World War II vet prepping for first pitch at NAIA World Series

·3 min read

May 29—Johnny Wells, a 97-year-old World War II veteran who lives in Clarkston, is scheduled to throw out the first pitch Monday evening before the last game of the day at the NAIA World Series.

The fact Wells was a part of the historic war effort nearly 80 years ago makes him an obvious choice for the Memorial Day honor. Plus, the lessons he learned way back then still have value these days.

"The Marine Corps teaches you to do with what you've got," Wells said.

His apartment is a testament to that philosophy. Wells has fashioned several safety and convenience gizmos around his home, and he creates handy denim satchels for himself and others with a sewing machine that he learned how to use on his own.

The Marines helped instill resiliency in him, though it seems he had plenty when he joined. Wells grew up in the small town of Gifford, Ill., and played several sports despite his diminutive stature. He liked blocking in football because "if you take a guy who outweighs you by 40 pounds and you put your shoulder in his solar plexus, you can really hear him grunt."

He's never been easily swayed by others. When he was a teenager, acquaintances would offer him cigarettes, which he always rejected because they were forbidden for athletes.

"Well, I got tired of everybody doing that," he said. "I said, 'Look, you asked me, and I'm going to say it one time: no thank you. And if anybody asks again, we're going to go out between these buildings right here (and fight).' Well, I only had to take one guy out there."

After Wells enlisted in the Marines, he went to boot camp at San Diego, then was shipped out to Hawaii. He ended up involved in the Marshall Islands campaign that took Kwajalein, Eniwetok and Majuro islands, and was there for the famous Battle of Iwo Jima.

There were moments of blood-chilling fear and epic boredom. Wells is proud to have survived it all.

"I would rather die than disgrace the Marine Corps," he said.

He left the military after the war and embarked on a wide-ranging career path. He worked on the railroad, delivered dairy products, sold cars and, over the past two decades of his working life, sold insurance.

He lived in Southern California for years before moving to the Tri-Cities in Washington in 1982. After retiring, he moved to Pomeroy in 2000, then to Clarkston in 2004.

The divorced Wells has three children and seven grandchildren, and his first great-grandchild is expected in August. He lives on his own, gets around without too much difficulty and often drives long distances.

He's had shoulder trouble in recent years, so he's not certain how well he'll be able to throw the ball Monday at Harris Field.

But he'll try to make do with what he's got.

Baney may be contacted at mbaney@lmtribune.com or (208) 848-2262. Follow him on Twitter @MattBaney_Trib.