Remembering Robert H. Dunlap, USMC Feb 20-21, 1945, Iwo Jima, MOH

Robert Hugo Dunlap was a Marine Corps officer whose bravery astounded even battle-hardened Marines on the vicious fighting of Iwo Jima during the US invasion there.

During the days of February 20-21, 1945, Dunlap, a company commander in C Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Harry S. Truman for bravery above and beyond the call of duty during the fighting on Iwo Jima.  

Dunlap was born in Abington, Illinois in October 1920 and graduated from Monmouth College with a degree in Economics and Business Administration in May of 1942. He enlisted in the Marine Corps as a private just prior to graduation. Upon graduation, he was sent to the Marine Corps Officer Candidate School at Quantico, Virginia. He graduated in July of 1942 and was Commissioned as a 2LT on July 18.

Dunlap requested parachute training and was sent to the Corps’ school in San Diego where he graduated in November 1942 and was assigned to the 3rd Marine Parachute Battalion. Promoted to 1LT, Dunlap took part in the invasions of Vella Lavella and Bougainville in the Solomon Islands campaign.

Standing just 5’6 and 145-pounds, Dunlap hardly represented the image of the barrel-chested Marine from the recruiting posters. However, despite that, he immediately displayed the kind of courage and mental toughness that would immediately earn the respect of his men and superiors.

During the island campaign, he was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation medal by Admiral William F. Halsey. On December 9, 1943, his airborne rifle platoon was pinned down by heavy Japanese machine gun fire. Dunlap led from the front and he exposed himself to the heavy fire and was rallied his depleted platoon. His men then moved by fire and maneuver to recapture lost ground.

His commanding officer wrote about him, “Apparently a very quiet, retiring personality, this officer demonstrated outstanding qualities of battlefield leadership. Skillful, courageous, and tenacious in adversity.” Little did he know that those words would barely scratch the surface of what was to come a little more than a year later.

At the conclusion of the Solomon campaign, Dunlap was ordered back to Camp Pendleton, California, where the 5th Marine Division was being formed and trained for follow-on action in the Pacific.

Once the division deployed in October of 1944, Dunlap was promoted to Captain and given command of Company C, 1st Bn. of the 26th Marines.

When the Marines invaded Iwo Jima in February 1945, The Japanese had plenty of time to prepare the volcanic island for what they knew was coming. The tiny island just eight square miles in area was extremely well defended.

The Japanese broke with their previous doctrine of defending the beaches and dug an extensive system of tunnels and pillboxes, with interlocking fields of fire and where the troops could race underground using the 11 miles of tunnels to go from place to place.

Iwo was the scene of the bloodiest fighting of the Pacific war. But the three airfields were of strategic importance. Not only did the Japanese use them as a source of attacking American bombers en route to Japan (1200 miles away), but once taken it was a safe haven for crippled American B-29s to land coming back from Japan.

The tiny speck of volcanic dirt, dominated by the 583 foot Mount Suribachi on one end would take five weeks of terrible fighting and 7,000 Marines’ lives to secure. The terrible cost was one of the deciding factors by President Truman to use the atomic bomb in an attempt to shorten the war and save lives on both sides.

Dunlap and his company had to rally his men thru a hail of heavy machine gun and artillery fire. From the moment the troops landed, they were under heavy and accurate artillery fire from hidden Japanese guns that had the beaches zeroed in.

The second day of the invasion, February 20, Dunlap’s company was pinned down by murderous machine gun fire coming from cliffs and caves to their front. Unable to move forward, Dunlap calmly assessed the situation and knew what had to be done. Not asking one of his men to do anything he wasn’t willing to do himself, he showed what great combat leaders do. He led from in front.

While his men watched in awe, Dunlap crawled alone about 200 yards in front of his company’s positions. Crawling all the way to the base of the cliffs, less than 50 yards from the Japanese positions, Dunlap spotted the Japanese gun emplacements and marked them down on his map.

Dunlap then made the dangerous trek back to his own lines to relay the vital information for supporting Marine artillery, as well as Naval gunfire from offshore. Once the information had been relayed, Dunlap, with complete disregard for his own safety, once again placed himself in harm’s way so that he could accurately adjust the artillery fires onto the Japanese positions.

He remained there, exposed for two days and nights without respite, all the while, the Japanese were placing heavy fire on the Marines, taking a severe toll. In the end, the Marines were finally able to push their way thru and defeat the Japanese in their area.

For the Marines in C Company, 26th Marines, there was probably no bigger man than the diminutive Dunlap. He had certainly proved his mettle with his actions at Iwo Jima and prior to that in the Solomons. Later during the battle, he was wounded in his hip and was evacuated on the 26th of February. For him, the war was over. He was evacuated to Guam, Pearl Harbor, San Francisco and finally back to Illinois.

On December 18, 1945, President Truman awarded the Medal of Honor to Dunlap during ceremonies at the White House. However, Dunlap remained a patient in hospitals until early in 1946. He went back on active duty in September before being medically retired in December of 1946 as a Major.

Dunlap passed away on March 24, 2000, and was buried in his hometown of Monmouth, Illinois. He was 79-years old.

Medal of Honor Citation:


for service as set forth in the following


For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as Commanding Officer of Company C, First Battalion, Twenty-Sixth Marines, Fifth Marine Division, in action against enemy Japanese forces during the seizure of Iwo Jima in the Volcano Islands, on 20 and 21 February 1945.

Defying uninterrupted blasts of Japanese artillery, mortar, rifle and machine-gun fire, Captain Dunlap led his troops in a determined advance from low ground uphill toward the steep cliffs from which the enemy poured a devastating rain of shrapnel and bullets, steadily inching forward until the tremendous volume of enemy fire from the caves located high to his front temporarily halted his progress.

Determined not to yield, he crawled alone approximately 200 yards forward of his front lines, took observation at the base of the cliff 50 yards from Japanese lines, located the enemy gun position and returned to his own lines where he relayed the vital information to supporting artillery and naval gunfire units.

Persistently disregarding his own personal safety, he placed himself in an exposed vantage point to direct more accurately the supporting fire and, working without respite for two days and two nights under constant enemy fire, skillfully directed a smashing bombardment against the almost impregnable Japanese positions despite numerous obstacles and heavy Marine casualties.

A brilliant leader, Captain Dunlap inspired his men to heroic efforts during this critical phase of the battle and by his cool decision, indomitable fighting spirit and daring tactics in the face of fanatic opposition greatly accelerated the final decisive defeat of Japanese countermeasures in his sector and materially furthered the continued advance of his company.

His great personal valor and gallant spirit of self-sacrifice throughout the bitter hostilities reflect the highest credit upon Captain Dunlap and the United States Naval Service.


Photos: USMC