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Utah Marine veteran returns to Iwo Jima on 97th birthday

PLEASANT GROVE — With a salute, a smile and dozens of friends singing him "happy birthday," 97-year-old Keith Renstrom, a U.S. Marine master gunnery sergeant, returned home once more from Iwo Jima, Japan, on Monday evening.

Renstrom, who turned 97 on Wednesday, returned from the airport to find friends, family members, Boy Scouts and police officers waiting to greet him at his Pleasant Grove home.

Many helped to hold an American flag the size of a swimming pool, some with tears in their eyes.

"I don't know what to say, but here I am," Renstrom said, wearing a ball cap that reads "World War II Veteran" and flanked by two fellow Marines in uniform.

"I thank you from the bottom of my heart."

Renstrom received two Purple Hearts and two Bronze Stars in his six years as a Marine. He returned to the remote Japanese island of Iwo Jima last week, more than 70 years after he led soldiers into some of the bloodiest fighting of World War II. During his visit last week he attended a ceremony honoring American and Japanese veterans and the eventual peace between the nations.

"It was fabulous," he said Monday.

The trip included 10 flights in 10 days, with other stops on the Western Pacific islands of Guam, Saipan and Tinian.

On a visit to one battle site, Renstrom recalled that one of his men was wounded and told Renstrom and other Marines to climb over him to continue fighting.

This was not the first time Renstrom has returned to sites from the war. He went back in 2006 for the same ceremony. This time, he and his wife, Jody Renstrom, traveled courtesy of the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, which is profiling his military service and documented the return. Three of the couple's children joined them.

His son, John Renstrom, said several people, including security guards at the airport and youngsters at the beach, thanked his father and shared memories of loved ones they lost in the war, bringing him to tears at times.

"It was incredible," Renstrom said, noting his father was eager to shake hands with Japanese dignitaries.

"To him, I think that's a way of him expressing his forgiveness," John Renstrom said.

Julie Day, the veteran's daughter who accompanied him on the trip, said the visit was emotional for the elder Renstrom and his family.

"Where we once met in war, we now meet in peace," she said.

On the morning of Feb. 19, 1945, Renstrom was among a second wave of soldiers who were planning to go ashore on Blue Beach about 4 p.m. The first wave was under heavy fire from Japanese forces as Renstrom, known as "Gunny," was in a boat headed to shore.

Japanese mortar shells sprayed the water as Renstrom trudged to dry land, he recalled during an earlier interview with the Deseret News. They scrambled over volcanic ash to a man-made bluff, ahead of the next salvo.

American commanders believed they would overtake the 8-square-mile volcanic crag in just days, but nearly 7,000 Americans and 20,000 Japanese died in the five-week battle.

Four Marines raised the Stars and Stripes on top of Mount Suribachi, a scene that became the enduring symbol of World War II. Renstrom revisited the site last week.

During his 11 days on Iwo Jima, Renstrom recalled watching some of his foxhole mates survive while others died in his arms.

He has said he killed more men than he can count.

"I've seen a lot of death," Renstrom said Monday, adding that the memories remain intact more than seven decades later.

On Renstrom's last day serving on Iwo Jima, a Japanese soldier tossed a grenade that became lodged in a crevice nearby. Shrapnel shot into Renstrom's back, upper left arm and chin. Most of the metal remains in his body, including a piece 2 1/2 inches from his heart.

Memories of war still flood Renstrom's head from battles on the Western Pacific islands, where he slept with his arms across his chest, a half-cocked .45-caliber pistol in his right hand, a Japanese bayonet in his left.

He wasn't supposed to have a Thompson submachine gun, an Army-issue weapon. Renstrom says it made him the envy of Marines throughout the Western Pacific. He passed the gun on to another soldier before heading back to the U.S.

Renstrom has said that at first, shooting men was "like killing a deer."

Then, one day at a church service in Maui, Hawaii, Renstrom heard a Japanese missionary testify of his love for Jesus Christ, and the Marine asked God to lift the hatred from his heart.

Renstrom has said he gained a new appreciation for life after his return home, and still wonders if he could have done something different to save more of his men's lives.

After the war, he returned to Hawaii to serve an LDS mission, where he remained for 2 1/2 years before coming home to Utah.