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The Youngest World War II Medal Of Honor Recipient Threw Himself On Two Grenades And Lived

“I was kinda devastated when we got the news that all those people suffered there at Pearl Harbor,” he continued. “That very day, a cold chill ran down my spine and I just became obsessed that I had to do something.”

With the Marines, unaware of his true age, the teenager, who had just recently completed eighth grade, quickly went to boot camp at the famous Marine training base at Parris Island in South Carolina. After being assigned to a succession of training units, where he was ultimately qualified to be a heavy machine gun crewman, Lucas was eventually sent to join the 6th Base Depot, part of the V Amphibious Corps, at Pearl Harbor in 1943.

In the recorded interview, Lucas says that prior to leaving for Hawaii, he had become frustrated with not being able to get into combat and had broken ranks to join other Marines heading first to California. “They gave me orders, along with nine others, to stay at the base to relieve older cadres and to send them out” into combat, Lucas said. “That wasn’t my cup of tea.”

An official Marine Corps historical profile makes no mention of this. However, this spirit was certainly present after he arrived at the 6th Base Depot. On Jan. 10, 1945, then-Private First Class Lucas donned a khaki uniform and, with nothing but a pair of dungarees and an extra set of shoes, stowed away on board Haskell class attack transport ships USS Deuel. That ship was carrying the 1st Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment, part of the 5th Marine Division, and was headed to take part in the invasion of Iwo Jima.

“I didn’t even know where the ships were headed,” Lucas said. “I’d never heard of Iwo Jima in my lifetime. I knew I was going away to war and that’s where I wanted [to be], that was my obsession.” 

The Marine Corps had declared Lucas Absent Without Leave (AWOL) and a deserter and put a reward out for bringing him back. The service demoted him to the rank of Private in the process. This was the predicament he found himself in when he surrendered to Captain Robert Dunlap, commanding officer of C Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines while the ship was still underway. 

However, beyond the reduction in rank, Lucas received no further punishment for his actions. Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Pollock, the commanding officer of 1st Battalion, 26th Marines, promptly sent the teenager to join Dunlap’s company as a rifleman. 

The Marine Corps says that Lucas was technically assigned to Headquarters Company, 5th Marine Division, but he landed on Iwo Jima with the rest of C Company on Feb. 19, 1945. He had turned 17 just six days earlier.

The invasion of the island and the subsequent campaign to capture it from Imperial Japanese forces was a brutal undertaking. The initial landings were a particular slog given the volcanic sand on the beaches, which was soft and hard to traverse on foot and was virtually impossible to dig into to help provide any kind of immediate cover against fire from the heavily fortified Japanese positions ahead.

“Thank goodness I didn’t have to go in the first wave, but when we went in it was like all hell broke loose about [sic] artillery, just tearing people up,” Lucas said. “It was just a continuation from night and day for the rest of that battle.”

More than 5,000 American service members had died on the beaches of Iwo Jima. Around 1,800 more were killed in the course of recapturing the entire island over the next month or so. Marines famously raised the American flag on the island’s Mount Suribachi on Feb. 23, marking a major victory against the Japanese. The Battle of Iwo Jima was declared officially over on Mar. 26.

However, Lucas’ participation in the fighting ended the day after the initial landing. He and three other Marines were advancing inland with other American forces when, after passing through a twisting ravine, they came under fire from enemy fortifications. Lucas and two other Marines jumped into a nearby trench, while the fire team leader scrambled to another, only to find it occupied by Japanese troops.

“Well, all hell broke loose and we opened fire on the Japanese. I opened fire, I shot two. The second shot, my rifle, of all things, my rifle jammed,” Lucas said. “When I reached down to unjam my rifle, I saw two grenades. How long had it been down there? I didn’t know. Two seconds?”

“If my rifle hand not jammed it would have probably wounded all of us, not killed us, but wounded us,” he continued. “Then those Japs we were supposed to be killing in front of us would have finished us off.”

Lucas dropped onto one of the grenades and pulled the second one underneath him. Only one went off, severely wounding him in the right arm, wrist, leg, thigh, and chest. The soft sand on Iwo Jima may have helped save his life by absorbing much of the explosion. 

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