When Ken Stevens, now 92, of Long Prairie enlisted in the United States Marine Corps, Feb. 29, 1944, he was told by the sergeant that he would be dead in six months. That was simply the life expectancy of those who chose to be signed up with the Fleet Marine Force.
Even though Stevens was not required to serve in the military since he was working on the farm, he figured at least one of the Stevens brothers ought to.
Neither of his two older brothers, Harold and Lyle, could pass the physical exam to go into the service. His other two brothers, Kermit and Wallace, were still too young. At 19, he was the only one fit to go.
The sacrifice he made to serve his country was more than leaving his parents, brothers and home in Minnesota. He also left his pregnant wife, Phyllis, and didn’t see their son, Ken, Jr. until two years later.
The same day he enlisted, Stevens and several other Marines were sent to San Diego, Calif. to boot camp.
“A lot of them kids were coming in right off their mommy’s knee. It was really tough on them,” he said. “But I was used to working hard at home, so it didn’t bother me.”
After boot camp, Stevens was sent to complete combat training at Camp Elliot, Calif. He also received BAR (Brownie Automatic Rifle), scout and sniper training.
“At BAR school we were told there were two kinds of BAR men — the quick and the dead,” he said.
Comparing himself to the gunfighters in the old west, Stevens understood that in order to have a better chance at surviving, he needed to practice a lot to develop an even faster hand.
“So I practiced every day,” he said.
When he and several other Marines stayed in Poway Valley — an area known for its many rattlesnakes, they killed 14 rattlesnakes the first night alone. Sleeping on the ground, Stevens said he could hear the snakes rattle in the middle of the night. But even so, they were tired enough to fall asleep. When they woke up the next morning, he was happy to see that no one had been bitten while asleep.
Before Stevens’ platoon was sent overseas, they went through some amphibious training at Camp Pendleton, which is located between San Diego and Los Angeles. They later shipped out to Hawaii and the Marshall Islands, where they waited on the ship for 3rd Division to arrive. They joined up with the 3rd Division on the island Guam.
Stevens served as a private first class in the E Company, 1st Battalion, 21st Marines, 3rd Division.
“Most of us were farm boys from the midwest,” he said.
A perimeter camp was set up at Guam, where they either stood guard by the perimeter fence or patrolled every day in search for Japanese soldiers. One day when Stevens was on patrol, a Japanese soldier took a couple of shots at him, but missed.
Stevens said one day when he and a few other Marines in his company were returning from patrol, they ran into some Army men from New York. The Army men had been sent to man a radar station on the north end of the island.
“When we met them they had an about 800-pound heifer on the rope, so I asked them what they were going to do with her,” he said.
Stevens said the Army men had wanted to keep the heifer for a pet, but that their commanding officer wouldn’t let them.
“We told them we could keep her in our camp and that they could come visit her anytime,” he said. “Being farm boys, we knew what a good steak looked like on the hoof. That was 4 p.m. By 5 p.m. we had some good steak cooking.”
Stevens said none of the Marines in his company had tasted fresh meat in a long time, so it was a real treat.
About Nov. 1, 1945, he and the others were sent to Base Camp across the city of Agana, where they trained steadily until they went to Iwo Jima (an island of the Japanese island chain).
“I had never heard of Iwo Jima before that,” he said.
Loaded onto the USS President Jackson, Stevens was put in charge on the dock to hook cables to the machinery and to oversee the supplies on the ship.
“I had a few close encounters on that ship,” he said.
Stevens said one day when he was coming out of the head, located one deck above the sleeping quarters, he suddenly saw sparks fly. Another Marine had accidentally shot himself in the hand with a BAR.
“There were three holes on the deck where I had stepped out of the head,” he said. “Those bullets missed my feet by just a few inches.”
Stevens’ company landed on Iwo Jima, Feb. 19, 1945. The U.S. presence on the island was in response to the surprise military strike by the Japanese Imperial General Headquarters on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941, which led to the United States entry into World War II.
“We were supposed to be the reserve. We weren’t even supposed to go ashore that day, but they had so many lost and wounded that they started landing us the first day,” he said.
Stevens said there were so many Marines in the water and on the beach that it was near impossible to get anyone ashore. Many Marines returned to the ship until the next morning.
“But the Higgins boat I was in made it ashore,” he said. “Just as I was making my way up the beach, the Japanese started shooting.”
Since most of his company was still on the ship, he spent the night with the 5th Division.
As soon as the rest of the Marines had landed on Iwo Jima, they were ordered to seize the second airfield.
“Going across that airfield sounded like a bees’ nest with all the bullets flying,” he said.
Stevens and three other men in his fire team dove into a gully to take cover.
“The three guys in my fire team all got killed,” he said. “I did a somersault into a ditch with the bullets kicking up dirt right long the edge.”
He suddenly found himself face-to-face with a machine gun bunker, but realized that he was positioned low enough to stay out of its bullet path. The enemy had parked it on a higher mound, he said.
Stevens then shot directly into the machine gun and rendered it useless.
Waiting for the 5th Division to arrive, Stevens spent the afternoon near the bunker, about only 20 yards away. Whenever an enemy soldier came out, he shot him. It was a matter of survival. Him or them.
“I took my BAR and put it on single shot, so I didn’t waste any ammunition,” he said.
Stevens later learned that he had shot 74 Japanese soldiers coming out of the bunker.
When his platoon leader, Lt. McCann saw what Stevens had done, he told him he would see to it that he received a Medal of Honor. It was a medal Stevens would never receive as Lt. McCann was shot a few minutes later by enemy fire.
Later when Stevens found his company, he also learned that there were only 22 of them left. Going in, there had been 250 Marines in the company, he said.
The company moved to the third airfield and later onto sulfur flats.
“One morning when I was sitting alone and all I could see was dead Marines and Japanese, I was surprised that I was still alive,” he said.
He thought about home, about Phyllis and about his son he had yet not met. Then he said the most beautiful sunrise he had ever seen began.
“At that moment, I felt God’s hand on my shoulder. I will never forget that feeling. It gave me hope that I would see another day,” he said.
Stevens continued to have close calls throughout his service on Iwo Jima.
One night, Stevens was sitting in a foxhole by a ridge with another Marine, named Ken Sullivan.
“I was on watch and he was sleeping,” he said.
When Stevens looked around his left shoulder, he found a Japanese soldier sitting right on the edge of the foxhole
Stevens quickly jerked the trigger on his BAR once. The two didn’t see the dead soldier until morning when they discovered his body where Stevens had shot him.
The E Company left Iwo Jima Easter Sunday 1945, returned to Guam and started training on how to land on Japan. They were about two weeks from invading Japan when they received word that the war had ended. He was discharged from the Marine Corps Jan. 2, 1946.
His story of his time on Iwo Jima was published in the book “By Dammit, We’re Marines” — a collection of veteran stories by Gail Chatfield.