Anthony Michael “Tony” Stein was born on 30 September 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. 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 tremendously. However, Tony had other ideas and joined the Marine Corps in September 1942. He knew they were the first to fight and he wanted to fight back against those fascist warmongers who had attacked his country.
After he finished Boot Camp, Tony, ever the daredevil, 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.
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 5’6” and weighing 130-pounds. Now, 20 months later, he stood 5’8” and weighed 190-pounds, all muscle. He was now built like a linebacker. While on leave, he also 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 (13 men).
During this time, he used his skills as a tool maker to modify a machine gun that would define him on Iwo Jima. In February of 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.
Tony Stein was unquestionably heroic on the first day of battle when the Marines hit the beach on Iwo Jima on 19 February 1945. This day was hell on earth for the Marines. Men could not get off the beach nor see the enemy since they were not on the island, but in the island in pillboxes, bunkers, tunnels and caves (there was eleven miles of tunnels in this island that was eight square miles). Locating positions Stein wanted to attack, he stood up in plain view receiving fire. He accomplished assaults by lugging a Browning .30 caliber machine gun that “had a tremendous rate of fire” of 500 rounds per minute. He was a demolition specialist and had “improvised this weapon himself.” With help from others, Stein had salvaged a Browning machine gun 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.” When he fired it, men around could hear it above the roar of battle. They called it the Stinger. Carrying a Stinger, like the backpack flamethrower, required courage. “He was fearless…He didn’t know the meaning of the word fear.” 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 eight times with 100 rounds each time either 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.
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 17 May 1945, he wrote Stein’s battalion commander, Colonel J. B. Butterfield, for more info. 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. Due to upgrading of the recommendation, Stein’s Medal of Honor process had the most endorsements the study for the book Flamethrower has uncovered—15 in total.
Death and Legacy
After the week after he had fallen, Tony’s decayed body was retrieved from the battlefield and buried in plot 5, row 6, gave 1107, in the 5th Marine Division Cemetery on Iwo Jima, a cemetery that would receive one of the most famous eulogies by a U.S. Chaplain a few weeks later, Rabbi Roland Gittlesohn, called “The Purest Democracy.” A year later, on 19 February 1946, Tony’s Medal of Honor was presented to his 24-year-old widow at the Ohio Statehouse in the presence the governor. Admiral Richard Pennoyer tied the Medal around her neck as she stood there both proud and very sad. Stein’s mother also was there, watching with tears streaming down her face.
Eventually, Stein’s remains were removed from Iwo Jima in 1948 and arrived, one week before Christmas, back in Dayton, Ohio. He eventually was buried in Our Lady of Rosary Church according to his wife’s wishes, but against his Jewish family’s desire. Although it seems Tony identified as being Jewish and was an atheist, he maybe had “converted” for his wife Joan when they got married (the records are unclear about this). He, like many Jewish men and women of his generation, when they wanted to marry someone out of their Jewish tradition, they most often left for the dominate religion when doing so to please the society around them. However, when his remains returned to the States, his widow and mother started to fight over his remains. Complicating the situation was the fact that his widow had remarried by 1947 complicating the legal claim one had as the next of kin. A bitter fight ensued between her and his mother, Rose, over his body and where he would be buried. His mother wanted him buried in a Jewish cemetery and his widow wanted him in her church’s burial grounds. In the end, the military adhered to the wishes of the widow as the next-of-kin, and he went and remained in a Catholic cemetery. As far as history is concerned, though, Tony Stein was the only Jewish Medal of Honor recipient from Iwo Jima.