"Don't stop now, keep going!"
For members of Company E, 27th Marines, those words brought out every ounce of rage within; their lieutenant was down! Studded with concrete pill boxes and hidden snipers, the Japanese line seemed impenetrable. Nevertheless, the marines broke through, taking out enemy positions left and right until they reached their objective, the northern coast of Iwo Jima. First Lieutenant Jack Lummus would not witness their victory, but his spirit sustained their drive.
Born on October 22, 1915, Jack Lummus grew up during the Depression on a cotton farm in Ennis, Texas. A tight family budget wouldn't allow him to graduate from Ennis High School; the costs of a graduation robe and senior portrait were too high. He got his high school diploma instead from Texas Military College on a sports scholarship. After receiving a full scholarship from Baylor, he excelled in both baseball and football, obtaining all Southwest Conference honors in both.
Before Jack became a teenager, the Japanese officer that would end his life was learning cavalry tactics at Fort Bliss in El Paso. Tadamichi Kuribayashi was serving as a deputy military attaché in Washington D.C.. For two years, he traveled across the U.S. studying American industry and military science. In 1931, he concluded his experiences in a letter to his wife. "The United States is the last country in the world Japan should fight," he wrote.
Before he left Baylor, Lummus signed contracts to play football for the NFL's New York Giants and minor league baseball for the Wichita Falls Spudders of the West Texas-New Mexico League (this league included such colorful names as the Roswell Sunshiners, the Lubbock Hubbers, the Big Spring Barons, the Amarillo Gold Sox, and my personal favorite, the Borger Gassers). He only played in twenty six games with the Spudders before being called up for active duty by the U.S. Army Air Corps. During flight training, his wing clipped a fence post while taxing down the runway, thus damaging the plane and flunking him out of flight school. Apparently, they weren't too forgiving back then if you wrecked a plane during training.
He next played tight end for the New York Giants at the whopping salary of $100 a month. During the 1941 NFL Championship game, the Chicago Bears defeated the Giants 38 to 9. It would be the last game of Lummus' pro career. Shortly afterwards, he joined the Marine Corps Reserve; the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor two weeks earlier.
Lummus' athletic ability made him a natural fit for the Marine Corps. He attended officers training school at Quantico, Virginia, played for the Marines' Devil Dogs baseball team, and was a member of the elite special operations unit, the Marine Raiders (similar in concept to today's Navy Seals). Upon graduation, he received a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant. In February 1945, his unit landed on the volcanic shores of Iwo Jima.
Iwo Jima (Japanese for sulphur island) is part of the Volcanic Islands, 750 miles south of Tokyo. The "South Pacific" charm didn't exist here. There were no palm trees, no half clad hula dancers, and no Bali Hai. The largely uninhabitable terrain resembled a lunar landscape with smelly sulphuric mists rising from the ground. The soft, ash laden, volcanic soil made it extremely difficult to dig foxholes or drive vehicles on. The landing beach would resemble a vast salvage yard because vehicles had no traction in the very fine soil. Iwo Jima was only good for fertilizer, air strips, and graveyards.
For the U.S., Iwo Jima would provide an ideal base for B-29 heavy bombers. Its close proximity to the Japanese mainland (about 3 hours flight time) would allow them to step up their bombing raids and provide them with the added luxury of fighter escorts. In addition, it would deny the Japanese another fighter base to intercept U.S. bombers in route to Japan and a forward post to warn of incoming enemy attack.
The Japanese knew Iwo Jima was a likely target and took every step possible to make it invulnerable. After all, it was the first piece of sacred Japanese soil to be invaded. Unlike the other Far East countries, Japan had never been invaded successfully by a foreign power. General Kuribayashi, Iwo Jima's commandant, constructed an extensive network of underground tunnels to service every inch of the island. Pill boxes and bunkers were cleverly placed to produce a lethal crossfire for advancing U.S. forces. To preserve his manpower as long as possible, he forbade the use of suicidal banzai charges, a staple of Japanese combat tactics. The defensive strategy was simple: kill as many Americans as possible and delay the eventual invasion of the Japanese home islands. Japan's dwindling navy and air force assured the defenders there would be no reinforcements. You were there to fight and die.
Aerial and naval bombardment did nothing to soften Iwo Jima for invasion. The Japanese defenders waited until the shelling ceased and the marines came ashore. When they started moving inland, the slaughter began. From perfectly concealed positions, machine guns, artillery, and giant spigot mortars opened up with devastating effect. One Lieutenant Colonel recalled, "You could've held up a cigarette and lit it on the stuff going by, I knew immediately we were in for one hell of a time." You never saw a live Japanese soldier; they were too well dug in. It was like you were fighting the ground itself. Gunfire was useless. Flamethrowers, grenades, and extreme valor were the only effective weapons the marines had.
The night brought its own horrors. The Japanese would crawl out of their tunnels and attack the marines in their foxholes. If you left your foxhole, there was the likely danger of being shot by your jittery buddies next door who mistook you for the enemy. If things weren't bad enough, the Japanese would call out in English for medical corpsmen then shoot them when they approached.
Lummus survived the initial beach landings, witnessed Mt. Suribachi's fall, and helped secure the main airfields. Kuribayashi slowly fell back to the rugged northern point of the 8 square mile island. It was there he would make his last stand. Supplies and ammunition were running out, but not their resolve. Iwo Jima was the only battle where U.S. casualties outnumbered Japan's. According to the ancient Samurai Code of Bushido, surrender was considered a shameful act of cowardice; you either died in combat or committed suicide. Only 216 of the 22,060 Japanese on Iwo Jima were captured.
Flag Raising on Mt. Suribachi
It was into this last desperate stronghold that Lt. Lummus led E company. In succession, Lummus took out three pillboxes by firing into their apertures with his carbine then tossing in grenades. The concussion from a Japanese grenade knocked him off his feet. Undaunted, the advance continued while a second grenade tore a gaping wound in Lummus' shoulder. Incredibly, he took out a foxhole before stepping on a land mine. The blast tore off both his legs, leaving mere stumps to stand on. Propped up by an elbow, the ash covered torso presented a ghastly sight only made agreeable by Lummus' stirring words of encouragement. He was taken to a field hospital where he told Dr. Thomas Brown, "Well Doc, the New York Giants lost a mighty good end today." Lt. Jack Lummus died on March 8, 1945 at the age of 29. He was awarded posthumously the Medal of Honor and reinterred at Myrtle Cemetery in Ennis. Appropriately, an intermediate school in Ennis was named Jack Lummus Intermediate School in his honor.
The body of General Kurybayashi was never found.
Check out these three fine movies on the Battle of Iwo Jima:
The classic "The Sands of Iwo Jima" starring John Wayne.
Clint Eastwood's two highly acclaimed films: "Flags of Our Fathers" for the American view and "Letters From Iwo Jima" for the Japanese view.
To see what the Marines were up against during World War II, check out the great HBO mini-series "The Pacific." Very gruesome, intense stuff. Not for kids and the faint of heart.
For more details on the life of Jack Lummus and his family, take a look at the impressive website www.jacklummus.com.