“This will be the bloodiest fight in Marine Corps history. We’ll catch seven kinds of hell on the beaches, and that will be just the beginning. The fighting will be fierce, and the casualties will be awful, but my Marines will take the damned island.”
– Lt. Gen. Holland M. “Howlin’ Mad” Smith, Commander, V Amphibious Corps
The battle was supposed to last a week. Instead, it took five. When it was over, the Japanese garrison of about 20,000 soldiers and sailors was wiped out. American casualties included 6,821 Marines and sailors killed and 19,217 wounded. Such a total is a testament to the grueling ferocity of combat on that remote Pacific island. Marine correspondent Sgt. Gilbert Preston Bailey observed that of the men who fought on Iwo Jima, “Stories will never be written about most of them. There are too many, and what they do has come to be taken for granted.”
Yet over the years many of those stories – of heroism and sacrifice both great and small by men on the battle lines; of corpsmen and surgeons waging their own war to save the lives of those wounded; of Navy beachmasters and Construction Battalion personnel, the Seabees, imposing organization out of beachhead chaos; of cooks at their field kitchens, braving hostile fire in order to provide hot food; and so many others – have emerged, reminding each successive generation why Commander in Chief Pacific (CINCPAC) Fleet Headquarters Adm. Chester W. Nimitz said of those who fought on Iwo Jima, “Uncommon valor was a common virtue.”
That statement is underscored by the 27 Medals of Honor awarded to Marines and Navy servicemen who fought there, the highest number awarded in a single battle. The 22 Marine Medals of Honor represent more than 25 percent of the 83 Medals of Honor awarded to Marines in that conflict. Of the vast mountain of countless acts of heroism rendered on Iwo Jima, those who received the Medal of Honor represent the summit. What follows are some of their stories.
The first Medal of Honor awarded in the battle was the result of action that occurred two days before Marines would set foot on Iwo Jima’s volcanic beaches. Underwater Demolition Teams (UDTs – the forerunner of Navy SEALs) were conducting reconnaissance and demolitions missions to gather beach condition intelligence and destroy underwater obstacles in the days leading up to the amphibious assault.
On the morning of Feb. 17, 1945, LCI(G)-449 (Landing Craft Infantry (Gunboat)), under the command of Lt. j.g. Rufus G. Herring, was one of a flotilla of gunboats assigned to carry UDTs and then provide close-in support as they conducted their final mission before the assault. The 449’s complement of weapons included two 40 mm cannon, four 20 mm cannon, six .50-caliber machine guns, and 10 Mk 7 rocket launchers.The first Iwo Jima Medal of Honor was earned before any Marines landed on the island. L.t. j.g Rufus G. Herring, commanding officer of LC(G)-449, received the award for continuing to battle Japanese shore batteries, con his ship, and aid his wounded despite being badly wounded himself. Some of LC(G)-449’s casualties are evident in this photograph of LC(G)-449 alongside USS Terror, which was rendering aid to the badly damaged ship.
After the UDTs had disembarked and proceeded to the beaches, the gunboats took up station about 250 yards offshore. The gunboats soon came under heavy and accurate artillery and machine gun fire from Mount Suribachi and elsewhere on the island. In less than two hours, all the gunboats had been hit, several severely.
The 449 was struck repeatedly. One 40 mm gun was blown into the water. Cannon fire blasted apart the conning tower, killing 12 and wounding others. One of the wounded was Herring, who was knocked out. When he came to, he saw the 449’s decks were a charnel house of dead and wounded, with the gunboat wallowing out of control, the helmsman being one of the many dead.
Despite his wounds, Herring clambered down to the pilot house, took the helm, regained control of the 449, rallied his men, and directed fire of the gunboat’s remaining weapons and care of the wounded. Forced to give up the helm due to loss of blood, he continued to give orders to his men, finally ordering the 449 to retire to the minelayer USS Terror that was also serving as a casualty evacuation vessel. Despite the severity of his wounds, Herring refused to be evacuated until all the other wounded and dead had been taken aboard. Evacuated to the United States, he received his Medal of Honor on Sept. 17, 1945.
Over a period of four days from Feb. 19 to Feb. 22, 1945, as commander of the 3rd Assault Battalion Landing Team, 25th Marines, 4th Marine Division, Lt. Col. Justice M. Chambers, from the moment he landed on the beach, disregarded his own safety and inspired his men to heroic efforts by his own valor, constantly encouraging them to push forward against fierce enemy resistance. Critically wounded and evacuated under heavy Japanese fire, his Medal of Honor citation noted: “… Colonel Chambers, by forceful leadership, courage and fortitude in the face of staggering odds, was directly instrumental in insuring the success of subsequent operations of the Fifth Amphibious Corps on Iwo Jima …”
Sgt. Darrell S. Cole, USMCR, was the leader of a machine gun section. On Feb. 19, his team assisted in the assault of Airfield No. 1. In the push-off, he personally destroyed two enemy emplacements with hand grenades. When gunfire from three additional Japanese pillboxes halted his men’s advance, Cole devised a shrewd and daring counterattack. Armed with just a pistol and hand grenades, he neutralized in quick succession all three of the pillboxes.
After eliminating the third pillbox and while returning to his squad to rearm, his luck ran out. His citation stated, “Although instantly killed by an enemy grenade as he returned to his squad, Sergeant Cole had eliminated a formidable Japanese position, thereby enabling his company to storm the remaining fortifications, continue the advance, and seize the objective.”
On Feb. 20, 1945, Capt. Robert H. Dunlap, USMCR, was leading Company C, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines, 5th Marine Division, along the low ground on the western side of Airfield No. 1. His men encountered heavy, accurate fire from Japanese positions hidden in the steep cliffs overlooking their position. After ordering his men to give him covering fire, Dunlap crawled 200 yards to the base of the cliff, located a number of enemy positions in caves, and made his way back to report their positions. He then grabbed a field telephone and as his citation states, “disregarding his own personal safety, he then placed himself in an exposed vantage point to direct more accurately the supporting fire and, working without respite for two days and two nights under constant enemy fire, skillfully directed a smashing bombardment against the almost impregnable Japanese positions.”
Pfc. Jacklyn H. Lucas was one of many underage men who lied about their age to enlist. In Lucas’ case, he was really underage. He was just 14 years old when, in August 1942, he walked into a Marine recruiter’s office in North Carolina. Standing 5 feet, 8 inches tall, and weighing 200 pounds, he easily convinced the recruiter. Lucas was the classic example of someone who is a pain in peace and a boon in battle. He was a constant headache to military policemen, running afoul of them for one infraction or another. Instead of hitting the beach on Iwo Jima as a rifleman in C Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment, 5th Marine Division, Lucas should have been in the brig. Technically, he was AWOL, having stowed away on an Iwo Jima-bound troopship just one step ahead of military policemen who were searching for him.
On Feb. 20, D-day+1, he was part of a four-man rifle team transiting a twisting ravine when they were ambushed by Japanese troops. A vicious firefight erupted. When two Japanese grenades landed in their midst, Lucas’ citation states, “Private First Class Lucas unhesitatingly hurled himself over his comrades upon one grenade and pulled the other under him, absorbing the whole blasting forces of the explo- sions in his own body in order to shield his companions from the concussion and murderous flying fragments.” Miraculously, the explosions didn’t kill him. The surgeon on the hospital ship Samaritan who operated on him said in amazement, “Maybe he was too damned young and too damned tough to die.” Instead of the brig, Lucas received the Medal of Honor.
On Feb. 21, 1945, Sgt. Ross F. Gray, USMCR, was an acting platoon sergeant in Company A, 1st Battalion, 25th Marines, 4th Marine Division. While advancing toward high ground northeast of Airfield No. 1, his men came under heavy fire from hidden Japanese positions. His citation states, in part: “Repeatedly covering the ground between the savagely defended enemy fortifications and his platoon area, he systematically approached, attacked and withdrew under blanketing fire to destroy a total of six Japanese positions, more than 25 troops and a quantity of vital ordnance gear and ammunition.” Sadly, his Medal of Honor would be a posthumous award. Though Gray survived that engagement, six days later he was killed in action by shrapnel.
In his first attempt to enlist in 1942, Cpl. Hershel W. Williams, USMCR, was rejected for being too short. But after the height restriction was lifted in early 1943, he was accepted, trained as a demolition sergeant, which meant he could operate a flamethrower and demolition charges, and saw action in Guam.
At Iwo Jima, he was serving with Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 21st Marines, 3rd Marine Division. When the attack on Feb. 23 bogged down due to fierce enemy resistance, Williams, one of the last flamethrower operators in the unit, volunteered to help open an infantry lane through the gauntlet of pillboxes that had, so far, successfully resisted attack by Marine tanks. Hoisting a 70-pound flamethrower onto his back, and covered by only four riflemen, his Medal of Honor citation recounted, “He fought desperately for four hours under terrific enemy small-arms fire and repeatedly returned to his own lines to prepare demolition charges and obtain serviced flamethrowers, struggling back, frequently to the rear of hostile emplacements, to wipe out one position after another. On one occasion, he daringly mounted a pillbox to insert the nozzle of his flamethrower through the air vent, killing the occupants and silencing the gun; on another he grimly charged enemy riflemen who attempted to stop him with bayonets and destroyed them with a burst of flame from his weapon. His unyielding determination and extraordinary heroism in the face of ruthless enemy resistance were directly instrumental in neutralizing one of the most fanatically defended Japanese strong points encountered by his regiment and aided vitally in enabling his company to reach its objective.”
Pfc. Douglas T. Jacobson lied about his age and enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve in 1943 at age 17. By the time he landed with the 3rd Battalion, 23rd Marines, 4th Marine Division on Iwo Jima, he was already a veteran, having seen action in the conquest of Saipan and Tinian. On Feb. 26, the division had overrun Airfield No. 2 and was encountering deadly resistance from Hill 382, called by the Japanese Nidan Iwa, located just east of the airfield and part of a particularly stout defensive stronghold that included what the Marines called the Amphitheater, Turkey Knob, and the wrecked village of Minami, that got the collective name of the Meat Grinder.
When a bazookaman near him was cut down by machine gun fire, Jacobson grabbed the dead Marine’s weapon and used it to destroy a 20 mm anti-aircraft gun emplacement. Then, using a combination of bazooka fire and demolition charges, he destroyed two machine gun positions, a large blockhouse, a pillbox, and seven rifle emplacements. He then continued his attack, assisting a nearby unit. His citation would go on to report, “By his dauntless skill and valor, Private First Class Jacobson destroyed a total of 16 enemy positions and annihilated approximately 75 Japanese thereby contributing essentially to the success of his division’s operation against this fanatically defended outpost of the Japanese Empire.”
Pharmacist’s Mate 2nd Class George E. Wahlen, USN, was attached to Company F, 2nd Battalion, 26th Marines, 5th Marine Division. Though seriously wounded on Feb. 26, and wounded a second time on March 2, he refused evacuation, telling the surgeon, “Christ, Doc, I’m not hurt that bad and I’m a damned good corpsman. And besides, my outfit needs men, there’s just three medics left in the battalion.”Hill 362B was located in the north-central section of Iwo Jima, just north of the ruins of Motoyama Village. On March 3, the assault on Hill 362B started out well, with the Marines quickly crossing 600 yards of open terrain in the initial drive against little opposition. But when they got close to their objective, the Japanese defenders replied with blistering counterfire.
Ignoring enemy fire, Wahlen went from one wounded Marine to another, rendering aid. As his Medal of Honor citation noted, “He persevered in his determined efforts as his unit waged fierce battle, and unable to walk after sustaining a third agonizing wound, resolutely crawled 50 yards to administer first aid to still another fallen fighter.” By rights that third wound should have been fatal, but somehow he survived even after having to wait 30 minutes before Marines could reach and evacuate him. Three months later, while recovering in a Guam hospital, he received word that he would receive the Medal of Honor.
Though fighting would continue for several more days, in CINCPAC communiqué No. 300 dated March 16, 1945, Nimitz stated that “organized resistance had ceased” and that “the battle of Iwo Island has been won. … With certain knowledge of the cost of an objective which had to be taken, the Fleet
Marine Force supported the ships of the Pacific Fleet and by Army and Navy aircraft fought the battle and won. By their victory, the Third, Fourth and Fifth Marine Divisions and other units of the Fifth Amphibious Corps have made an accounting to their country which only history will be able to value fully. Among the Americans serving on Iwo island, uncommon valor was a common virtue.” The phrase “uncommon valor was a common virtue” was later included in the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington Ridge Park outside Arlington National Cemetery.
As of this writing, Hershel Williams is the last surviving Medal of Honor recipient of the Battle of Iwo Jima and one of only two living World War II Medal of Honor recipients.
IWO JIMA MEDAL OF HONOR RECIPIENTS
(*denotes posthumous award)
- Cpl. Charles J. Berry, USMC*
- Pfc. William R. Caddy, USMCR*
- Lt. Col. Justice M. Chambers, USMCR
- Sgt. Darrell S. Cole, USMCR*
- Capt. Robert H. Dunlap, USMCR
- Sgt. Ross F. Gray, USMCR*
- Sgt. William G. Harrell, USMC
- Lt. j.g. Rufus G. Herring, USNR
- Pfc. Douglas T. Jacobson, USMCR
- Platoon Sgt. Joseph R. Julian, USMCR*
- Pfc. James D. La Belle, USMCR*
- 2nd Lt. John H. Leims, USMCR*
- Pfc. Jacklyn Harrell Lucas, USMCR
- 1st Lt. Jack Lummus, USMCR*
- 1st Lt. Harry L. Martin, USMCR*
- Capt. Joseph J. McCarthy, USMCR
- Pvt. George Phillips, USMCR*
- Pharmacist’s Mate 1st Class Francis J. Pierce, USN
- Pfc. Donald J. Ruhl, USMCR*
- Pvt. Franklin E. Sigler, USMCR
- Cpl. Tony Stein, USMCR*
- Pharmacist’s Mate 2nd Class George E. Wahlen, USN
- Gunnery Sgt. William G. Walsh, USMCR*
- Pvt. Wilson D. Watson, USMCR
- Cpl. Hershel W. Williams, USMCR
- Pharmacist’s Mate 3rd Class Jack Williams, USNR*
- Pharmacist’s Mate 1st Class John H. Willis, USN*