It was February 20, 1945, and 17-year-old Private Jack Lucas and three of his fellow Marines were engaged in a fierce firefight with Japanese soldiers on the island of Iwo Jima. Then two grenades landed in the trench where Jack and his comrades were holed up. Unless somebody reacted with lightning speed, it looked like curtains for all four of them.
Jacklyn Harrell “Jack” Lucas was born on St. Valentine’s Day in 1928 in Plymouth, North Carolina. His father worked as a tobacco farmer but died when Lucas was just 10 years of age. Subsequently, Lucas went off the rails. Later, he remembered those times in an interview published in a 1996 issue of Marine Corps Magazine.
“I was kind of shattered to lose my father,” Lucas remembered. He continued, “I guess I just resented a lot of things and that loss. I was a mean kid.” But his mother sent the 11-year-old Lucas to Edwards Military Academy in Salemburg, North Carolina, and according to him, “that good discipline kind of straightened me out.”
Then a pivotal moment came in Jack’s life in 1941 when he was 13 and by now a cadet captain at his military school. In December 1941 the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, precipitating America’s entry into the Second World War. In a 2001 interview with the Life on the Pamlico journal, Lucas recalled the impact that the outbreak of hostilities had had on him.
“I remember a cold chill ran down my spine when I heard over the radio that our troops had been attacked by the Japanese,“ Lucas said. “From that day on, I became obsessed with wanting to go and serve my country and fight the Japanese…I just wanted to go kill some Japanese,” he continued.
Despite his tender years, Lucas was deadly serious about fighting the Japanese. And when he was 14, he did something about it. He was a good size for his age, 180 pounds and 5 foot 8 inches tall. Consequently, he claimed he was 17 so that he could join the Marine Corps Reserve at Norfolk, Virginia. At 17, he needed his mother’s written permission to do this. However, she wouldn’t give it, so he simply forged her signature on the paperwork.
After training at various U.S. bases, in July 1943 he found himself at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. There he completed his training, qualifying as a heavy machine gun crewman. He now traveled to Hawaii to Pearl Harbor where he was made a Private First Class and posted to the V Amphibious Corps.
And now Lucas did something extraordinary. He walked out on his assigned unit. But he wasn’t a deserter, far from it. What he did now was to stow away aboard a ship heading for the combat on the Pacific. Indeed, that was how determined he was to get a crack at the Japanese.
The ship he found himself on was the U.S.S. Deuel, which was carrying a battalion from 5th Marine Division to take part in the invasion of a Japanese-held island in the Pacific, Iwo Jima. By sheer luck, one of Lucas’ cousins, Samuel Oliver Lucas, was a marine and was on board. Consequently, he helped to conceal Lucas during the journey.
Lucas kept his eye on the calendar. Twenty-nine days after he’d stowed away, he gave himself up on February 8, 1944, handing himself in to an officer on the Deuel. That date was significant because if one more day had passed since he’d walked out on his unit he would have been formally declared a deserter.
Lucas surrendered himself to Captain Robert Dunlap, who in turn handed him over to the battalion’s C.O., Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Pollock. Pollock told him he could serve with Dunlap’s company. The planned invasion of Iwo Jima was now just 11 days away on February 19, and thanks to a combination of guile and determination Lucas would be part of it. Another important date came for Lucas on February 14 – his 17th birthday.
The U.S. military was set on seizing Iwo Jima from the Japanese because of its strategic importance. There was an air base on the island, the last one in the Pacific before reaching mainland Japan. This meant it was ideally suited for Japanese fighters to attack the Superfortress bombers that were now flying on bombing missions to the Japanese mainland.
According to Lucas in his Marine Corps Magazine interview, Colonel Pollock had said to him, “I’d like to have a whole shipload of fellows that want to fight as bad as you.” And now everything clicked into place for Lucas. A fellow marine came down with appendicitis, and Lucas was able to take his equipment and, crucially, his weapon.
Lucas and his unit landed on Red Beach on Iwo Jima on February 19, 1944. He later recalled what happened as they hit the beach. “Shells were flying, people were being blown apart, and bullets were everywhere,” he remembered. “They made hash of us. I was as anxious as ever to kill as many Japs as I could kill. It was just where I wanted to be.”
The day after the landing, Lucas and three others from his company were patrolling near one of the Japanese landing strips near Iwo Jima’s volcanic peak, Mount Suribachi. Spotting a Japanese pillbox, they jumped into a trench. Then it became apparent that a nearby trench already had Japanese soldiers in it, 11 of them.
A free-for-all firefight now kicked off. Lucas hit one of the Japanese just above the eye, but then his rifle jammed. Looking down at his weapon he now saw that there were two grenades lying on the ground. Shouting a warning to his buddies, Lucas didn’t hesitate. Diving through the air, he threw himself on top of the grenades.
One grenade exploded; the other failed to go off. Lucas had certainly saved his three comrades from serious injury or death but at an extremely high cost to his own well-being. He now had serious wounds to his right arm and leg, his lung was punctured, and he’d also been hit in the head. His buddies figured he was dead and left him. Fortunately, some other marines came across him and got him medical attention, saving his life.
Putting him back together was no simple matter. His body was riddled with shrapnel, some 200 fragments of which remained with him for the rest of his life. He required no fewer than 21 operations. And then in October 1945, he was invited to the White House to receive the U.S. military’s highest bravery award, the Medal of Honor. Lucas was the youngest combatant to receive this award during World War Two, and the youngest marine ever to earn it.
Lucas was discharged from the Marines in September 1945 because of the severity of his wounds. But in 1961 he joined the U.S. Army and served with the 82nd Airborne Division, apparently determined to conquer a dislike of heights. One training jump almost ended in disaster when both his chutes malfunctioned, but the ever fortunate Lucas managed to survive. He even volunteered to fight in Vietnam, but the Army drew the line at that. He ended his military service as an instructor in 1965.
After the Army, Lucas led what can only be described as a checkered life. Various business enterprises came and went with varying degrees of success. He went through three marriages before finally settling down with his last wife, Ruby. One of his wives tried to have him killed, apparently keen to get her hands on a stack of money he’d made in the meat business. Fortunately, the hitman she hired turned out to be an undercover FBI agent. Jack Lucas died surrounded by friends and family in 2008 at the age of 80.