A 93-year old World War II veteran, who led the platoon that planted the first U.S. flag on Iwo Jima, is facing extended rehabilitation in Arvada after suffering a suspected stroke.
Family members say John Keith Wells nearly lost his life just before Christmas.
“He came back twice at the hospital after they thought he wasn’t going to survive,” said Connie Schultz, the veteran’s daughter.
She said her dad still carries shrapnel in his body from the battle of Iwo Jima.
“He was severely wounded right at the last minute,” she said, “and was not able to continue up the mountain.”
Schultz said fellow Marines forced Wells onto a hospital ship in February of 1945 and that his men “knew to go ahead and do the job for him.”
Wells’ men planted a small flag on Mount Suribachi. A few hours later, a second group of Marines replaced that flag with a larger one.
That second flag raising was memorialized in a photograph destined to become one of the most iconic war photos of all time.
“The (first group of) men didn’t dwell too much on that,” Schultz said. “But those men in the first flag raising did not get recognized until 65 years later. That’s when President Bush invited them to come and they were honored at the White House and they were also honored by the Marines.”
Schultz told Denver7 that her father talked about the young men who fought on Iwo Jima, all the time.
“Growing up, I knew all about Iwo,” she said. “My dad didn’t hide anything from our family. He included us in all the reunions with his men.”
It was an honor to meet them she told Denver7.
She said that during the battle, the young Marines looked up to her father because he was 23 years old.
“They were only 16 to 18,” she added. “Some had lied about their age to get into the service.”
Schultz said the survivor's reunions meant the world to her dad.
Schultz’s husband, Herman, said the 50th anniversary reunion, held in Wichita Falls, Texas, was the most special.
“When Keith came into that building, they saw him and they started singing the Marine Hymn,” Herman Schultz said. “I want you to know that will always be with me, that they had that much respect for him.”
The Schultz’s said Wells didn’t make it back to Iwo in 2010 for the 65th anniversary reunion, but he did go to Japan in 1983 at the invitation of the Japanese military.
“They invited my mom and dad personally and they honored him in Tokyo,” Connie Schultz said. “They were the only two Americans invited. After the talk, they sent him to the general’s home. The widow met my parents, graciously hosted them and let them go into his room, which she had turned into a shrine.”
She said the trip to Japan meant the world to her mom and dad.
“They knew my dad was one of the leaders on Iwo and they invited him,” she said. “To make that major trip alone and be honored by them, his enemy, was something he never forgot.”
Wells, who was a Lieutenant in the United States Marine Corp Reserve during the war, and who honorary retired as a Major, wrote a book about his experience entitled, Iwo Jima.
On the front cover of the book is the quote: "Give me fifty Marines not afraid to die."
Schultz said that sums up her father’s attitude toward his wartime duty.
Schultz told Denver7 that despite his age, her father is a strong man.
“In addition to the suspected stroke,” she said, “he has an extreme case of vitamin deficiency.”
She said the Dr. told her that her father was the first one he’d ever witnessed that came back from being that close to death.
“But he’s a Marine,” she said. “And you know Marines, they’re fighters.”