In 1945, Jack Lucas was in a trench on Iwo Jima when eight Japanese soldiers attacked him and three fellow Marines. One grenade then another landed in the black volcanic sand at his feet. Jack shouted a warning and acted without hesitation. He sprawled on top of the first grenade while grabbing the second and pulling it under his body. A moment later, a deafening explosion tore through the trench.
Jack was willing to give his life for his fellow Marines. Ears ringing and covered in dust, the three remaining Americans left Jack’s body and mounted a vicious counterattack on the Japanese position. After the war President Harry S. Truman would award Private First Class Jack Lucas the Medal of Honor for “his inspiring action and valiant spirit of self-sacrifice.”
But that is not the most amazing part of the story.
As the battle for Iwo Jima culminated, Marines returned to the trench to retrieve Jack’s identification and chronical his death. When they turned him over, they found an unexploded grenade in his hand; Jack Lucas was very much alive. He took the full thrust of the first grenade in his right side and chest, but after 21 surgeries he would live a productive and happy life. Hundreds of pieces of metal remained in his body, enough to trigger airport metal detectors until he died in 2008.
But there is more.
Of the 22 Marines and five sailors who received the Medal of Honor for actions on the island of Iwo Jima, Jack Lucas was unique. On the day he threw himself on those grenades, he was being processed for desertion back at his home station in San Diego. Jack’s command declared him AWOL and reduced him in rank in absentia. What they did not know was that Jack had left his job driving a truck for the Corps and stowed away on a ship headed west. Rumor had it the ship was bound for what would be the deciding battle of the war, and Jack was not about to miss out.
After being hidden and fed during the weeklong transit, he stormed the beaches of Iwo and started fighting the Japanese as best he could. Reckless and irresponsible, it was the sort of childish decision Jack Lucas had a reputation for. But a child is exactly what Jack was.
Nine months after Pearl Harbor, he had forged his mother’s signature and fast-talked his way into the Marine Corps. He was just 14 years old. He celebrated his 17th birthday at sea, six days prior to jumping on the grenades. After the war, while his peers went to college on the GI Bill, Jack continued his education by starting high school. As a freshman. With the Medal of Honor.
There will never be another Jack Lucas—of this we can be certain.
But Jack’s story begs a question. What was a 14-year-old doing in the U.S. Marine Corps?
The answer is less about 7 December 1941 and more about 24 October 1929. It is less about Pearl Harbor and more about small towns across America; less about the Great War and more about the Great Depression.
The “Roaring 20s” never came to Plymouth, North Carolina, where Jack grew up. The stock market implosion and the subsequent run on the banks, exacerbated by the Dust Bowl, left the U.S. economy in ruins. By the time Jack was five, half the country’s banks had failed and 20 percent of the country was unemployed.1 When young Jack’s father died, what was barely enough became not nearly enough. Jack’s mother held it together as best she could, but when he developed disciplinary problems, she enrolled him in Edwards Military Institute and wished him well. For all intents and purposes, at age 11 Jack was on his own.
On 7 December 1941, Jack learned of the attacks. He forged his mother’s signature on his enlistment papers, and a 14-year-old child shipped off to Parris Island and joined the fight.
Economic shocks, a patriotic population, geopolitical turmoil, and a rigid socioeconomic class structure are more prevalent now than at any time since the 1920s. The current generation of American heroes may not look like Jack Lucas, but the Navy-Marine Corps team would be well-served searching for them in similar places.
Children of the Great Recession
Ironically, the key to finding the next generation of heroes comes not from the story of when Jack Lucas was born, but instead from the story of the day he died. On that day, 5 June 2008, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was at 12,604, employment was strong, and the geopolitical picture was as stable as it had been since September 2001. Within a year, the Dow would fall to 6,547, unemployment and student debt would skyrocket, middle-class wages would continue their great stagnation. The “Great Recession” was upon us. It would have lasting effects across society, especially in the dynamics of the all-volunteer force.
Now, 11 years later, it is hard to look at the 2019 jobs reports as anything but good news. The unemployment rate has held steady at an historically low 3.6 percent. Wages have grown 2.9 percent since last year—their fastest rate in almost a decade. This should be bad news for the Navy. Historically, military enlistment rates are inversely proportional to the employment rate. Low unemployment already gets much of the blame for recruiting shortfalls in the Army and Air Force. If it is easy to get a job, people should not be joining the Navy.
But they are. Many are. The Navy met its 2018 recruiting goal despite increasing its target by more than 13 percent. There is a disconnect between what is going on in the economy and what is happening at recruiting stations, and that disconnect can be explained by four historic trends: expanding population, wage stagnation, the national student-loan crisis, and diversity initiatives. If cultivated correctly, this provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to expand the size of the force while increasing the capability. We can get bigger while also getting better.
A Decreasing Force in an
In a December 2018 instruction, then-Chief of Naval Personnel Vice Admiral Robert Burke remarked, “We are in a growing Navy. We will certainly recruit and train many more sailors to help meet these demands, but that will not be enough.” Fortunately, the United States is capable of fielding an all-volunteer force because it is not faced with the stagnating, rapidly aging, or declining population problems confronting China, Japan, and Russia. Because the size of the armed forces is smaller now than at the end of the Cold War, the U.S. military has the opportunity to increase its active-duty ranks without lowering entrance standards. In fact, anecdotal evidence demonstrates the contrary—that the quality of new recruits is increasing as the percentage of the population in the force decreases.
Last year, fewer than one tenth of 1 percent of U.S. citizens were serving in the U.S. Navy. In other words, the service was 230 percent bigger when the Berlin Wall came down than it is now. Maintaining a “one-tenth of 1 percent” goal will allow expansion of the service without diminishing the standards and talent of the force. When the Marine Corps expanded in the wake of Pearl Harbor, it was drawing from a finite pool, and recruiters were forced to look the other way and allow unqualified entries—including eighth graders such as Jack Lucas—into the ranks. Today that isn’t the case.
For generations, the Navy traditionally filled a role as an employer of last resort. A combination of increased service member pay since 2001 and wage stagnation in the civilian sector has significantly changed the financial picture. From 2000 to 2011, the pay for an E5 sailor after four years of service, not including any allowances, grew considerably compared with the median civilian salary in the United States (according to the Social Security Administration). A sailor in 2000 was making almost 10 percent less than the average civilian. By 2011 those numbers had inverted, with military E-5s making 10 percent more than the median civilian income. A 20-percent change over a ten-year span is significant. A comparative pay advantage exists that was unheard-of prior to 2004.
In addition, the military solves the middle-class wage stagnation problem by removing the most volatile variable—the cost of housing. The military provides a tax-free housing allowance by zip code adjusted annually, without risk of declining. It also provides fully compensated medical care, college tuition, and job training. The economic headwinds plaguing the middle class have served as a talent tailwind in the naval service. A chart recently published by The American Enterprise Institute shows the relative change in prices since 1997.2 The things you want have gotten more affordable, but the things you need have gotten more expensive. Fortunately, the word is getting out that military compensation balances that equation.
The issues that plague the middle class can be solved for able-bodied men and women who are willing to trade a level of personal autonomy and control for the opportunity to serve. Today’s military, in other words, provides good jobs and is one of the last locations for middle-class mobility.
Student Loan Crisis
Americans owe more than $1.48 trillion in student loans—$600 billion more than they owe on their credit cards. While difficult to prove causation, anecdotally this could be contributing to the increase in enlistments from sailors with some college or a degree. In 2018, in one naval aviation squadron, 21 of 179 enlisted sailors had completed either a bachelor’s or associate’s degree, and more than a third had some college classes.3 The vast majority of the enlisted sailors with degrees had some student debt.
Much has been written about the “gig economy” and the generational inclination toward job switching, entrepreneurial ambitions, and independent thought. The instability of the gig economy, however, acts in tension with the persistent strain of student debt. Guaranteed employment for enlistment periods, loan forgiveness programs, tuition assistance, job-specific technical training, and the GI Bill all provide an attractive counterbalance for some of the 44.2 million Americans with student loans.
The Payoff of Diversity
In 1941, Jack Lucas’s Marine Corps was all male and predominantly white. Over the past half century, as women entered the civilian workforce in large numbers, there was a fear that unemployment would increase as men were driven out of the labor force. Those fears proved false, as the global economy proved not to be a zero-sum game. Instead, the economy expanded commensurate with the increased labor pool.4
Similar fears existed with every increase in integration in the military force. However, unlike in the civilian workforce, the size of the formation is set by Congress. An expanded pool of applicants, scarcity of opportunity, and improved wages drive up the quality of any labor force. The United States recently saw an anecdotal example of this increase in military human capital.
Rosemary Mariner was a retired Navy captain. She graduated from Purdue at 19 as an aerospace engineer and a licensed pilot. She joined the Navy and, despite a prohibition from combat, was selected for the inaugural flight school class to allow women. Captain Mariner was the first woman to fly a Navy jet. She logged 17 carrier landings and 3500 flight hours in 15 different aircraft and was the first woman to command a squadron. Her example contributed to Congress lifting the prohibition on women flying combat flights in 1993.
After a long battle with cancer, Mariner died in January 2019 at age 65. At her funeral the Navy honored her with a traditional “missing man flyover.” The flyover was performed by four jets, but in her honor, for the first time in Navy history, all eight aviators on board the aircraft were women. They flawlessly executed the Navy’s first “missing woman” formation as a tribute to a pioneer.
“Captain Mariner was so foundational in breaking down the barriers for women in naval aviation,” said Navy Lieutenant Commander Paige Blok, one of the pilots in the formation.
While Mariner’s contribution to equal rights was significant, arguably more important was her overall contribution to the quality of the labor force in the naval service. Her personal story, aviation acumen, and intelligence helped drive the Navy’s gender equity initiatives, through which the service essentially doubled the pool of eligible recruits. The overall quality of human capital went up commensurately.
As an example, consider the professional caliber of the women who flew over her funeral. In the cockpit were a Harvard graduate, two TOPGUN graduates, and two women selected to command fighter squadrons. Of the four who went to the Naval Academy, two were aerospace engineers, one was a quantitative economics major, and one an oceanography major with two master’s degrees from MIT. What would have mattered most to Captain Mariner though is that all eight women were combat veterans.
The fact that eight women flew the event received national attention. The improvement in labor-force quality did not. When Captain Mariner took command of Electronic Attack Squadron 34, the Navy comprised less than 10 percent women. In 2018 women made up 25 percent of enlisted recruits and 27 percent of officer recruits. As expected, the quality of those recruits—both men and women—went up.
When Jack Lucas joined the homogenous, all-male Marine Corps of 1941, expanding the size of the Corps within a closed labor system required a decrease in quality. Conversely, over the past 30 years military inclusion in a closed labor system has resulted in an overwhelming increase in quality.
Kids These Days
Even with the tailwinds of social mobility, education, an expanded applicant pool, and competitive compensation, there is still an intangible aspect of the Jack Lucas story to consider. Are today’s recruits willing to make the sacrifices required to win wars?
Some leaders, including retired Navy Admiral William McRaven, have defended today’s generations, but questions about modern American youth linger. As one reporter recently pushed back at Admiral McRaven, “The millennial generation is not known for rigor and courage.”
While it is impossible to replicate the circumstances of Iwo Jima, three recent examples demonstrate a high degree of courage and service among “iGen” youth.
In May 2019 at a STEM high school in Colorado two students opened fire on their classmates. They were subdued by their peers, including a senior named Brendan Bialy. Brendan already had enrolled in the Marine Corps delayed entry program (DEP)—meaning he had signed a contract to report to boot camp immediately after high school graduation. In a statement, the Marine Corps said, “Brendan’s courage and commitment to swiftly ending this tragic incident at the risk of his own safety is admirable and inspiring.”5
Within days of the Colorado shooting, across the country University of North Carolina–Charlotte student Riley Howell was buried after rushing a gunman on the last day of classes. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg police chief hailed Riley as the “first and foremost hero” of the shooting, confirming he got the gunman “off of his feet” and gave the police the opportunity to disarm the shooter.6 Riley was enrolled and taking classes with the Reserve Officer Training Unit. He was given full military honors at his funeral.
Peter Wang was a high school freshman the day a gunman opened fire on him and his classmates at Parkland High school. On that day, he was wearing his JROTC uniform and was holding the door open to help his classmates escape when he was shot. Born in Brooklyn, New York, to immigrant Chinese parents, Peter dreamed of serving his country in the Army and had ambitions to join the cadets at West Point. Peter was posthumously admitted to West Point. On the day of his funeral the Army announced, “One of USMA’s priorities is to develop leaders of character who are committed to the values of Duty, Honor, and Country. Peter Wang’s actions on February 14 are an example of those principles and the academy honors his dream of being a West Point cadet with a 2025 letter of acceptance.”
When he was 70 years old, some 53 years after he threw himself on top of two grenades at Iwo Jima, people were still trying to comprehend what would make young Jack Lucas so willing to give up so much. A reporter asked him, “Mr. Lucas, why did you jump on those grenades?” He did not hesitate: “To save my buddies.”7
We don’t have to look to history to find young Americans willing to give their lives for their fellow citizens. Despite criticisms of today’s youth, there are plenty of examples that the future of the United States remains in good hands.
There may never be another Jack Lucas, but there are plenty of young Americans worthy of Jack Lucas’ pride.
1. “Great Depression History,” History.com, www.history.com/topics/great-depression/great-depression-history.
2. Mark J. Perry, “Chart of the Day (Century?): Price Changes 1997 to 2017,” AEI.org, 2 February 2017, www.aei.org/publication/chart-of-the-day-century-price-changes-1997-to-2017/.
3. Taken from a squadron survey conducted at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island Washington, Spring 2018.
4. Amanda Weinstein, “When More Women Join the Workforce, Wages Rise—Including for Men,” Harvard Business Review, 31 January 2018, https://hbr.org/2018/01/when-more-women-join-the-workforce-wages-rise-including-for-men.
5. Patrick Smith and Hayley Walker, “Marine Recruit and other Colorado STEM School Students Helped Disarm Gunman,” NBC News, 8 May 2019, www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/colorado-stem-school-student-brendan-bialy-helped-disarm-gunman-n1003181.
6. Ben Kesslen, “Family of Slain UNC Charlotte Student: We’re ‘Beyond Proud’ of His Actions,” NBC News, 2 May 2019, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/riley-howell-slain-unc-charlotte-student-who-helped-stop-killer-n1001036.
7. James Bradley, Flags of Our Fathers: Heroes of Iwo Jima (New York: Delacorte Press, 2001).