The Marine who led the charge to place the first American flag above Iwo Jima has died.
First Lt. John Wells, 94, died Feb. 11 at the Arvada Care Rehabilitation Center in Arvada, Colorado.
Wells received the Navy Cross, Bronze Star and Purple Heart after leading his Marines in a frontal assault up the slopes of Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II.
He didn’t make it to the top after taking multiple enemy rounds, but continued to command, leading his men to victory. His platoon raised the first flag atop the mountain, hours before the iconic photo of the second flag raising was captured.
“He was a very warm, sensitive, spiritual man, all the way to age 94,” Connie Schultz, Well’s daughter, told ABC affiliate 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.’ ”
Wells, as leader of the 3rd Platoon, E Company, 2nd Battalion, 28th Marines, successfully conducted the Feb. 21, 1945, assault over open terrain against a well-entrenched and stalwart defender.
The engagement gained his platoon the distinction as the most decorated platoon to fight in a single engagement in the history of the Marine Corps.
With “courageous leadership and indomitable fighting spirit,” Wells led demolition teams from one enemy bunker to the other, knocking out at least 25 emplacements in the process, according to his Navy Cross citation.
“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,” Well’s citation states.
He was severely wounded while directing an attack on a particularly formidable blockhouse that had halted his platoon’s advance.
Undeterred, he pressed the attack until the fortified position was eliminated.
“When, an hour later, the pain from his wound became so intense that he was no longer able to walk, [Wells] 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,” according to his citation.
The battle for the 546-foot mountain overlooking the tiny volcanic island raged for another two days after Wells was evacuated to a hospital ship.
On Feb. 23, members of his platoon, along with E Company's executive officer, 1st Lt. Harold Schrier, peaked the summit to raise the national flag above the island.
Wells, meanwhile, persuaded a corpsman to donate morphine to him, escaped from the hospital ship and joined his men shortly after the flag raising.
Their first flag was replaced hours later when a larger one was raised. Photographer Joe Rosenthal captured this in what would become the most famous photograph of the war and arguably the most iconicimage of the Marine Corps.
After the war, Wells studied petroleum geology at Texas Tech University and pursued a career in the oil industry.
He continued to serve in the Marine Corps Reserve, retiring as a major in 1959.
His published his memoir of the Battle of Iwo Jima, “Give Me 50 Marines Not Afraid to Die,” in 1995.
Matthew L. Schehl covers training and education, recruiting, West Coast Marines, MARSOC, and operations in Europe, Africa and the Middle East for Marine Corps Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.