Tony Stein, Modern Jewish ‘Mighty Man of Valor’

Remembering the incredible story of a World War ii Jewish soldier who received America’s highest military honor
Corporal Stein and “Stinger”

You might be familiar with the record of King David’s “mighty men” found in 2 Samuel 23. This chapter summarizes the brave men who defied giants, slew lions, and fought single-handedly against hundreds of enemy soldiers. Such men are in a class of their own—“mighty men of valor,” a phrase used several times throughout the Bible. Such individuals emerge, on occasion, in the context of war.

From the horrors of World War ii a number of modern “mighty men” emerged, accomplishing remarkable deeds in the face of overwhelming odds, throwing caution to the wind and disregarding personal safety for the success of their mission. Tony Stein was such a man.

Tony Stein, USMC
Public Domain

Anthony Michael Stein was born in Dayton, Ohio, to Jewish immigrants from Yugoslavia. He was known as a daredevil and rambunctious child. When his father died, Tony (as he was known) dropped out of his North Dayton high school in order to get a job to help support his widowed mother and two younger sisters. And at age 19, he proved his worth saving the life of a young boy he spotted drowning in the nearby Mad River. The following year the “fearless” Tony became a champion boxer in the region (despite his relatively small size and weight—only 128 pounds).

That was also the year that the Japanese Air Force attacked the United States fleet docked at Pearl Harbor.

His mother, naturally, did not want her son to enlist—and to her relief, her son’s tool-and-die-making job was considered essential to the war effort. But by mid-1942, that exemption was dropped and the 20-year-old Stein promptly signed up, claiming that he felt it his duty and that he owed it to his country.

Stein at the time of his enlistment
Jewish Virtual Library

Stein enlisted in the United States Marine Corps, electing to join the elite, newly formed Paramarines (Marine paratroopers). These troops would be directly dropped into war zones by parachute. He saw action in his unit in the Pacific theater of the war, where he fought in the Solomon Islands battles of Guadalcanal, Vella Lavella and Bougainville. In the Bougainville campaign, Stein made a name for himself as a “sniper exterminator” after killing five snipers in a single day (including one only feet away from his commander). As a “sniper sniper,” Stein was making a name for himself as one of the top members of his already-elite group.

While on leave in 1944, Stein returned to Dayton. Historian Bryan Rigg wrote: “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 … built like a linebacker.” Stein got married to his former coworker, Joan Strominger, and the couple spent three days together before Stein returned to the war effort. Tragically, Joan would never see him again.

The “Stinger”

The Paramarines were disbanded in 1944 and Stein was promoted to corporal, becoming an assistant squad leader in the newly formed 5th Marine Division (whose motto was “Uncommon Valor”). Stein became known for utilizing his experience in toolmaking to his advantage during the war—and was part of a small group of men who turned salvaged, high-powered machine guns from downed aircraft into personal handheld weapons called “Stingers” with incredible rates of firepower (up to 23 rounds per second—1,400 rounds per minute). Only a handful of such botched-together weapons were made (and never as an official u.s. military product), but Stein would become famous for its use.

Feb. 19, 1945, is his day of honor in the history books.

Corporal Stein’s division was part of the first waves of an amphibious assault on the now-infamous volcanic island of Iwo Jima. The heavily fortified Japanese pillboxes that dotted the 8-square-mile island strafed at the Allies, pinning Stein’s unit down as it attempted to make its way inland. The firepower coming from behind heavily armored positions was withering.

Marines land on the beach during the assault on Iwo Jima.
Public Domain

Standing up while his fellow soldiers were pinned down, Stein exposed himself to enemy fire, drawing it away from his comrades and allowing him time to observe exactly where the most problematic fire was coming from. Armed with his “Stinger,” Stein charged at and neutralized one of the pillboxes. Though only a machine gun, it appears that the incredible rate of firepower from the large rifle-caliber bullets was able to effectively take out the bunkers with either direct hits or ricochets through the opening slits.

One drawback to the gun’s rapid fire was that it quickly ran out of ammunition—not to mention became incredibly hot (something that was not an issue at altitude). Emptying his weapon’s 100-round magazine, Stein ran back down the beach to retrieve more bullets, helping back a wounded soldier along the way. Storming back, Stein assaulted another pillbox, again exhausting his ammunition supply, and again assisting another wounded soldier back down the beach. Stein removed his helmet and shoes to expedite his movement across the sand, grabbed more ammunition, and again stormed the Japanese pillboxes. And again helped a wounded soldier back. And again stormed the pillboxes; and again helped a wounded soldier back.

Tony Stein
Congressional Medal of Honor Society

Unbelievably, Stein repeated these actions a total of eight times, each time single-handedly storming right up to the Japanese pillboxes, each time returning to the beachhead for more ammunition while assisting a wounded soldier, bullets whizzing around. His gallant and selfless actions succeeded in taking out at least 20 enemy troops and several pillboxes, sparing untold American lives. And even though his “Stinger” was twice shot right out of his hands, he still personally provided covering fire during a later withdrawal of his platoon to its company position.

For his actions that day, Corporal Stein would receive the Medal of Honor. Sadly, he would never receive it in person.

As the marines fought to take the island’s extinct volcano, Mount Suribachi, Stein was wounded in the shoulder by a mortar fragment and evacuated to a waiting hospital ship. (As such, he was not present at the time of the famous raising of the American flag by his regiment, pictured below.) His injuries earned him the Purple Heart medal.

Soldiers of the 5th Marines raise the United States flag on Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima.
Joe Rosenthal, Associated Press | Public Domain

But upon hearing that his fellow soldiers were sustaining heavy casualties while attacking Hill 362A, Stein promptly left the ship and returned to his unit to give them assistance. On March 1, as he led a 19-man patrol to examine a stubborn enemy machine-gun post, the still-wounded Corporal Stein was fatally shot by a sniper.

Thus ended the life of the small-town Jewish-Yugoslavian-American “mighty man” Tony Stein—on a remote volcanic Pacific island. But his legend would live on.

His tearful young widow and mother were there to receive his Medal of Honor in February 1946, a year after World War ii ended—the highest U.S. military honor. The citation read in part: “Stouthearted and indomitable, Corporal 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.” (The full citation is below.) This was Stein’s third medal, in addition to his Purple Heart and American Campaign medals.

Stein was later honored with a Knox-class destroyer escort named after him, the ussStein. (Rather fittingly, the story of this ship is as unique as the man for whom it was named after—in 1978, its sonar dome was heavily damaged by what experts later surmised was an incredibly large, unknown species of giant squid. Watch the ship’s petty officer explain the incident here.)

The U.S. Navy frigate USS Stein (FF-1065) underway in the Pacific Ocean on 2 March 1987.
Public Domain

Stein’s body was initially buried on Iwo Jima in the 5th Marine Division cemetery, a week after his death. (In 1948, his remains were taken back to America and reburied by his wife in Dayton, Ohio.) Several weeks after his burial on Iwo Jima, a fellow Ohio Jewish serviceman Roland Gittlesohn gave his famous eulogy to the men buried at the cemetery, titled “The Purest Democracy.” The eulogy read in part (full text here): “Some of us have buried our closest friends here. We saw these men killed before our very eyes. Any one of us might have died in their places. Indeed, some of us are alive and breathing at this very moment only because men who lie here beneath us had the courage and strength to give their lives for ours. To speak in memory of such men as these is not easy. Of them, too, can it be said with utter truth: The world will little note nor long remember what we say here. It can never forget what they did here.”

Corporal Tony Stein
Congressional Medal of Honor Society

So goes the story of Corporal Tony Stein—a man whose life became defined by a spirit of service. Service in drawing enemy fire to his person away from his fellow soldiers; in carrying a wounded serviceman back to shore with every run for ammunition; in returning from the hospital ship to his company, wounded, upon hearing of their struggles at Hill 362A; and in the event that ultimately led to his death, seeking to find and neutralize the machine-gun post that was pinning his company down.

But that spirit was alive in him long before he saw any action. It was there in his desire to enlist. It was there in his rescue of the boy drowning in Mad River. It was there in his dropping out of school and finding a job to support his widowed mother and family.

You don’t have to be put into situations of extreme danger in order to be a hero. Being a hero starts out in the home. It starts out with the smallest of responsibilities. How one acts in the smallest of ways shows how that person will act under the most intense pressure—whether or not that one will turn out to be a true “mighty man of valor.”

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The President of the United States takes pride in presenting the medal of honor posthumously to

Corporal Tony Stein
United States Marine Corps Reserve

for service as set forth in the following citation: 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 single-handed 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.

Harry S. Truman