Just a few days after his 23rd birthday, Marine Lt. Keith Wells was an “old man” on his way to Iwo Jima.
It has been 68 years since then and on Feb. 5, Honorary Retired Major John Keith Wells celebrated his 91st birthday, surrounded by his family as well as veterans and current Marines.
Wells was the platoon leader of the 3rd Platoon, Company E, 2nd Battalion, 28th Marines, 5th Marine Division — one of the most decorated infantry platoons to come out of a single engagement — and the first to raise a flag over the Japanese island of Iwo Jima during World War II.
“His famous saying on the way over there was, ‘Give me 50 men not afraid to die, and I’ll take any position,’” said his daughter Connie Schultz.
Wells was in the Marines from 1943-46, during which time he led the attack on Mount Suribachi in February 1945.
Wells and Pfc. Donald Ruhl stormed the beach on Iwo Jima on D-Day before the platoon joined them.
While the platoon was in no-man’s land on its way to the base of Mount Suribachi, a Japanese soldier threw a grenade from a trench, which Ruhl threw himself on.
“It saved Keith’s life and a lot of others,” said Herman Schultz, Well’s son-in-law.
Ruhl was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
The battle raged on and Wells stood up and charged ahead.
“He didn’t give an order,” Connie said. “His men just followed him because they respected him so much as a leader.”
Even after several wounds, including shrapnel and a chunk of his leg being severed, Wells continued to lead his men until he physically couldn’t do it anymore from severe dehydration that would have killed him, his daughter said.
“You can still feel the shrapnel in his leg,” Herman said.
His men continued the fight up Mount Suribachi and took the mountain, where they raised the first flag over Iwo Jima.
Wells, while still healing from his wounds, convinced a corpsman on the hospital ship to give him morphine and let him go see the flag. Once he reached the base of the mountain, one of the flag raisers helped him to the top.
Though the famous photograph of Marines raising a flag was indeed over Iwo Jima, the photo depicts the second flag raising.
“The head of the Navy wanted a bigger flag,” Connie said. “The feat (Wells’ men accomplished) caused so much emotion that he ordered a bigger flag be flown.”
The platoon wasn’t recognized until 2007 by President George Bush.
Wells received the Navy Cross and a Purple Heart for his actions during the Mount Suribachi engagement 1945. He retired from the Marine Reserves in 1959.
Wells released a memoir in 1995 titled “Give me 50 Marines Not Afraid to Die: Iwo Jima” and was mentioned in James Bradley’s “Flags of Our Fathers,” which told the story of John Bradley and other flag raisers.
Wells was also part of the inspiration for John Wayne’s character Sgt. John Stryker in “Sands of Iwo Jima.”
“He grew up on a farm, so he gave cavalry commands like, `Saddle up,’” Connie said. “It kept morale high.”
After the war, he received a degree in petroleum geology in 1948 from Texas Tech College and worked in the oil industry. His work brought him and his wife to Arvada in the 1960s. He became heavily involved with the Boy Scouts.
“Every year he’d have the boys make canoes and they’d go canoeing in the mountains,” Herman said.
He also took his scouts on trips around the world, leading them in many different activities, Connie said.
Now Wells lives at the Verandas Assisted Living in Wheat Ridge. Connie said Wells is the most retired he’ll ever be.
“He never really retired,” she said. “He just had to stop one day.”
Wells takes no credit, though, for the life he has lived — from leading a successful mission and surviving World War II to reaching his 91st birthday.
“I used to say it was the ‘man upstairs’ and then I realized, it’s no man,” Wells said. “It’s God.”
As guests gathered in the Verandas for his 91st birthday, a song written for Wells played in the background and Marines respected a long birthday tradition — giving the first piece of cake to the guest of honor and the oldest Marine.
“The thing about Marines is we’re brothers,” said Marine Sgt. Daniel Malta at the party. “Guys like Maj. Wells are our heroes. We want to honor them in any way we can.”