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Leave from high school leads to prestigious award

Leave from high school leads to prestigious award

By: John Brannon Messenger Staff Reporter

By JOHN BRANNON
Messenger Staff Reporter
A promise made, a promise kept. A living, breathing icon of American military history walked in the schoolhouse door.
What a story.
In early 1942, with the Japanese sneak attack of Dec. 7, 1941, on Pearl Harbor much on his mind. Jack Lucas made a promise to his mother, Margaret Jones of Belhaven, N.C.
His father, Louis Harold Lucas, had died of cancer three years earlier. Lucas’ mother had remarried. Her new husband, Radford Jones, and her son didn’t get along.
Thus, the boy — an eighth-grader at Edwards Military Institute in Salemburg, N.C. — turned to his mother for help.
He promised that if she’d let him enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps, he would go back to school when the war was over and earn a high school diploma.
She said no.
He enlisted anyway.
And thereby hangs the tale.
At that time, Lucas was too young to legally enlist in the armed forces. To join up, he needed the written consent of a parent. Time and again he approached his mother; time and again she refused. She gave several reasons why, not the least of which was that it would mean he would drop out of school, and she wanted him to get an education.
So he made her the promise. Even though she never gave her consent, he forged her name on the needed document and went off to war — at the tender age of 14.
Back to school
Three years later, when all was said and done, he returned home. And just as he promised, he went back to school.
In August 1946, at age 18, he enrolled at RJ. Reynolds High School at Wnston-Salem, N.C.
That he was 18 and still in school was not so unusual in that day and time. But age was perhaps the only perceptible difference in him and others in the student body. At 5-foot-10 and weighing 160 pounds, his stocky build suggested that here was a fresh face for the football team. Or he might be just another tousle-headed teen fresh off some North Carolina farm. (Not far off the mark, that one. Lucas did grow up on a farm, and he has a lot of anecdotes about his mule, Martha, named after his first girlfriend. “She was ornery, stubborn and headstrong. Those were her good points.”)
His youthful appearance belied an intense personal history. Who would have sensed or suspected this new student was a military hero whom President Harry S Truman himself had decorated with the Medal of Honor at The White House Oct. 5, 1945? It was Truman who said, as he presented the medal to Lucas and 13 other Marines and sailors, including the legendary Marine aviator Lt. Col. Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, that he’d rather have that medal than be president.
Also, who could have known that this 18-year-old made military history by being the youngest serviceman in the 20th century to receive the medal as well as the youngest Marine in U.S. Marine Corps history to receive it?
He had been honorably discharged from the Marine Corps Aug. 18, 1945, but his discharge papers had no mention of the high medal.
The student body didn’t know all that, but he did. He knew that, and more.
Painful images
Behind his blue eyes. stored in the memory bank of the mind, were stark, violent and painful images of what he did one day in mortal combat on a western Pacific island called Iwo Jima.
On Feb. 20, 1945, during the second day of the great battle, Lucas and two other Marines were ambushed by a Japanese patrol. Two hand grenades were thrown among them. Lucas threw himself on one, pulled the other under him, and bore the brunt of the explosion of at least one. He was seriously wounded — his life hung by a thin thread, so to speak — but he saved the lives of the two other Marines. Only six days earlier, he had reached his 17th birthday.
Business at hand
But all that was long ago and far away. Lucas was at RJR High School to go about the serious business of resuming his formal education.
He blended in, resumed his studies, ultimately graduated and later enrolled in college. In 1956, he was graduated from High Point University with a degree in business administration.
After college, he worked a while for the Veterans Administration. In 1961, he returned to active duty and served four years as a U.S. Army officer with the 82nd Airborne Division.
Through the years, his fame as a Medal of Honor winner brought calls and invitations from high places. In his time, he has been received by Presidents Kennedy, Carter and Clinton and has gotten to know former U.S. Sen. Bill Dole, also a decorated veteran of World War II service.
Lucas tells of this, and more, much more, in his book, “Indestructible,” published in 2006 by De Capo Press, Cambridge, Mass.
Dole wrote the foreword in the book.
To attend ceremony
Lucas plans to attend the unveiling and dedication of a new monument honoring Iwo Jima Medal of Honor winners next week. The ceremony will be held at 2 p.m. Tuesday on the lawn of the Obion County Courthouse, where the monument is erected.
World War II veteran and Iwo Jima survivor Ed Youngblood of Union City led a campaign to raise funds for the monument.
Twenty-seven sailors and Marines were awarded the Medal of Honor — some of them posthumously — for gallantry and service above and beyond the call of duty during the Battle of Iwo Jima, Feb. 19, 1944-March 26, 1945.
Lucas said he plans to arrive Monday evening, attend the ceremony Tuesday, and return later that day to Hattiesburg, Miss., where he and his wife, Ruby, have lived several years.
No problem
The phone interview with Lucas was both educational and entertaining. Many questions came to mind, many were asked, and he patiently indulged the probe. Hence, The Messenger harvested more material than is presented in this story.
Lucas’ story is a fascinating story, one that has its roots in his early childhood. Perhaps he did what he did and became who he is because of one word — driven. He admits that he was driven — driven to get his mother’s consent, driven to forge her name and join the Marines, driven to get to a battleground somewhere and do what he felt was his duty. Driven he was, though he knew not why, determined to succeed by hook or crook.
All that he did to get his way may not have been by the book, so to speak, but it certainly makes a star-spangled story. So, yes, he had a lot of material to offer. But The Messenger could choose and use only snippets.
Of particular interest was his return to school after he’d been honorably discharged from the Marines. After what he’d done, what he’d seen, what he’d endured, including a long period of convalescence that included surgery, how could he possibly adjust to a back-to-school lifestyle and the pursuit of English and mathematics and such?
“It wasn’t difficult. It wasn’t any problem at all,” he said. “I just wasn’t a baby-faced kid any more.”
Did he play football or other sports?
“No. I wanted to, but I wasn’t able to because of a damaged right lung,” he said. “I’ve still got six pieces of shrapnel in it. I still get lots of colds and I’m susceptible to pneumonia. It’s been tough on me.”
A survivor
In response to The Messenger’s request that he look back over the last eight decades of his life, Lucas summarized it with a short statement. “I’ve survived a lot,” he said. “I wasn’t scared much. You just concentrate on what you’ve got to do. I’ve always been able to manage well in a crisis situation.”
The interview included a discussion about the current war in Iraq. “I feel we should not be there,” he said. “But I do think we should have gone into Afghanistan, which we did, but we didn’t go with enough troops to do the job right. The poppy fields are still flourishing and the money is still supporting the Taliban. That was our big fault, not going in with enough troops and taking those people out permanently. Instead, Mr. Bush diverted our troop strength to Iraq.”
How does this old warrior feel about women serving alongside men on the front lines of modern warfare?
“I think they should,” he said. “If they want to be there, let them. A woman can kill you just as quick as a man. We don’t have many on the front lines, anyway. They fly planes and drive supply trucks or are on duty in prisons.
“If a woman wants to serve her country, so be it. Let her do it.” Published in The Messenger 10.18.07

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