Everyone with half a functioning brain knows that diving on a live hand grenade to save your friends is one of the single most selfless, heroic acts of valor that any human being can perform. It takes a special, rare kind of person to come face-to-face with their own destruction, resist every natural impulse of self-preservation, and unhesitatingly give themselves up in a final, purely-selfless feat of bravery, trading in the most precious thing a human has to offer – their life – so that others might live.
It's such a heroic testament to the will of the human spirit that more Medals of Honor and Victoria Crosses have been handed out for this single act than for any other deed in the history of combat.
Unfortunately, despite this being a universally-acknowledged feat of righteous heroic awesomeness, the fact that the entire action is over in three to five seconds combine with some horrifically tragic consequences for the hero to make grenade-hopping a pretty tough subject to write a Badass of the Week article about.
Unless, of course, we're talking about Jack Lucas of the 1st Battalion, 26th Marines.
Because Jack Lucas jumped on not one but two grenades to save his friends.
Jacklyn H. Lucas was born on Valentine's Day, 1928, in some rural town in North Carolina with a population so tiny that if everyone in the entire county showed up at UNC for a basketball game, they probably couldn't sell out one section of the Dean Smith Center. Cursed with one of the most terrible first names in history, Jacklyn did the Boy Named Sue thing and spent his entire life training to be so ungodly hardcore that anyone who referred to him by any name other than Jack would end up forcibly swallowing their own feet, eventually enlisting as a cadet at Edwards Military Institute in Salemburg, NC.
Things were going fine for a while, but Jack's life changed pretty dramatically on December 7, 1941, when he got news that a super-secret ninja sneak-attack of Japanese fighter-bombers had just craterized the American battleship fleet at Pearl Harbor into a towering inferno of twisted metal.
He kind of took it personally.
So while Lucas' 13 year-old idiot classmates were all hanging around their school doing teenage boy stuff like slam-dunking M-80s into public toilets and super-gluing their friends' lockers shut, Lucas just got pissed. Like, super pissed. Like King Kong stopping by on the way home from work after a miserable day at the office only to find that the badass frozen yogurt place down the street is totally out of banana sherbet pissed. He stormed out of his military school (the first of many times he'd be listed AWOL in his professional career), went across the border to Virginia, bribed some notary public to swear he was 17, then hitched a ride to the nearest Marine Corps Recruiting Station, marched his hefty 5'8", 200-pound frame through the front door like he owned the place, forged his Mom's signature on enlistment paperwork, and shipped out to Parris Island for U.S. Marine Corps Boot Camp.
Lucas made it through the most intense basic training the United States military has to offer, was made a Marine at 14, and was subsequently assigned to work a crappy manual labor job as part of the Training Battalion on Parris Island.
Jack Lucas responded to this unsatisfactory posting by abandoning his station, hitching a ride to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, grabbing the first USMC officer he could find, and telling him there was a clerical error and he was supposed to be stationed on the front lines in a combat arms role.
They made him a truck driver at the Marine Corps base on Pearl Harbor.
Unsatisfied by his current status of "not blowing the hell out of the enemy at all corners wherever he could find them", and denied in all of his requests to transfer to a front-line infantry unit, Jack Lucas spend the next couple of years raising hell across Honolulu. He was arrested for starting a drunken bar fight. He was disciplined for going AWOL so he could head into town and meet girls. He was busted by a Military Policeman for walking through the barracks with a case of beer, then was subsequently arrested for punching that same Military Policeman in the face when that power-tripping a--hole tried to take the beer away from him.
Tired of spending his nights in the brig and worried that the war was going to end without him every hoisting a rifle in battle, Lucas finally decided, screw it, I'm going to go to war and I don't give a shit who wants to stop me. He went down to the docks, snuck aboard a military transport ship headed for the front lines, then spent a month living off crumbs hiding from the crew because he was worried if they discovered him they'd ship his ass back to Hawaii for a court-martial.
Of the 40,000 Marines who hit the beach at Iwo Jima on or around February 20th, 1945, 17-year-old Private Jack Lucas of the 1st Battalion, 26th Marines, 5th Marine Division was one of the only infantrymen who assaulted the beachhead without a weapon. He changed that pretty quickly. He grabbed one off a dead man in the surf, racked the slide, and charged into battle.
Rushing through the brutal, endless curtains of strafing machine gun and artillery fire that raked the beach, Lucas grabbed his newly-acquired weapon and charged ahead, undaunted by the explosions and bullets zipping all around. He ran ahead, reached the relative safety of the treeline, and fell in with a four-man fire team that had already started working its way through the dense jungle, trying to clear out one of the most tenacious and ferociously-hardcore enemies the United States ever faced.
Lucas and his men were making their way through a ravine, fighting every step of the way, when suddenly some bad shit started to go down. It turned out that the Japanese had dug this ridiculously intricate series of caverns and secret passages that ran through the entire island, so just as Lucas and his buddies thought they were going to launch their final assault on a Japanese machine gun nest, they came to the horrible realization that all 11 men in that pillbox had gone into a tunnel, crawled underneath them, and popped up directly behind the Marines.
The Marines turned to fire, and in Jack Lucas' much-awaited first moments of real battle his first round went through the helmet of an enemy soldier, killing him on the spot.
His second round jammed in the rifle. I guess that's what happens with rifles you pick up in ankle-deep water on blood-soaked sandy beaches.
It was at this point that Jack Lucas saw the live hand grenade that had just landed at his feet. He threw his body on it without hesitation, screaming for the other Marines to take cover.
When a second enemy grenade landed within arms' reach, Lucas grabbed it and jammed it under his body as well.
The Type 97 Fragmentation Grenade is a 16-ounce metal ball stuffed with 65 grams of TNT and a 5 second timed-detonation mechanism. Now, a common misconception about hand grenades is that they create some huge fiery explosion that blows people into the next area code like they were launched out of a flaming death-catapult, then they proceed to ignite everything in the general vicinity up to and including the Earth's atmosphere. But, while the explosive power unleashed by a frag grenade is certainly not the sort of thing you want to wake up to every morning, what kills the majority of people isn't the bomb but the flying bits of shrapnel. Basically, the explosion is just a catalyst that shatters the metal outside of the grenade and sends tens of thousands of tiny, razor-sharp metal splinters hurtling through the air in every direction, shredding anything in their wake, and killing or maiming anyone or anything within 100 to 150 feet. You ever wonder why some grenades look like pineapples? It's because when the bomb goes off each little section of the pineapple morphs into a bullet firing off into some random direction. It ain't pretty.
And Jack Lucas just had two of those little bastards blow up straight into his torso. Sure, his friends survived thanks to his heroism, but all that metal has to go somewhere, and where it went was straight into Lucas' body.
The rest of the Marine fire team, pumped-up by Lucas' bravery and the fact that they weren't currently all dead, proceeded to fight like demons and push the Japanese back, driving them from the position and capturing that sector.
When they came back to take the dog tags off of their fallen brother, they noticed that not only was Lucas alive, he was actually still conscious.
The true unsung heroes of Iwo Jima – the Navy Corpsmen – were called in on the spot, hauling the severely wounded Lucas out of there on a stretcher while simultaneously using their .45 pistols to fight off a Japanese banzai counter-attack. They fought through the war zone, got Lucas to a hospital ship, and it took 21 surgeries for them to remove 250 pieces of shrapnel from every major organ in his body.
Seven months later, Jack Lucas personally walked up to Harry S. Truman and received his Medal of Honor in person. He'd already made a complete recovery.
He was six days past his seventeenth birthday – the youngest Marine to ever receive the award.
After the war, Lucas went home and fulfilled his promise to his mother to finish school, attending his first day of Ninth Grade with his Medal of Honor around his neck. He finished college, went on a USO speaking tour, was married three times, survived his second wife's attempt to hire a hitman to murder him (she hadn't got the message from the Japanese that this guy was impervious to conventional weapons), and then, at age 40, decided to get over his fear of heights by enlisting in the 82nd Airborne as a paratrooper. On his first training jump, both parachutes failed to open. As his team leader astutely pointed out, "Jack was the last one out of the plane and the first one on the ground."
He fell 3,500 feet through the air without a parachute. He attempted a badass commando roll just as he was about to splat on the earth Wile E. Coyote style.
He not only lived, he walked away unscathed.
Two weeks later, he was back in the plane on his second training jump. That one went better. Four years later he finished his tour as a Captain in the 82nd Airborne Division.
His adventures in miraculously surviving death now complete, ran a successful business selling beef to people outside Washington, DC, wrote an appropriately-named autobiography titled Indestructible, met every president from Truman to Clinton, had his original Medal of Honor citation laid out in the hull of the USS Iwo Jima, and died in 2008 at the age of 80. From cancer, of all things.
- Bradley, James and Ron Powers. Flags of Our Fathers. Random House, 2012.
- Frantzich, Stephen. Honored Guests. Rowman & Littlefield, 2011.
- Leckie, Robert. Strong Men Armed. Da Capo, 2010.
- Lucas, Jack, and D.K. Drum. Indestructible. Da Capo, 2006.
- Willbanks, James H. America's Heroes. ABC-CLIO, 2011.