As coincidences go, the fact that Lloyd Lewis and Rex Thompson appeared side by side on Thursday’s Herald Journal obituary page was particularly noteworthy.
These two members of the “Greatest Generation” shared an experience few other living Americans could claim. Seventy-six years ago this February they both served as U.S. Marines in the Battle of Iwo Jima, one of the most horrific and storied military engagements of World War II.
Thompson, a native of Clarkston, died Jan. 8 at age 101 and was buried at the Clarkson Cemetery on Friday with military honors. Lewis, a native of Preston, died five days later on Jan. 13 at age 95. He will be buried Saturday with military honors at the Preston Cemetery next to his twin brother, Boyd, who died at his side on Iwo Jima.
As young Marine recruits, Thompson and the Lewis twins were unacquainted with each other when fate found them on a small, barren island in the South Pacific fighting to capture two airfields used as attack launch points for Japanese fighter planes. Thompson and Lloyd Lewis met back in Cache Valley after the war, became friends and made countless appearances together at WWII commemorations and school events over the years.
They also traveled together to Washington D.C. after being chosen for an “Honor Flight” for World War II veterans a couple of years ago.
Both men spoke candidly about the horrors of war, and as the ranks of local WWII veterans has dwindled in the past two decades, both were sought out often to tell their stories and share their wisdom.
Lewis’ war experience, in particular, served as a grim reminder of the sacrifices made by soldiers and has been told and retold many times on the pages of Utah newspapers. He and his inseparable twin fought side-by-side in the war and were together in a foxhole on the beach of Iwo Jima when a Japanese mortar round hit their position, killing and dismembering Boyd and launching Lloyd onto the ground several feet away.
The two 17-year-olds were known to have an uncanny bond — so much so that the U.S. Marines had allowed them to fight together despite a policy to separate brothers. Lewis recalled the commanding officer who made the decision saying, “You guys are so identical. If one dies, the other would die of heartbreak. So both of you might as well get your asses shot off.”
Lloyd almost did die of heartbreak — or the consequences of it anyway. Leading a platoon on the day after the loss of Boyd, the surviving twin dove on a live hand grenade, suffering severe injuries while saving his fellow soldiers.
In a 2005 Herald Journal article, he described the heroic act as perhaps as much a product of emotional pain as it was valor. “I wanted to die. I thought it would be the coward’s way out. After my brother died, half of my world died. Most of me died with him.”
The grenade caused severe injuries to Lewis’ colon and urinary tract, which earned him a ticket home from the war and a doctor’s verdict that he would never have children. He qualified for permanent disability payments but turned them down to work on the family farm and eventually became a school teacher. And he did become a father.
Lewis got a Purple Heart for his injuries but was never officially recognized for the courageous act of smothering the grenade — a situation that fellow Cache Valley Marine veteran Ernie Blankenship tried to rectify in recent years, even approaching former U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis about Lewis after Mattis gave a convocation speech at Utah State University last January.
“Gen. Mattis told me he couldn’t do anything, that his hands were tied, but I hadn’t given up on it,” Blankenship said. “I was hoping when we got through this political mess of working with some of our congressmen. The military claimed they had no records to verify Lloyd’s action, but they do have a record of the injury, which proves that he threw himself on a grenade with the soldiers he was leading, and that’s the sad part.”
Rex Thompson was a radio operator in the 5th Marine Division who witnessed the iconic scene of U.S. soldiers raising the American flag on Iwo Jima. He survived the battle uninjured and without firing a shot, but his WWII experience has also been an inspiration for many Cache Valley residents.
In a 2004 Herald Journal interview, Thompson recounted the almost insurmountable challenge faced by Marines trying to root out Japanese troops from Iwo Jima’s intricate network of tunnels and caves. But he also spoke at length about the bitterness toward the enemy harbored by his fellow soldiers in the Pacific Theater and how he was able to overcome it.
“Some guys never get over those terrible feelings that they have, the terrible feelings of hate and guilt and remorse,” he said, explaining that what helped him set hate aside was a wartime visit to one of the Pacific islands by Latter-day Saint Apostle Harold B. Lee, who spoke to Thompson and a small group of Marines personally.
“He said, ‘You guys that want to be on the side of the devil and hate, be consumed by hate, that’s of the devil. If you want to be on the side of the savior, then you’ve got to forgive your enemies,’” Thompson recalled. That night, the young soldier prayed for the strength to forgive. His efforts brought results, and some years later he developed a love for the Japanese people.
Back in Cache Valley, Thompson had a long career as a mail carrier and served as a church bishop and stake president, among many other religious callings.
Thompson and his late wife, Edna, lived just around the corner from the 9th Ward meetinghouse at 125 E. 500 North, and they are fondly remembered in the neighborhood.
“They were the most amazing people,” said former 9th Ward resident Jan (Foster) Gardner, now of Tremonton, who phoned The Herald Journal to talk about Rex Thompson’s passing and reminisce about a seemingly magical time that the Thompsons were fixtures in the central Logan neighborhood. “He had a cute bicycle and he would always ride the bicycle around, and I think that’s what made him healthy. He was everyone’s mailman, and he was also our bishop and stake president for a lot of years. Everybody in the area knew him. He was always friendly.”
This assessment was echoed by Thompson’s daughter Beth Roberts, who wrote in his obituary, “His cheerful, nonjudgmental outlook endeared him to all who associated with him.”
Thompson and Lewis were among the last remaining World War II veterans in Cache Valley. It just so happened that while friends and family were bidding Thompson farewell on Friday, another WWII-era veteran, Merl Bloxham, was celebrating his 95 birthday and being feted with a drive-by parade at his south Logan home. Bloxham, the longtime postmaster in Franklin, Idaho, served stateside in the war and tells the story of being assigned to lead an Army boot camp just after enlisting, even though he had never been through boot camp himself.
A video conference of the Lloyd Lewis funeral will be broadcast on the Allen-Hall Mortuary website at 11 a.m. Saturday, followed by military honors at the Preston Cemetery.