Iwo Jima: Marine Who Raised Iconic Flag Dies Just Days Before 71st Anniversary Of Battle

Just days after the Battle of Iwo Jima began, American soldiers, badly battered and gaining ground on the Japanese, took Mount Suribachi. Taking the high ground on Iwo Jima not only meant a decisive turning point in the fight, it was also the scene of an iconic photograph of fighting men raising the Stars and Stripes. February 23 will be the 71st anniversary of this event. However, it will be without one of the men pictured: First Lt. John Keith has passed away at the age of 94.

John Keith went into the Battle of Iwo Jima leading the 3rd Platoon, Company E, 2nd Battalion, 28th Marines, 5th Marine Division and was order to take Mount Suribachi. “Give me 50 men not afraid to die, and I can take any position,” Wells said of his assignment. The attack was launched on February 11, and by February 23, his platoon would have achieved feats to make them the most decorated Platoon in Marine Corp history. John Kieth has been awarded the Navy Cross, the Bronze Star, and a Purple Heart for his actions in the Battle of Iwo Jima.

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The citation from his Navy Cross reads as follows.

“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.”

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Over the course of the entire Battle of Iwo Jima, over 7,000 men were killed. The victory there would be known for the courage required from the men who assaulted the Japanese positions, which would have had the advantage in nearly every way. Wells was wounded so badly that after the flag was raised, he was ordered to relinquish command of his division and would spend the rest of the Battle of Iwo Jima recovering.

He would retire from the Marines at the rank of major in 1959.

Wells lived for nearly 71 years after the Battle of Iwo Jima, despite the wounds and the shrapnel left in his leg. Born in Texas in 1922 and raised on a farm, John Keith Wells got his degree from Texas Tech in petroleum geology. The oil industry took him and his family to Arvada, Colorado, where he lived out the rest of his life, reports the Arvada Press.

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“He grew up on a farm, so he gave cavalry commands like, ‘Saddle up,'” his daughter Connie said. “It kept morale high.”

Give me 50 Marines Not Afraid to Die: Iwo Jima is the title of John Kieth Wells’ 1995 memoirs in which he tells the story of his experience at Iwo Jima. He also received mention in John Bradley’s Flags of Our Fathers, a book that told the stories of Wells and other men who raised the American flag at Iwo Jima.

Scoutreports, “He honored and loved the Marine Corps with all his heart and soul,” his daughter Connie said. “His last words were, ‘My family.'”

With his contribution at the Battle of Iwo Jima and the leadership capacity he put on display during his military career, John Kieth Wells is a Marine Corp hero.

[Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images]