Described by those who knew him well, John Keith Wells was a warm, sensitive spiritual man.
For the rest of us who did not know him personally, the First Lieutenant will forever be known as the Marine who led the charge to place the first American flag above Iwo Jima — during World War II.
The Navy Cross, Bronze Star, and Purple Heart recipient died at the age of 94, on Feb 11. Wells’ daughter Connie, told Denver 7, “He honored and loved the Marine Corps with all his heart and soul. He loved his family, and his last words were, ‘My family.'”
According to his Navy Cross citation, Wells led demolition teams from one enemy bunker to the other, knocking out at least 25 emplacements in the process, with “courageous leadership and indomitable fighting spirit.”
On Feb. 21, 1945, Wells led the 3rd Platoon, E Company, 2nd Battalion, 28th Marines in the assault against a “well-entrenched and stalwart defender.” While he continued to command, Wells did not make it to the top of the mountain, which overlooked the tiny volcanic island.
The battle raged for another two days, but Wells had to be evacuated to a hospital ship after he was severely wounded while directing an attack on a “formidable blockhouse that had halted his platoon’s advance.”
On Feb. 23, members of his platoon peaked the summit to raise the American flag atop the island. They gained the distinction as the most decorated platoon to fight in a single engagement in the history of the Marine Corps.
The first flag, placed by Wells’ platoon, was replaced hours later. The photograph taken by Joe Rosenthal of the larger flag that was later raised would eventually become one of the most iconic images of the Marine Corps.
Wells went on to pursue a career in the oil industry after the war. He also continued to serve in the Marine Corps Reserve and retired as a major in 1959, according to the Marine Corps Times. In 1995, he published his memoir of the Battle of Iwo Jima, “Give Me 50 Marines Not Afraid to Die.”
“In the face of intense hostile machine-gun, mortar and rifle fire, [he] continuously moved from one flank to the other to lead assault groups one by one in their attacks on Japanese emplacements,” his Navy Cross citation states.
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Thank you Major Wells for being a great role model to us that follwed. Joe Wallace, Sergeant, USMC