The man who became the nation's youngest Medal of Honor recipient during World War II has died.
Jack Lucas passed away early this morning at a hospital in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, at the age of 80. He had been battling cancer in recent months.
During the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945, Lucas saved the lives of two fellow Marines by throwing himself on a pair of Japanese grenades that landed in their trench. Only one of them exploded and Lucas (then only 17) miraculously survived, with over 250 pieces of shrapnel in his body. He underwent 21 surgeries in the months after the battle.
But how Jack Lucas arrived in that trench is one of the great stories of the Second World War, and emblematic of "The Greatest Generation." While Mr. Lucas's saga has been told in several books, one of the best accounts can be found in "Flags of Our Fathers," by James Bradley and Ron Powers:
But up on the front lines, American boys were avenging these losses with a fury. Some of the fiercest of these boys were just that: kids barely out of childhood. Jacklyn Lucas was an example. He'd fast-talked his way into the Marines at 14, fooling the recruiters with his muscled physique and martinet style--he'd attended a military academy before signing up. Assigned to drive a truck in Hawaii, he'd grown frustrated--he wanted to fight. He stowed away on a transport out of Honolulu, surviving on food passed along by sympathetic leathernecks on board.
He landed on D-Day without a rifle. He grabbed on lying on the beach and fought his way inland.
Now, on D+1, Jack and three comrades were crawling through a trench when eight Japanese sprang in front of them. Jack shot one in the head. Then his rifle jammed. As he struggled with it, a grenade landed at his feet. He yelled a warning to the others and rammed the grenade into the soft ash. Immediately, another rolled in. Jack Lucas, seventeen, fell on both grenades. "Luke, you're gonna die," he remembered thinking.
The force of the explosion threw Lucas into the air and on his back. After his comrades wiped out the remaining Japanese, they returned to collect his dog tags. Amazingly, they found him not only alive, but conscious. Doctors on the hospital ship that treated him were equally surprised. He became the only high school freshman to win the nation's highest award for valor.
Decades later, James Bradley asked Lucas why he jumped on those grenades. His answer was simple: "To save my buddies."
Lucas was among 27 military members who won the Medal of Honor at Iwo Jima. In a battle where, "uncommon valor was a common virtue," a 17-year-old boy was among the bravest.
RIP, Mr. Lucas.