterwards, the Marines discovered his real age. Lucas talked his way out of trouble and was allowed to stay, driving troop transport trucks.
But Lucas still wasn’t happy. He wanted to fight, and he stowed away on a ship headed to the Pacific. “I didn’t even know where the ships were headed,” he later said. “I’d never heard of Iwo Jima in my lifetime. I knew I was on the way to war, and that’s where I wanted. That was my obsession.”
Once the ships were well out to sea, he confessed his presence to an officer. Instead of being punished, Lucas was finally told he could go into combat. “[I figured] that if I was shrewd enough to impose my will on the United States Marine Corps, the Japs would give me little trouble,” he later wrote.
Too young? Too cocky? Lucas would soon see that as well.
Less than 48 hours after landing on Iwo Jima, Lucas was with a four-man fire team. They knocked out a Japanese pillbox, then ran to take cover. Unfortunately, they were surprised by still more Japanese. Lucas opened fire, taking out two enemy before his rifle jammed. As he reached to fix it, he saw two grenades.
“How long had it been down there?” he asked. “I didn’t know. Two seconds? If my rifle had not jammed, it would have probably wounded all of us. Not killed us, but wounded us, and then those Japs that we were supposedly killing in front of us would have finished us off.”
Lucas jumped on the grenades, jamming one down deeper into volcanic ash, but holding the other in his hand. One grenade went off. Incredibly, the other one never did.
He’d saved the other Marines, but they thought he’d been killed, so they left him behind at first. Fortunately, another Marine unit soon found him. At first, they thought he was dead, too. But as the Marines tried to remove his dog tags, Lucas signaled that he was alive by twitching his fingers.
Lucas would need dozens of surgeries, and he would live with metal fragments for the rest of his life—but he had survived the unsurvivable.
“I don’t feel like I’m some big hero or anything like that,” he later concluded. “The real heroes are the ones who had to give their all—their life. They are the truest heroes in my book.”
Americans begged to differ with him. He was awarded a Medal of Honor later that same year.