Marine who raised first flag on Iwo Jima dies at 94

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Marines greet John Keith Wells on his 91st birthday. (Photo: Arvada Press)

“Among the men who fought on Iwo Jima, uncommon valor was a common virtue.” – Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz

First Lt. John Keith Wells, the Marine commander responsible for raising the first flag atop Mt. Suribachi, died on February 11, just days shy of the 71th anniversary of his time on Iwo Jima.

“He was a very warm, sensitive, spiritual man, all the way to age 94,” Connie Schultz, Wells’s daughter, told Denver 7.

He was also tough as nails.

“Give me 50 men not afraid to die, and I can take any position,” Wells said during the transit to Iwo Jima.

On February 19, 1945, he 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. In keeping with his claim, he succeeded.

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.

In a 2013 interview with the Arvada Press his daughter Connie said, “He didn’t give an order. His men just followed him because they respected him so much as a leader.”

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1st Lt. John Keith Wells, USMC. (Photo: U.S. Marine Corps)

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 move because of severe dehydration. But he wasn’t down for long. He convinced a corpsman to give him sulfa powder and morphine so he could get off the hospital ship and back to his platoon.

Once Wells reached the base, one of the flag raisers, Charles Lindberg, helped him the rest of the way.

According to the 5th Marine Division’s “Legends” page, after the first flag was raised Wells’ commanding officer ordered him to relinquish command of the platoon and return to the aid station. Wells reluctantly passed the platoon to Sgt. Ernest “Boots” Thomas who was killed in action several days later. Wells remained on the island, although unable to lead his troops, until the island was declared secure.

Wells’ daughter pointed out that the famous Iwo Jima flag raising photo, the one used to design the Marine Corps Memorial in Arlington, Virginia, 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.

After World War II ended, Wells attended Texas Tech College and obtained a degree in Petroleum Geology. He worked in the oil industry and served in the Marine Corps Reserve until 1959, retiring as a major.

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.'”

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