Video: Iwo Jima hero

By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 2/21/2005 1:01:16 PM ET 2005-02-21T18:01:16

Over the weekend, American survivors of Iwo Jima gathered here in Texas Hill country to observe the 60th anniversary of the day they stormed the beaches of that Pacific island.

The battle for Iwo Jima was launched on Feb. 19, 1945, and was one of the bloodiest in U.S. history. About one-third of all the Marines in World War Two, 7,000 Americans, perished on the tiny Japanese island about one-third the size of Manhattan.

The Japanese forces fought from heavily protected underground bunkers, known as "pillboxes," and the 22,000 troops were under orders to fight to the death and to kill at least 10 American troops each before being killed. Only 216 of them survived.

The commander of U.S. Pacific forces, Admiral Chester Nimitz, said "uncommon valor" was a common virtue for the American forces on Iwo Jima.

Among the heroes was PFC Jack Lucas of Hattiesburg, Miss. He described what it was like when he and the other Marines stormed the beaches.

"Shells bursting everywhere and killing boys, and some of them just being evaporated," he recently recalled.

The Lucas story is especially amazing because he enlisted in the Marines at the age of 14 after lying about his age. And then he did everything in his power to get to the combat zone.

"It just was a cold chill that ran down my spine that here is a foreign country attacking my great country," he said. "And I wanted to something about it, so that was the motivating factor for me joining the Marine Corps."

Grenades
During the heat of battle, PFC Lucas threw himself on two live grenades in order to save his comrades.

"And I see the grenade there" he recalled, "in front of my buddy, so I dove for it and rammed one into the volcanic ash and ran over and pulled the other one out of me."

Lucas suffered more than 200 wounds from head-to-toe and was saved by dozens of surgeries. He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroic action at the age of 17, the youngest recipient of that honor since the Civil War.

He is one of 27 American soldiers who were awarded the Medal of Honor during 45 days of fighting on Iwo Jima.

Lucas is 77 years old now. He has 4 sons, a daughter and 7 grandchildren.

When he returned home after the war he kept a promise he made to his mother before he left to fight a war. He enrolled in the 9th grade, finished high school and got a college degree.

I asked him how he would like to be remembered and the old Marine told me, "I'd like for them remember the fact that we sacrificed; we had great sacrifices there to help win the war."

Jim Cummins is the NBC News bureau chief and lead correspondent in Dallas, Texas.

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