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Originally published Saturday, June 13, 2009 at 1:51 PM

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WWII medic gets four belated medals

An American medic who landed on Iwo Jima, dodged bullets on the beach and watched friends die in one of World War II's bloodiest battles is getting a belated thank-you from the U.S. Navy: Four medals he should have received before he left the service in 1945 but didn't finally arrived Saturday.

Associated Press Writer

BOISE, Idaho —

An American medic who landed on Iwo Jima, dodged bullets on the beach and watched friends die in one of World War II's bloodiest battles is getting a belated thank-you from the U.S. Navy: Four medals he should have received before he left the service in 1945 but didn't finally arrived Saturday.

Eighty-six-year-old Kenneth Wellington Keene, Sr., of Riggins, accepted his WWII Victory Medal, American Campaign Medal, Combat Action Ribbon and Honorable Service Lapel Pin at a Flag Day ceremony in Lewiston attended by U.S. Rep. Walt Minnick, D-Idaho and state House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston.

After winning election last November, Minnick staffers began asking the U.S. Navy in Washington, D.C. to investigate the oversight.

In an interview Friday with The Associated Press, Keene remembered how he was the last person out of his landing craft in the opening wave of the invasion on Iwo Jima on Feb. 19, 1945 - about 30 seconds before a Japanese shell blew the boat from the water. In the next 26 days before he returned to a ship for the journey back to Hawaii, where he'd been stationed, Keene watched his commanding officer die, tended to the broken and battered, and helped lead a group of wounded Marines from a minefield.

"When I hit the beach, I had no feeling about what was going to happen to me. I just set about doing my job, fixing up casualties and getting them back to the aid station," he said. "It surprised me, especially as I think back about it, that I didn't think, 'What if it's you? What if I get killed.' I had no fears whatsoever. I was too busy, I guess."

Minnick was contacted by Keene's daughter, Sandra Wicker, in 2008 while campaigning in northcentral Idaho and learned that the former aerospace worker had been trying to secure his medals for about five years, but to no avail.

"We didn't often receive letters like the one we received from his daughter," said John Foster, a spokesman for Minnick. "We all remembered it."

Keene had already received a Bronze Star, awarded to those who have "distinguished himself or herself by heroic or meritorious achievement or service" in battle.

He cherishes that medal, which he still has.

Still, he always felt something was missing because the others that marked his contribution to history had never materialized. Keene doesn't remember exactly why he didn't get them, but recalls that when he arrived back on the mainland United States at a U.S. Navy base in San Diego that superiors told him they simply didn't have any more to hand out.

"They were out of stock," he said.

The strategic importance of the invasion on Iwo Jima remains disputed 65 years on, but almost every American has seen the island, courtesy of Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal's iconic shot of soldiers raising the U.S. flag atop Mount Suribachi - a moment documented in a 2000 book and 2006 Clint Eastwood film "Flags of our Fathers."

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Nearly all of the island's 22,000 Japanese defenders were killed, with more than 6,800 U.S. deaths. Some of those, Keene witnessed first hand, including that of his commanding officer, who was raked with machine gun fire and hit in the head. Keene also lost some of his hearing to a "buzz bomb" that killed one of the two men assigned to watch over him as he treated men in the field. His other "cover guard" was wounded.

And Keene, who moved to Riggins 17 years ago to be near family after living most of his adult life in California where he worked at Douglas Aircraft, remembers looking on as one of the first American planes to land at the newly captured air base on the island promptly struck a jeep, he said. What should of been a happy moment turned tragic: The pilot was killed, he said.

Keene's unit was ferried to the aircraft carrier USS Kingsbury for the return trip to Pearl Harbor after exactly 26 days on Iwo Jima, a place he told a Stars and Stripes columnist in 1945 "was a series of endless shell holes in the volcanic sands."

"They told us when we went in, that was our schedule, 26 days," Keene recalls. "It worked out just that way. Except we had very few who got off there alive."

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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