Good-bye, Grandfather

Good-bye, Grandfather

My Grandfather Greeley Wells lived a long and wonderful life. He was optimist and a leader, a businessman and an artist, a charmer and a Marine. It’s impossible to completely represent the depth of his life or the wealth of his stories, however, I can share a glimpse of his life from a granddaughter’s perspective.

Photo by SSgt. Louis R. Lowery, 1945
Photo by SSgt. Louis R. Lowery, 1945

Greeley Wells enlisted in the Marine Corps after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He served as adjutant, and was sent to fight at Iwo Jima. One of his jobs as adjutant was to keep the company’s flag with him at all times. It was the flag he carried which was raised on Mount Suribachi, the “first flag” that proceeded the famous image of the flag raising which has become a symbol of that war.

In his own words:

As the flag-carrying adjutant, I procured a flag from our transport, U.S.S. Missoula, and put it in my map case.

When the actual assault came to take the top of Suribachi, I gave the flag to Lieut. Harold G. Schrier. Upon securing the top of the mountain, Louis Lowery, the Marine Corps photographer, took quite a few pictures of all the men with the flag. Needless to say, there was great excitement to see the flag atop the mountain. Men on the land shot in the air and yelled, and the hundreds of ships standing offshore likewise joined in.

Not long after the flag-raising we received a message from the division that Secretary James V. Forrestal had requested the flag. My feisty battalion commander, Lieut. Col. Chandler W. Johnson, said that the original flag was for the men of our battalion and ordered me to get another flag to replace the first flag.

I sent my company runner, Rene Gagnon, to the beach to procure a flag from one of the many crafts that were wrecked or supplying equipment to the beaches. Upon his return Gagnon was sent up the mountain with instructions for Lieutenant Schrier to raise this new flag and send back the other one. This second flag was the one we gave to Secretary Forrestal.

By the time Gagnon got to the top, Joe Rosenthal, the Associated Press photographer, had arrived. Lieutenant Schrier ordered the flag switch. A longer pole was found and it took quite a few men to raise it. I was told that Rosenthal was talking with Lowery, who told him he’d “better get the raising” and he simply turned and got the shot that became so famous. There was no formality about the second flag-raising because everybody had already been photographed at the first flag-raising.

– “The Man Who Carried the Flag at Iwo Jima” NY Times letter to the editor, 1991


Photo by  Joe Rosenthal / The Associated Press, 1945
Joe Rosenthal / The Associated Press, 1945

When he returned from the war, he was a hero and Captain, but another battle had come to his own home: my grandmother Bobsy and father Greeley Jr. had contracted polio. There were years of operations and my Grandmother’s mobility was limited, but despite these challenges, they raised a beautiful family: my dad Greeley Jr., and aunts Barbara, Nancy and Elizabeth.

He had a career as cartographer, at one point owning a map company, and later becoming President and CEO of various New York companies. He was also actively engaged in his community of Harding Township, NJ serving on the Planning Commission, as Mayor and as Police Commissioner. He and my grandmother also traveled extensively and painted exquisite water colors. He climbed – and nearly fell off – the Matterhorn!

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My sister and I would spend a few weeks each summer at our Grandparent’s house in Green Village, New Jersey. It was a big beautiful house surrounded by a forest and a stream, full of artwork, treasures from their world travels, with a basement of old toys from our dad and his sisters. Our grandfather taught us to dive – no matter how cold the water, how to appreciate spinach fresh out of the garden, and to look people in the eye when we shook their hand.

B_2014_11_03__21h11It was always an adventure to go to their house. He would let us drive his motorized lawn mower and explore the house and stream for hour. He would stand on his head just to make us laugh, and dance us around the living room. He also gave us our first taste of lobster and took us to our first Broadway show. He and my Grandmother wanted to give us experiences that we couldn’t get at home, to widen our horizons, and they succeeded.

He died on September 22nd at the age of 94, after a life of service, love and joy. A testament to his outstanding life was the fact that his Memorial Service in Seattle was standing room only. He was honored by a Marine Color Guard, and friends and family from far and wide.

Thank you for all you taught me, Grandfather.
—Meghan Sahli-Wells

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