By Xavier Jackson
The world has largely condemned the use of child soldiers, and after accidentally deploying sixty-two 17-year-old soldiers to Iraq and Afghanistan in 2004, the U.S. has clamped down on the issue entirely. In the past, it was not uncommon for soldiers to lie about their age in the name of patriotism and enlist anyway. Some of these young soldiers went on to distinguish themselves in combat, earning awards and recognition above and beyond your average “adult” soldier.
One such soldier was Jacklyn "Jack" Lucas. On August 6th, 1942, he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps at the age of 14, forging his mother‘s signature to convince the recruiters that he was 17. After just a year of service, military censors discovered he was underage from letters to his girlfriend. Rather than kick him out of the military, they removed him from his unit in Hawaii and assigned him to the rear as a truck driver.
Not satisfied with this new-found lack of danger, Lucas wound up court-martialed for getting into too many fights.
After five months in the stockade he was released, still aching for that combat assignment he longed for. His desire was so much that in January 1945, he left his post and stowed away on the USS Deuel, which was busy shipping marines to the Pacific theater.
Narrowly avoiding a second court-martial, the now 16-year-old Lucas was allowed to remain. He would turn 17 on February 14th during the trip. Celebrations were probably short-lived since he found himself on a landing craft bound for Iwo Jima five days later as a participant in the bloodiest battle of the Pacific.
He managed to survive the first day, and on the second Lucas was crawling towards a Japanese airstrip they were attempting to capture when a grenade landed near him. With no thought, Lucas threw himself onto it to shield his comrades. As if that situation weren't bad enough, a second grenade landed next to him as he readied himself to smother the first. Figuring he was a dead man, Lucas swept the second one under his body as well.
The ensuing blast sent massive amounts of shrapnel into his abdomen, and his injuries were so severe that his fellow marines figured he was dead and moved on with their assault. It was not until a second company was moving through that they discovered the young teenager was incredibly still alive.
For the heroic act, he received a Medal of Honor. So at an age where most kids are still working on their high school degree, Jacklyn Lucas earned himself the highest award for valor in the U.S. for smothering two grenades with his body in Iwo Jima. 200 pieces of shrapnel remained in his body, setting off metal detectors until his death in 2008.
Amazingly, Lucas is not the youngest Medal of Honor winner. Not by a longshot. That distinction belongs to young Willie Johnston, who earned himself the nation's highest award at the age of 11 when most modern children are happy with a participation ribbon for their city soccer league team.
Willie Johnston joined the U.S. Army in 1861 as the drummer for the 3rd Vermont Regiment, after refusing to let his father join alone. He was 10 years old at the time and was initially denied pay due to the fact that his superiors thought him to be too young to draw pay.
A year later he was present at the Seven Days Battles, where his regiment was routed. After the failed attack to take Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate Army forced the Union soldiers to constantly retreat. In their haste and in an attempt to flee faster, the majority of the Union soldiers abandoned their equipment and rifles on the battlefield. But Johnston carried his drum all the way to Harrison's Landing where the Union Army regrouped. Total distance? Around twenty miles.
All the more impressive when you realize he wasn't much larger than the drum itself. (via civilwarrx.blogspot.com)
After regrouping at Harrison's landing, Johnston found himself as the only drummer who hadn't abandoned his drum. As a result, he played for the whole division in recognition of his service. Two years later, upon hearing of his story, President Abraham Lincoln personally recommended Johnston for the Medal of Honor. In 1863 he became only the third recipient of the award ever.
Johnston and his father served out the remainder of the war, with both surviving. Not much is known of what happened to him after the war. He mustered out of the army at age 15 in 1865 and was at one point enrolled in Norwich Military Academy. He was at least alive in 1899 for a Medal of Honor Legion reunion.
Meanwhile, the drum itself was lost to history for some time, until being found inside a house in Massachusetts in May of 1988.