While researching my uncle’s past, I’ve come across numerous stories of heroism and valor by Marines, sailors, and soldiers during the Second World War’s Pacific Campaign. One story that caught my attention was the story of Private First Class Jack Lucas, United States Marine Corps – the youngest Congressional Medal of Honor recipient of WWII.
Born in Plymouth, North Carolina in 1928, Lucas was a stellar athlete and a cadet captain at a junior military academy when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Eager to fight, Lucas enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1942, despite being only 14 years old while the required minimum age to join was (and remains) 18; 17 with parental consent. In order to join, Lucas forged his mother’s signature on a parental consent form and bribed a notary public to verify a falsified birth certificate claiming that he was 17. He was accepted into the Marine Corps and completed boot camp at Parris Island, S.C.
Initially assigned as a truck driver in Florida and then Hawaii, Lucas deserted his unit in January 1945 and stowed away with an infantry unit bound for Iwo Jima. When the ship’s officers discovered Lucas, they chose not to court martial him for his unauthorized absence because they needed as many infantrymen as they could muster for what would turn into one of the bloodiest battles of the war. Lucas turned 17 on February 14, 1945, just 6 days before his heroic actions on Iwo Jima.
On the second day of the Battle of Iwo Jima, PFC Lucas and three other Marines were moving down a ravine when they were ambushed by Japanese soldiers. While the Marines were taking cover in a ditch, two hand grenades rolled in near the fire team’s position. Lucas dove onto the explosives and absorbed most of the blast with his body, saving the lives of the men around him. Lucas survived the attack, but was left with over 250 pieces of shrapnel in his body. He was evacuated to the hospital ship Samaritan and received 26 operations over the following months before being discharged for disability reasons.
PFC Jack Lucas was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor by President Harry Truman on October 5, 1945 for his heroic actions on Iwo Jima. Still only 17 years old, Lucas was the youngest Medal of Honor recipient since the Civil War and the youngest to serve in WWII. Lucas passed away on June 5, 2008 at the age of 80 and was survived by his wife, 5 children, 7 grandchildren, and 6 great-grandchildren.
While Mr. Lucas’ courage and heroism are inspirational, his is a story that cannot possibly be replicated in today’s military. I think back to when I went through the process to join the military earlier this year and acknowledge the fact that today it is next to impossible to lie one’s way into military service.
Before being allowed to in-process for the Army, I was required to fill out a lengthy questionnaire detailing my entire life’s history, provide several forms of valid identification, authorize an FBI criminal records check, and turn in copies of all of my educational credentials. Had I tried to provide a recruiter with false information the way Mr. Lucas did, a computer database would’ve instantly spotted the discrepancy. I would have been disqualified from enlisting and I probably would have been arrested for forging legal documents.
Once I had completed the prescreening, I was sent to the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS) to officially process and enlist. There, I was given an extremely thorough medical examination and a drug screening test, submitted a complete biometric record (all fingerprints and a facial recognition scan), and underwent a full background investigation. Technology has made it almost impossible to cheat the system and nearly all unqualified applicants are discovered at MEPS. Based on the causing factors and a criteria outlined by Department of Defense rules, these applicants are disqualified either temporarily (recent, minor surgeries, questionable or incomplete paperwork, presently unqualified for service) or permanently (any serious medical/psychological conditions, positive drug test results, felony convictions).
Further, today it is a felony to lie or provide inaccurate information in order to join the armed forces. In the unlikely event that a few applicants are able to “slip through the cracks” and gain admittance to the military, they are actually in more danger than if they had simply been disqualified during the enlistment process. Then, not only are dishonest applicants breaking a federal statue, but they are also in direct violation of Article 83 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).
Even if service members are able to conceal their dishonesty for years, if an investigation ever reveals that they were ineligible to enlist at the time they joined, they will be charged with fraudulent enlistment and may face a dishonorable discharge (the military equivalent of a felony conviction), forfeiture of all pay and allowances, a $10,000 fine, and up to three years in federal prison.
However, I would argue that there are times in history where rules and penalties may be ignored in favor of serving a greater good. World War II, the most destructive conflict in human history, was one of those rare occasions. It was an era of total war where every citizen was required to do their part in some way to ensure absolute victory. Jack Lucas chose to serve his country on the battlefield, even though by regulations he was not old enough to do so. In one of the most violent battles in American military history, at great risk to his own personal safety, he saved the lives of three of his comrades and was rewarded for his actions with the country’s highest honor.
Among the Americans serving on Iwo (Jima) Island, uncommon valor was a common virtue-Admiral Chester William Nimitz, March 1945
“Jack Lucas Dies at 80; Earned Medal of Honor at 17.” The New York Times, 6 June 2008.
“PFC Jacklyn H. Lucas, Medal of Honor, 1945.” United States Marine Corps.
Article 83. Fraudulent Enlistment, Appointment, or Separation. Uniform Code of Military Justice.
“False Statements on Military Recruiting Paperwork.” About.com: US Military.