It's astonishing U.S. Marine Pvt. Jack Lucas was at Iwo Jima and nothing less than a miracle that he survived.
The man -- make that boy -- jumped on one grenade and pulled another under him to protect three comrades during fierce trench fighting Feb. 20, 1945, against Japanese soldiers on Volcano Islands.
Lucas, of Hattiesburg, Miss., absorbed more than 200 pieces of shrapnel. Many are still lodged in his body.
The action earned Lucas the Medal of Honor, which he received six days after turning 17.
"I did what I had to do on that particular day," Lucas said Monday as part of a panel of Medal of Honor winners in the Memory Tent.
The program was part of dedication ceremonies for the Dole Institute of Politics.
Seven of Lucas' Medal of Honor brethren sat in the audience and three joined him on the panel. Only 3,740 people have earned the medal in U.S. history.
Truth be told, Lucas admitted, he made a place for himself in the Marines through deceit. He forged enlistment papers at age 14, went AWOL in South Carolina to board a train with Marines headed for advanced training in California and slipped onto a troop ship in Hawaii to reach the front line in the battle against Japanese soldiers.
"I was deserting in the right direction," he said. "I was determined to kill damned Japs."
The audience acknowledged his sacrifice with a standing ovation.
'It was a tough job'
Medal of Honor recipient Walter Ehlers, a Junction City native now of Buena Park, Calif., landed on D-Day in June 1944 on Omaha Beach. The Army staff sergeant said he was supposed to be part of the invasion's second wave, but was pushed into the first as carnage on the beach mushroomed.
"We weren't prepared for what we saw on the beaches," he said.
Available paths through land mines were cleared by soldiers whose bodies littered the sand.
While fighting three days later near Goville, France, Ehlers led his squad against a strongly defended position, personally killing four Germans out on patrol. Crawling forward, he put a machine-gun crew out of action. He then led his men through a hail of bullets to take out two mortar positions, killing three more Germans himself.
"It was a tough job, because you know you're going to get fired upon," he said.
Ehlers was hit in the back with a bullet that struck his pack, glanced off a rib and exited his body.
Robert Bush, of Olympia, Wash., distinguished himself May 2, 1945, as a Marine medical corpsman with a rifle company on Okinawa.
During a U.S. attack on a ridge top, Bush was administering blood plasma to a Marine officer wounded by a mortar when the Japanese countered.
With the injured officer's plasma bottle held high with one hand, Bush fired his pistol with the other until his ammunition ran out. He grabbed a discarded carbine and fired point-blank into the charge. He lost an eye in the exchange.
"One thing led to another," Bush said. "I was not looking for any military decorations."
Fighting with flames
Hershel Williams, his blue-ribbon Medal of Honor hanging from his neck, joked that it took him 36 days to win the medal while Lucas accomplished that feat in just two.
"There's nothing fair about that," said Williams, of Ona, W.Va.
Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor transformed Williams from a 145-pound mountain kid born in Quiet Dell, W.Va., into a Marine corporal leading attacks on Guam and Iwo Jima.
He wielded a flame-thrower, which discharged a combination of diesel and high-octane gasoline that burned at 3,500 degrees.
Fighting on Feb. 23, 1945, through a network of pillboxes, buried mines and black sand of Iwo Jima, Williams charged forward alone to fire his flame-thrower through the air vent of a machine-gun emplacement to kill the occupants. In another instance, he charged enemy riflemen attempting to stop him with bayonets. A burst from the flame-thrower killed them.
Williams said he was grateful President Truman had the courage to drop atomic bombs on Japan to speed the end of the war. As many as 2 million U.S. soldiers, including himself, would have been killed in an assault on Japan, he said.
"I thank God for the atomic bomb," he said.
Williams accepts what fate handed him during World War II, but he won't claim ownership of the medal.
"It doesn't belong to me," he said, choking up. "It belongs to those Marines who did not get ..."