It is a sad month in America.
1st Lt. John Keith Wells, the Marine who steadfastly led the charge to raise the flag on top of Mt. Suribachi, Iwo Jima, died on February 11th in Arvada, Colorado.
The Iwo Jima flag raising is arguably the most recognized military scene in American history.
Wells, who famously said, “Give me 50 men not afraid to die, and I can take any position,” as he traveled to Iwo Jima, was just 12 days away from the 71st anniversary of the flag raising.
On February 19, 1945, Wells was ordered to lead the 3rd Platoon, Company E, 2nd Battalion, 28th Marines, 5th Marine Division in an assault up the base of Mt. Suribachi. He succeeded however he did not actually make it to the top due to multiple injuries. But his men did as he continued to command them through his injuries.
Speaking with Denver 7, Wells’ daughter noted that the famous Iwo Jima flag raising photo was actually the second flag raised on the island. “The first one caused so much emotion that [one of the commanders] ordered a bigger flag be flown,” she said.
Marine Corps Times lays out the battle well:
Wells was severely wounded while directing an attack on a particularly formidable blockhouse that had halted his platoon’s advance.
Undeterred, he pressed the attack until the fortified position was eliminated.
“When, an hour later, the pain from his wound became so intense that he was no longer able to walk, [Wells] established his command post in a position from which to observe the progress of his men and continued to control their attack by means of messengers,” according to his citation.
The battle for the 546-foot mountain overlooking the tiny volcanic island raged for another two days after Wells was evacuated to a hospital ship.
On Feb. 23, members of his platoon, along with E Company’s executive officer, 1st Lt. Harold Schrier, peaked the summit to raise the national flag above the island.
Wells, meanwhile, persuaded a corpsman to donate morphine to him, escaped from the hospital ship and joined his men shortly after the flag raising.
Their first flag was replaced hours later when a larger one was raised. Photographer Joe Rosenthal captured this in what would become the most famous photograph of the war and arguably the most iconic image of the Marine Corps.
“He was a very warm, sensitive, spiritual man, all the way to age 94,” Connie Schultz, Wells’s daughter, told Denver 7.
1st. Lt Wells’ platoon is believed to be the most decorated platoon in Marine Corps history for a single engagement. His individual awards included a Navy Cross, a Bronze Star, and a Purple Heart.
Here is an excerpt from his Navy Cross citation:
When ordered to attack across open terrain and dislodge the enemy from a series of strongly-defended pillboxes and blockhouses at the base of Mount Suribachi, First Lieutenant Wells placed himself in the forefront of his platoon and, leading his men forward in the face of intense hostile machine-gun, mortar and rifle fire, continuously moved from one flank to the other to lead assault groups one by one in their attacks on Japanese emplacements. Although severely wounded while directing his demolition squad in an assault on a formidable enemy blockhouse whose fire had stopped the advance of his platoon, he continued to lead his men until the blockhouse was destroyed. When, an hour later, the pain from his wound became so intense that he was no longer able to walk, he established his command post in a position from which to observe the progress of his men and continued to control their attack by means of messengers.
John Keith Wells was born on February 5, 1922 in Lakeview, TX. He graduated from Lakeview High School and attended Texas A&M University for three years, before joining the Marine Corps during World War II.
After leaving the service, he completed his Geology degree at Texas Tech University. He went into the oil business. Wells served in the Marine Corps Reserve until 1959, retiring as a major.
He married the love of his life, Kathryn A. Buchanan on June 5, 1948.
In 1995, he published a memoir titled Give Me 50 Marines Not Afraid to Die.
“He honored and loved the Marine Corps with all his heart and soul,” his daughter Connie said. “His last words were, ‘My family.’”