The New York Giant who died on Iwo Jima

W. Thomas Smith, Jr

2/26/2007 12:00:13 AM - W. Thomas Smith, Jr

We’ve seen it countless times: The stirring photograph snapped 62-years-ago of five U.S. Marines and one Navy Corpsman raising the second (larger than the first) American flag atop Mount Suribachi on the Japanese-held island of Iwo Jima.

It is a picture of a moment captured on the fourth day of the month-long Battle for Iwo. It symbolized the American struggle in World War II, and it literally defined the modern Marine Corps.

As the flag went up, thousands of Marines and sailors across the island cheered, as did sailors witnessing the event offshore. Ships' horns blew. Whistles shrieked. From the main deck of USS Eldorado, a beaming Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal turned to Marine General Holland M. ‘Howlin’ Mad’ Smith and exclaimed, “Holland, the raising of that flag on Suribachi means a Marine Corps for the next 500 years.”

What most Americans forget, however, is that the battle was far from over. Three of the six men who raised the flag on February 23, 1945 would soon be killed in action. And from February 19 through March 17, nearly 7,000 Americans would perish as they wrested control of the island from the enemy: Most of those Americans unsung or a least unknown in general American culture.

One of those Americans was 1st Lieutenant Andrew Jackson “Jack” Lummus Jr., a Texas-born Marine officer and recipient of the Medal of Honor (MOH) who was – and is – quite literally the epitome of all that is wrapped up in what it means to be a Marine.

I remember someone once telling me that because most Marines are athletically inclined and by nature, competitive (only a competitive person would choose to join the Corps in the first place), that the Marines’ athleticism and competitiveness combined with their tenacity in combat must have resulted in a lot of unrecorded track and field records being set on Iwo Jima.

Lummus surely must have set a few. In fact he was setting records before the Marines.

A 29-year-old former defensive lineman with the New York Giants and an All-American at Baylor University who – in addition to football – had once signed a minor league baseball contract, Lummus left the Giants to become a Marine infantry officer in January 1942, a month after Pearl Harbor. Three years later, he was busy spotting enemy targets on Suribachi, as his fellow Marines ambled up the hill with the now-famous flag. Within days, he would be reassigned to E Company, 2nd Battalion, 27th Marines of the 5th Marine Division where he was given command of 3rd Platoon.

That’s when his unrecorded records began to be set.

During two days and nights of violent fighting against – according to his MOH citation – “fanatic opposition,” Lummus led his Marines forward toward the northern edge of the island. On the morning of March 8, the former New York Giant found himself spearheading E Company’s assault against a series of interconnecting enemy foxholes, spidertraps, bunkers, and caves.

At one point, Lummus was sprinting forward with his men when a grenade blast knocked him to the ground. Stunned, but without serious injury, he quickly got back on his feet and continued the attack. He then charged an enemy bunker and killed everyone inside with his submachinegun. A second grenade exploded near him, shattering his shoulder, yet according to his MOH citation, he “staunchly continued his heroic one-man assault and charged the second pillbox, annihilating all the occupants.”

Three times that morning Lummus, alternating between a submachinegun and a carbine, charged and wiped out entrenched enemy positions. And there was no respite in the fighting between the attacks as he was constantly running from one position to the next, encouraging his men, directing supporting tank fire, and killing enemy soldiers.

Then in a final effort to crush all resistance in the battalion’s front, he ordered a platoon assault against an enemy emplacement. As the Marines charged, Lummus stepped on a landmine. The enormous blast that followed could be heard across the entire island.

Numbed and with ears ringing, Lummus’ Marines could still make out the familiar Texas drawl of their platoon commander shouting, “Forward! Keep moving!” They could hear him, but they couldn’t see him. Not until the blast’s smoke and dust cleared. Then they saw the blackened figure of a man bent over and trying to push himself up on one of his elbows.

The Marines initially thought their lieutenant was standing in a hole. Then there was the horror of what they were looking at: Lummus was upright on two bloody stumps: His legs had been blown off, and much of his lower trunk was missing.

Several of the younger Marines, weeping like children, ran to his side. Some of the older Marines briefly considered a mercy shooting. But Lummus kept urging them forward: “Dammit, keep moving!,” he uttered. “You can't stop now!”

According to the official report. “Their tears turned to rage. They swept an incredible 300 yards over impossible ground... There was no question that the dirty, tired men, cursing and crying and fighting, had done it for Jack Lummus.”

Hours later on a stretcher bound for the operating table, an ashen-faced Lummus managed a smile for the Navy surgeon and quipped, "Well, Doc, I guess the New York Giants have lost the services of a damned good end."

Lummus died that afternoon, and was buried at the base of Mount Suribachi not far from where he had landed in the first wave, two-and-a-half weeks earlier. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

The image of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima, which we’ve once again seen republished and rebroadcast over the past week’s 62nd anniversary of the battle (which we’ll continue to see throughout the first half of March), reminds us of our greatness as a nation: As it should. But we must also remember that without the sacrifices of “giants” like Jack Lummus, there would be no flag. No nation.

There have been many such giants in our history. And we must honor those “giants,” always tell their stories, and hope that our children will aspire to be as courageous and unselfish as they. Just as our descendents must honor and tell the stories of the American giants who are now fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other corners of the world in the war on terror.