Seventy-one years ago, Marines stormed the beaches of Iwo Jima, an eight square mile volcanic island. The reason: The island was intended to be a staging base for the planned invasion of Japan (the atomic bomb had still not been successfully tested – and would not be until July, 1945). During the 36 days of fighting, 6,821 American troops were killed. This is only 50 short of the total American KIA totals from the War on Terror (6,871).
Perhaps Iwo Jima is more famous for the iconic image of the flag-raising on top of Mount Surbachi. It is also the place where Medal of Honor recipient John Basilone was killed in action (Basilone would receive a posthumous Navy Cross for heroism). Sergeant Darrell S. Cole would earn the Medal of Honor for carrying out a one-man attack on Japanese pillboxes that had greatly reduced the effects of air and naval gunfire support. Cole was killed in action on the first day of the battle. Later, the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Cole (DDG 67) would be named in his honor. USS Cole is probably most famous for being the target of an al-Qaeda attack in the port of Aden in 2000.
The other Marine to receive the Medal of Honor for heroism on the first day of the landings was Corporal Tony Stein. Stein used a modified aircraft gun to attack a number of Japanese positions, killing as many as 20 of the enemy. He was wounded during the fight for Mount Suribachi, but returned to his unit, and was killed by an enemy sniper on 1 March. Stein would be honored by the Knox-class frigate USS Stein (FF 1065). The Stein spent 20 years in service with the United States Navy before being decommissioned and transferred to Mexico, where she still serves as the Ignacio Allende.
There were 25 other American military personnel who would receive the Medal of Honor for their heroism on that small island. One, First Lieutenant Jack Lummus, had been playing pro football with the New York Giants when Pearl Harbor was attacked. Lummus knocked out three strongholds, but then stepped on a land mine. In 2015, Lummus would be honored by the Giants – despite having only one reception for five yards in his career.
Another was Jacklyn H. Lucas, who stowed away on one of the transports bound for Iwo Jima. Lucas had enlisted in the Marines after Pearl Harbor, falsifying his age and forging his mother’s signature. On the second day of the battle, Lucas dove on two grenades that had been thrown by the Japanese, covering them with his body. One exploded, and Lucas was badly wounded. Despite those wounds, he survived, was medically evacuated, and went on to go to college, then joined the Army in 1961 to become a paratrooper. He volunteered to serve in Vietnam, but never got the chance. The officer who Lucas turned himself in to, Robert Dunlap, also received the Medal of Honor for leading his unit for 48 hours in heavy fighting in the early stages of the battle. Dunlap was wounded, spent 14 months in the hospital, and was medically retired.
Three other Medal of Honor recipients from Iwo Jima had ships named after them: Pharmacists’s Mate Third Class Jack Williams (an Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate), Sergeant Ross F. Gray (a Knox-class frigate), and First Lieutenant Harry L. Martin (a maritime pre-positioning ship). Basilone was also honored by having a ship named after him (a Gearing-class destroyer), while Corporal Herschel Williams will be honored by an amphibious ship scheduled to commission in 2018.
Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz said, “Among the Americans serving on Iwo island, uncommon valor was a common virtue.” Just from this partial sampling of the Medal of Honor recipients from that battle, it seems he had it right.