10/24/06 — Youngest Marine Medal of Honor winner visits SJAFB

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Youngest Marine Medal of Honor winner visits SJAFB

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on October 24, 2006 1:51 PM

For Jack Lucas, diving on a live grenade to save his comrades from certain death at Iwo Jima was a defining moment in his life -- not the fact that he was only 15 years old when he did it.

Monday, Lucas, the 78-year-old Congressional Medal of Honor winner, shared his story with members of the 4th Fighter Wing at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. That story began with a boy determined to help the United States win the war and ended with his recognition as the youngest Marine ever to receive the military's highest honor.

Lucas, like many other Americans, got word Dec. 7, 1941, that air forces from the Empire of Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor.

Thoughts of men dying corrupted his mind, he said.

He wanted revenge for their families and for them.

Still, there were rules -- and he was too young to join the fight.

"I was only 13 but I tried my best to find a way to get into the Marine Corps," Lucas said. "Until one time, I told my mama I would not continue to study or do anything until she signed the paper for me.

"She said, 'I will not lie for you. I will not lie.' So I said, 'I'll lie for you.' I forged my mother's consent and went down and paid a notary 50 cents to sign that paper. He didn't know any different that she hadn't signed it."

Document in hand, he needed only one more thing, he said -- someone to vouch for his age.

"I had a stepfather who didn't like me much," he said. "And I didn't care for him either. He was more than happy to vouch for me."

It was done. He was on his way to boot camp off the Carolina coast at Paris Island.

Lucas survived basic training, probably because of the three years in military school he had endured before he left home, he said. From there, he was assigned to Florida.

"At 14 years old, I was thrilled to death when they issued me a jeep and a shotgun to do the perimeter of the station," he said. "If you can imagine a 14-year-old with his first jeep, I was just in heaven."

When he was sent to machine gun training in North Carolina, he didn't realize the heaven he had found in holding that gun for the first time could lead to hell -- an island called Iwo Jima, Lucas said.

"They told the more experienced Marines to move forward with the other troops," he said. "Well I didn't necessarily like that particular order so I packed my bag and got on the back of that train and went to California AWOL with the rest of the troops. They let me stay in the outfit, and I still hadn't divulged my age to anybody."

His journey to war -- and the Medal of Honor -- continued to the Hawaiian islands -- not far from the attack that changed the course of his life, Lucas added.

It was there that his youth was first discovered in a letter he sent home.

"I forgot the censors, officers in the company, would read the letter before it went to make sure there was no military information in it," Lucas said. "I mentioned my age in reciprocation to a letter I had gotten from my 15-year-old girlfriend back home. I had turned 15 by that time. I learned a lot of times women can be instrumental in getting you into trouble."

His commanding officer soon called him in and threatened to discharge him from the corps. Still, his resolve to fight didn't budge.

"I told him, 'Go ahead, I'd just join the Army and take with me all that Marine training,'" Lucas said. "He figured he'd better keep me."

He was assigned by the colonel to drive a supply truck until he reached an age fit for fighting.

"I did that for many, many months," Lucas said. "But one day, I heard Tokyo Rose come over on the radio and say, 'the gathering of these troops, some 40,000 at Pearl Harbor, are going to attack one of our islands.' Well that gave me a key to go do something. And here I go again."

The 15-year-old boarded a ship of outgoing troops, and with the help of a cousin who happened to be on board, too, stowed away on the vessel bound for Iwo Jima.

The U.S. engaged the island to ensure the fleet of B-29s flying from Guam to Japan were safe from Japanese fighters grounded there.

"At first, the Japanese just bunkered down," Lucas said. "On that island, the Japanese had dug 16 miles of underground tunnels. When the Navy shell from the B-29 came down, they'd be safe and didn't retaliate. So, our people thought that they had been pretty well decimated."

As the vessels approached shore, they learned that the fight was going to be more than a cakewalk, Lucas said.

"The Japanese let about four waves of Marines get to the shore before they cut loose on them. We lost 5,320 men the first two days," he said. "Now you compare that to the violence, in three years, in Iraq."

Lucas and his four-man fire team were among the next waves to wash ashore and engage the enemy. It was on his second day of fighting, Feb. 20, 1945, that the young man showed those men of will what courage really was, he said.

"The second day I was fighting up by the second airfield, and my fire team group sought refuge in this trench that the Japanese had dug," he said. "Our group leader jumped over to another trench and immediately jumped back. He had jumped on the back of a Japanese over there."

"All of a sudden, there were 10, 11 of them standing up in front of us," he continued. "We all opened fire, almost point blank. I shot two at that moment and the second time I fired, out of fate, the rifle jammed."

He frantically tried to fix his gun.

"There was one man to my left, two to my right. When I looked down to unjam my rifle and I saw the grenades in front of my buddies -- and you know grenades will explode after four, a maximum of five seconds -- I knew they had been there a couple seconds and I didn't have time to think about this thing."

In a moment U.S. historians call one of the greatest acts of valor in the history of battle, Lucas took action.

"I knew that it would wound all of us and the Japanese left in the trench would finish us off," he said. "So, I immediately ran the butt of my rifle into one grenade, driving it into volcanic ash and fell on it ... The second grenade that I had in my hand did not explode, but the first one did -- put about 200 to 250 holes in me."

Lucas had saved the other three men in the trench with him. Still, by the look of his blood-covered uniform, they thought he had died and continued to push the Japanese forces back.

He had suffered wounds to the neck, face, brain, lungs, chest, legs, arms and side.

"That was enough for me to bleed to death," Lucas said. "But I guess the soft volcanic ash was the thing that was really instrumental in saving my life. The grenade blew that ash into my wound and sort of tattooed my flesh and kept me from bleeding to death. I'm lying there and bleeding. I didn't scream out or nothing -- I wasn't able to. I had blood running out of my mouth and nose from internal injury. If I had passed out, I would have drowned in my own blood. I thought to myself, 'God please save me.'"

Another group of Americans took that challenge, instead.

"Another outfit coming up saw me moving the fingers of my left hand," Lucas said, adding their medic gave him morphine and attempted to dress his wounds.

"Just then, they covered me with a poncho," Lucas added. "And you know in the movies, I thought 'Oh my God, I'm dead and I don't know it. Who do you know that's been dead and come back and told you how they lived?' I had seen in the movies guys get covered over because they were dead. But I couldn't lift my arms to get the thing off me."

When he got away from the front line -- and eventually off the island to a military hospital -- he got to see firsthand the horrors of the battle for Iwo Jima, he said.

"It was a sickening sight," Lucas said. "Everywhere I looked, there were cots full of wounded Marines. They wanted to remove my right arm because it was such a mess, but I pleaded with the doctor not to cut my arm off. He did save my arm and I can use it fairly well today."

Months of travel and 22 surgeries later, Lucas was discharged from both the hospital and the Marine Corps.

He had fulfilled the promise he had made to himself at 13 years old -- he had fought, and nearly died, to protect his country.

It was time to go home.

"I went home to see my sweetie and get some lip-sugar and President (Truman) called up from the White House and said 'We want you up here by Oct. 2. We're going to decorate you,'" Lucas said. "That was an exhilarating moment in my life, to think that I was going to get to meet the President of the United States."

There he stood, at 17, about to receive the highest honor awarded in the U.S. military.

"I talked to one guy who had gotten decorated before I and he said, 'the president tells you he'd rather have your medal than be the President of the United States.' Well, I had something waiting for him," Lucas said. "When he told me that, I said 'Sir, I'll swap you.' He didn't want to have no 17-year-old kid running the White House."

After that day, he made countless appearances around the country -- a national hero.

"All that and I was only 17 years old, getting to enjoy all of this," Lucas said. "And all I had done was want to fight for my country. You never know what kind of rewards you'll get for doing your little part in defending this great nation."