Bookstore Glossary Library Links News Publications Timeline Virtual Israel Experience
Anti-Semitism Biography History Holocaust Israel Israel Education Myths & Facts Politics Religion Travel US & Israel Vital Stats Women
donate subscribe Contact About Home

Tony Stein

By Bryan Mark Rigg, PhD
(1921 - 1945)

Anthony Michael “Tony” Stein was born on September 30, 1921, in Dayton, Ohio, the son of Rose and Steve Stein. His parents had emigrated from Yugoslavia and were German-speaking immigrants with Austrian papers. They came to American to escape anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe and embrace the opportunities of the United States. Tony was a daredevil as a kid and never showed fear of anything. His care-free behavior did not lend itself to school and he dropped out of Kiser High School his freshman year.

Even though things were tough for his family, he found many ways to earn money for his parents and he learned toolmaking at a machine shop at Dayton’s Patterson Field.[1] He then did a stint in FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps working in a lumber camp and doing various construction jobs. After serving there, he returned to Dayton where he got another job as a tool and die maker apprentice at Delco Products plant.

A few factoids about Tony at this time will give one a better understanding of why he earned the Medal of Honor later in life. In 1940, seeing a boy drowning in Mad River, he rescued his life. Then he joined a boxing league in the city and reached the Dayton Golden Glove Championship and won it in February 1942, fighting at 128-pounds and standing at 5'6". He was physically tough, willing to take risks and helpful to others.

After Pearl Harbor, his tool company was deemed essential for the war economy, so he was not initially drafted, which relieved his Jewish mother. However, Tony had other ideas and joined the Marine Corps in September 1942. He knew they were the first sent into battle and he wanted to fight the fascist warmongers who had attacked his country.[2]

After he finished Boot Camp, Tony joined the ParaMarines (he was going to be part of the Marine Corps Shock Troops and become a Paratrooper). After this training, he deployed to the Pacific and fought in the battles of Guadalcanal, Bougainville, and Vella Lavella. On Bougainville, he became known as a “sniper exterminator,” taking out five snipers before they could continue killing any of his comrades. Such a position in the squad, being a sniper of snipers, required excellent knowledge of his rifle, patience, and excellent body control. He was becoming one of the best in his group of elite warriors.[3]  

After the battle of Bougainville in 1943-1944, Stein’s ParaMarines disbanded and he returned to the States for some leave. People were astounded by his transformation. In 1942, he left weighing 130-pounds; 20 months later he had grown two inches and weighed 190-pounds, all muscle. He was now built like a linebacker. While on leave, he  married one of his earlier co-workers from Patterson Field, Joan Stominger. After his honeymoon, he left for Camp Pendleton, California, to help set up and build out the newly formed 5th Marine Corps Division (5th MarDiv). He was promoted to corporal and put in charge of a squad of 13 men.[4]

During this time, he used his skills as a toolmaker to modify a machinegun that would define him on Iwo Jima. In February 1945, his division loaded on their ships and headed to what would become one of the most brutal battles of World War II. And Tony’s division would be the first, along with the 4th MarDiv, to hit the island when it was attacked.[5]

Stein was unquestionably heroic on the first day of battle when the Marines hit the beach on Iwo Jima on February 19, 1945. This day was hell on earth for the Marines. Men could not get off the beach or see the enemy, which was hidden in pillboxes, bunkers, tunnels, and caves (the island is eight square miles and there were eleven miles of tunnels). Locating positions Stein wanted to attack, he stood up in plain view receiving fire while lugging a Browning .30 caliber machinegun that fired 500 rounds per minute. With help from others, Stein had salvaged a Browning machinegun from a crashed aircraft and modified it by “fitting the gun with a M1 Garand buttstock, a BAR bipod, a BAR rear sight, and a fabricated trigger.”[6] [7] When he fired it, men around could hear it above the roar of battle. They called it the Stinger.[8]

Carrying a Stinger, like the backpack flamethrower, required courage. “He was fearless…He didn’t know the meaning of the word fear,” according to James Hallas.[9]  The day Stein earned the Medal of Honor (the highest decoration for valor in the United States Armed Forces), he ran back to the beach to reload his Stinger with 100 rounds eight times after carrying back a wounded man or helping one to an Aid Station. To improve agility and to enhance visibility, he shed his boots and helmet. He helped get Marines moving off the beach and was a one-man wrecking crew destroying several pillboxes. A week later, he was killed leading a patrol.10]

During the review of the command’s recommendation that Stein receive the Navy Cross posthumously, Major General James L. Underhill, a member of Fleet Marine Force, Pacific’s Awards Board, believed a better description of Stein’s actions might upgrade the award. On May 17, 1945, he wrote Stein’s battalion commander, Colonel J. B. Butterfield, for more information.[11] Eventually, a more detailed report was submitted and sent up the chain of command and Lieutenant General Holland M. “Howlin Mad” Smith (head of Fleet Marine Force, Pacific), Pacific Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, General Alexander A. Vandegrift (Commandant of the Marine Corps), Rear Admiral R. W. Hayler (head of the Navy Department of Awards and Decorations), and Fleet Admiral Ernest King (head of the U.S. Navy) recommended approval of a Medal of Honor for Stein.[12] Stein’s nomination for the award received 15 endorsements, the most of any soldier in Flamethrower.

A week after he had fallen, Tony’s decayed body was retrieved from the battlefield and buried in plot 5, row 6, grave 1107, in the 5th Marine Division Cemetery on Iwo Jima, a cemetery where, several weeks later, Rabbi Roland Gittlesohn gave a famous eulogy entitled, “The Purest Democracy.”

A year later, on February 19, 1946, Tony’s Medal of Honor was presented to his 24-year-old widow at the Ohio Statehouse in the presence of the governor. Admiral Richard Pennoyer tied the Medal around her neck as she stood overwhelmed by the emotions of pride and loss. Stein’s mother witnessed the ceremony with tears streaming down her face.

Stein’s remains were removed from Iwo Jima in 1948 and arrived, one week before Christmas, back in Dayton, provoking a fight between his widow and mother over where he would be buried. His mother Rose wanted Tony buried in a Jewish cemetery and Joan wanted him laid to rest in her church’s burial grounds. Although it seems Tony identified as Jewish, he may have converted for his wife when they got married (the records are unclear). Joan had remarried, complicating the legal question as to whether she was his next-of-kin. 

The military recognized Joan as the next-of-kin and Stein was reburied in Our Lady of Rosary Church according to his wife’s wishes. [13]

As far as history is concerned, though, Tony Stein was the only Jewish Medal of Honor recipient from Iwo Jima.

His citation reads:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving with Company A, 1st Battalion, 28th Marines, 5th Marine Division, in action against enemy Japanese forces on Iwo Jima, in the Volcano Islands, 19 February 1945. The first man of his unit to be on station after hitting the beach in the initial assault, Cpl. Stein, armed with a personally improvised aircraft-type weapon, provided rapid covering fire as the remainder of his platoon attempted to move into position. When his comrades were stalled by a concentrated machine-gun and mortar barrage, he gallantly stood upright and exposed himself to the enemy’s view, thereby drawing the hostile fire to his own person and enabling him to observe the location of the furiously blazing hostile guns. Determined to neutralize the strategically placed weapons, he boldly charged the enemy pillboxes one by one and succeeded in killing 20 of the enemy during the furious singlehanded assault. Cool and courageous under the merciless hail of exploding shells and bullets which fell on all sides, he continued to deliver the fire of his skillfully improvised weapon at a tremendous rate of speed which rapidly exhausted his ammunition. Undaunted, he removed his helmet and shoes to expedite his movements and ran back to the beach for additional ammunition, making a total of eight trips under intense fire and carrying or assisting a wounded man back each time. Despite the unrelenting savagery and confusion of battle, he rendered prompt assistance to his platoon whenever the unit was in position, directing the fire of a half-track against a stubborn pillbox until he had effected the ultimate destruction of the Japanese fortification. Later in the day, although his weapon was twice shot from his hands, he personally covered the withdrawal of his platoon to the company position. Stouthearted and indomitable, Cpl. Stein, by his aggressive initiative, sound judgment, and unwavering devotion to duty in the face of terrific odds, contributed materially to the fulfillment of his mission, and his outstanding valor throughout the bitter hours of conflict sustains and enhances the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.

Bryan Rigg is the author of Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers, the Rabbi Saved by Hitler’s Soldiers and Flamethrower: Iwo Jima Medal of Honor Recipient and U.S. Marine Woody Williams and His Controversial Award, Japan's Holocaust and the Pacific War.

[1] James H. Hallas, Uncommon Valor on Iwo Jima: The Stories of the Medal of Honor Recipients in the Marine Corps’ Bloodiest Battle of World War II, Mechanicsburg, PA, 2016, 31.

[2] National Archives, St. Louise Personnel Records (NASLPR), Tony Stein, Marks, Scars, Etc., 22 Sept. 1942; Hallas, 31.

[3] Hallas, 31-32.

[4] Hallas, 31

[5] Hallas, Uncommon Valor on Iwo Jima, 20-39; Jim G. Henri, W. Keyes Beech, David K. Dempsey, Alvin M. Josephy, and Tom Dunn, The U.S. Marines on Iwo Jima, NY, 1945, 42.

[6] NASLPR, Tony Stein, J.B. Butterfield to Smith, Com. FMF, 25 May 1945, 1; Hallas, 32.

[7] Hallas, Uncommon Valor on Iwo Jima, 30-1.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 31.

[10] NASLPR, Tony Stein, J.B. Butterfield to Smith, Com. FMF, 25 May 1945, 1-2 & Statement Sgt. Kent F. Stegner, 23 April 1945.

[11] Ibid., J. L. Underhill to Com. Officer, First Btl., 28th Marines, 5th MarDiv, 17 May 1945.  

[12] Ibid., King to Forrestal, 9 Oct. 1945 & Hayler to Forrestal, 27 Sept. 1945 & Vandegrift to Forrestal, 21 Sept. 1945 & Nimitz to Forrestal, 8 Sept. 1945 & Smith to Forrestal, 8 June 1945.

[13] NASLPR, File Tony Stein, Rose Parks to War Department, 4 June 1946; Rose Parks to Marine Corps, 6 November 1947.

Sources: Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation;
Bryan Rigg, Flamethrower: Iwo Jima Medal of Honor Recipient and U.S. Marine Woody Williams and His Controversial Award, Japan's Holocaust and the Pacific War, Fidelis Historia, (March 19, 2020).

Photos: Top Public Domain Wikimedia
Additional photo courtesy of Bryan Rigg