Jack Lummus found glory on the gridiron and death on the battlefield. He's one of two NFL players to win the Congressional Medal of Honor and the only one to win it posthumously.*
The circumstances of his death, the brazen heroism, described below, will make you shudder.
Andrew Jackson Lummus Jr. was a native of Ennis, Texas and a baseball and football star at Baylor University. He signed with the N.Y. Football Giants in 1941.
His rookie campaign was one of great promise. Lummus was a two-way end as the Giants won the Eastern Division title before losing to Chicago, 37-9, in the NFL championship game, just two weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor. A month later, in January 1942, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps.
He would never return to pro football.
Nearly 7,000 Americans died on Iwo Jima in the month-long battle (more than twice as many than have died over the course of several years in Iraq). Of the 22,000 Japanese defenders on the island, every single one was killed or captured. The U.S. Navy issued 138 Medals of Honor to sailors and marines throughout all of World War II – 27 of those medals were earned in just a few weeks on Iwo Jima.
The Japanese had reinforced the island defenses for years before the invasion. The marines were forced to weed out deeply entrenched Japanese soldiers who fought from a network of tunnels, holes and pillboxes carved out of the island's volcanic rock. Overhead observers said it looked like the marines were fighting the island itself.
The battle for Iwo Jima gave America its most famous and most powerful wartime image, Joe Rosenthal's 1945 Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of six marines raising the flag on the debris-strewn top of Mt. Suribachi. (The best recent account of the flag raising is "Flags of our Fathers" by James Bradley
, a son of the only man in the photo who went on to have a family. It was released as a movie in 2006.)
The circumstances of Lummus's death are described graphically in the 1965 book "Iwo Jima" by Richard F. Newcomb.
After twice being knocked over by grenade blasts, the second of which resulted in shoulder wounds, Lummus continued to attack entrenched positions when "suddenly he was at the center of a powerful explosion, obscured by flying rock and dirt. As it cleared, his men saw him rising as if in a hole. A land mine had blown off both his legs that had carried him to football honors at Baylor.
"They watched in horror as he stood on the bloody stumps, calling them on. Several men, crying now, ran to him and, for a moment, talked of shooting him to stop the agony.
"But he was still shouting for them to move out, move out, and the platoon scrambled forward. Their tears turned to rage, they swept an incredible 300 yards over the impossible ground and at nightfall were on the ridge, overlooking the sea.
"There was no question that the dirty, tired men, cursing and crying and fighting, had done it for Jack Lummus."
His Medal of Honor citation, though less graphic than the passage above, provides more details of why he was given the nation's highest military distinction.
"For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty ... Resuming his assault tactics with bold decision after fighting without respite for two days and nights, First Lieutenant Lummus slowly advanced his platoon against an enemy deeply entrenched in a network of mutually supporting positions.
"Although knocked to the ground when an enemy grenade exploded close by, he immediately recovered himself and, again moving forward despite the intensified barrage, quickly located, attacked and destroyed the occupied emplacement. Instantly taken under fire by the garrison of a supporting pillbox and further assailed by the slashing fury of hostile rifle fire, he fell under the impact of a second enemy grenade but, courageously disregarding painful shoulder wounds, staunchly continued his heroic one-man assault and charged the second pillbox, annihilating all the occupants.
"Subsequently returning to his platoon position, he fearlessly traversed his lines under fire, encouraging his men to advance and directing the fire of supporting tanks against other stubbornly holding Japanese emplacements. Held up again by a devastating barrage, he again moved into the open, rushed a third heavily fortified installation and killed the defending troops. Determined to crush all resistance, he led his men indomitably, personally attacking foxholes and spider traps with his carbine and systematically reducing the fanatic opposition, until, stepping on a land mine, he sustained fatal wounds.
"By his outstanding valor, skilled tactics and tenacious perseverance in the face of overwhelming odds, First Lieutenant Lummus had inspired his stouthearted Marines to continue the relentless drive northward, thereby contributing materially to the success of his regimental mission. His dauntless leadership and unwavering devotion to duty throughout sustain and enhance the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life in the service of his country."
After being hit by the land mine, the legless Lummus was carried to a battlefield hospital and lived for several more hours.
There, according to surgeon Lt. E. Graham Evans, Lummus was thinking of football when he uttered his final words.
"I guess the New York Giants," Lummus said, "have lost the services of a damn good end."
Lummus's Medal of Honor was presented to his mother, Laura, on Memorial Day 1946. His remains were buried in Ennis, Texas, two years later.
For most young men, reaching the NFL, playing in its championship game, would be the crowning achievement of their life. Lummus's gravestone tells us only that he was a Medal of Honor recipient and first lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps.
* Like Lummus, Maurice Britt of the Detroit Lions
played just one year in the NFL before giving up his career for military service. He joined the U.S. Army at the end of the 1941 season, days after Pearl Harbor. He earned the Medal of Honor during a firefight in Italy in 1944 that cost him his right arm. He served as lieutenant governor of Arkansas in the 1960s. Former AFL commissioner Joe Foss
also won the Medal of Honor in World War II, as an ace fighter pilot with 26 kills
Lummus lives on today as the namesake of the Maritime Prepositioning Ship (pictured), the MV 1st Lt. Jack Lummus, which was built at the General Dynamics shipyard in Quincy, Mass. In April 2007, we received an email from Marine Corps Colonel Robert J. Drummond who had come across our story (which originally ran in 2006). Col. Drummond reports:
"These prepositioning ships have supported Marines (Army/Air Force as well) in various operations for many years and have proven their value time and again. The majority of these ships are named in honor of servicement who earned the Medal of Honor and died doing so."