First Lieutenant John Keith Wells, USMC, 94, of Wheat Ridge, died Thursday at the Arvada Care and Rehabilitation Center.
Wells, who received the Navy Cross, Bronze Star and Purple Heart, commanded the 3rd Platoon, Easy Co., 28th Marine Regiment, during the Battle of Iwo Jima. The 3rd Platoon was part of the invasion force, landing on February 19, 1945. It was a key unit in the frontal assault on Mt. Suribachi.
Wells, thinking the frontal assault order from higher up was pure suicide, refused to give his marines the order to assault. Without the supporting fire that had been promised, he simply rose from his shell hole, waived his rifle over his head and began running up the mountain. The rest of his Marines followed.
He didn’t make it to the top, because he was shot multiple times by the Japanese, but he was still able to direct his men on their mission. They raised the first flag on the mountain.
A few hours later, a second group of Marines replaced that flag with a larger one. The second flag raising was memorialized in a photograph that was destined to become one of the most iconic war photos of all time.
“He was a very warm, sensitive, spiritual man all the way to age 94,” said Connie Schultz, the World War II hero’s daughter. “He honored and loved the Marine Corp with all his heart and soul. He loved his family and his last words were, ‘My family.’”
Son-in-Law Herman Schultz told Denver7, “I knew him for 45 years and that wasn’t enough. The first time I met him, he was directing people at Texas Tech, back on May 11, 1970. A tornado was about to hit, and he was directing students to go down to the basement to save their lives.”
“He was even in charge way back then,” Connie Schultz said.
Brighton resident Dean Glorso knew Wells from some veteran's meetings at American Legion Post 161 in Arvada.
“Keith Wells belonged to the Cooper’s Troopers Organization,” Glorso said. “When I started, there were about 12 – 15 vets that still attended the meetings. Now, we’re down to about 5 or 6.”
Glorso told Denver7 it was an honor to get to know Wells.
When Mr. Wells went into hospice in December, Glorso decided to honor him with a painting depicting the hero on the war-torn island.
“He never made it up (to the mountain top), but he was there in spirit. It was because of him that they raised the first flag up on Mt. Suribachi.” Glorso said. “His platoon was the most decorated platoon in the Marine Corp. He saw the operation and they systematically took out some 25 pill boxes and gun emplacements inside Mt. Suribachi. It was a suicide mission and he did it. He got his men moving up that mountain.”
“Wow! We’re very proud to have Dean Glorso paint this painting representing my Dad in spirit on the famous flag raising,” Connie Schultz said. “It will be an honor and a memento in our family for many, many years to come.”
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.
He married the love of his life, Kathryn A. Buchanan on June 5, 1948.
He was preceded in death by his parents, Del and Eddy Marie Wells, and by his wife.
He is survived by sons, John Wells of Denver, Wes Wells and his wife Debi of Waco, Texas, daughter Connie Schultz and her husband Herman of Denver, a brother, Clayton Wells of Abilene, Texas, 11 grandchildren and 22 great grandchildren.
A graveside service will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 20, 2016 at Elmwood Memorial Park in Abilene, Texas.
The family will receive friends on Friday, Feb. 19, from 5 – 7 p.m. at North’s Memorial Chapel, 242 Orange Street, Abilene, Texas.