MARINE CORPS AIR STATION YUMA, Ariz. --
They are known as the “Greatest Generation.” They are the source of countless stories of Marine bravery, honor and sacrifice, and one of the few remaining World War II-era devil dogs calls Yuma his second home.
Kenneth H. Stevenson, an 84-year-old veteran and winter visitor, first joined the ranks of the Corps in December 1941, after one of the deadliest attacks on American soil.
“So much happened at Pearl Harbor that I thought I should do something,” said Stevenson. “I thought, ‘I can’t let this happen, I’m going to fight the (Japanese).’”
Although the Kelso, Wash., native was ready to fight for his country, one thing held him back, he was only 17 years old.
“My mom signed for me. She knew I wanted to go,” said Stevenson. “She said ‘If you want to go that bad, I’ll sign for you.’”
Shortly after joining the Corps’ ranks, Stevenson operated an anti-aircraft gun in his first major battle—Midway.
More than 300 Marines and sailors lost their lives, but Stevenson didn’t let it shake his determination.
“I was young, and at that age, you don’t have enough brains to be scared,” he said.
With one battle behind him, Stevenson had to face another—Iwo Jima. This time around, Stevenson served as a platoon sergeant with the 27th Marine Regiment, 5th Marine Division.
“I was responsible for taking the first wave into shore as far in as I could go with the amtrac,” said Stevenson.
Stevenson, who was promoted to staff sergeant to serve as the platoon sergeant, described the initial assault as surprisingly calm.
“It was quiet, still. The (Japanese) hadn’t come out of their caves yet,” he said.
It wasn’t until he drove up the beach for the second time that all hell broke loose.
“Enemy rounds were coming down. Japanese were zeroing in on amphibian tractors. The battle had definitely started, I tell you that much,” said Stevenson. “I don’t know how I made it out of there. I don’t know how I survived, but someone must have been looking out for me.”
Though Stevenson walked away from the nearly 40-day battle without any serious wounds, he lost many friends, including one of the Corps’ greats.
“There are two things I remember about then; the day John Basilone was killed and the day the flag was raised,” said Stevenson.
While the two were not close friends, the Medal of Honor recipient was someone Stevenson looked up to and respected.
“John was a hell of a guy. He was my hero. He was a hero to all of us,” said Stevenson.
Although saddened by the memory of losing a good leader and Marine, Stevenson still remembers the good times.
“He liked to drink and guys like me liked to buy him drinks,” said Stevenson. “He was just an ordinary guy. He didn’t stand out as John Basilone, he was just a good gunnery sergeant.”
Stevenson returned to the states as the battle of Iwo Jima drew to a close, but not before bringing home a souvenir that would later be donated to the Marine Corps Museum in Quantico, VA.
Stevenson and his platoon retrieved a Japanese Type 99 7.7 mm medium machine gun, along with other weapons, from a cave on Mount Suribachi Feb. 19, 1945.
“We were going to bring the machine gun down and we were going to sell it so we could have a big party. But most of the guys (in my platoon) got killed or wounded, so I ended up with this machine gun for 60 years,” said Stevenson.
He donated the weapon to the Marine Corps in 2005, citing that’s where it belonged.
After serving his country, Stevenson transitioned to the Marine Corps Reserve until 1950 and left the Corps to pursue work as a plumber’s apprentice. He came to Yuma in 1986 after some friends invited him to visit and has been visiting every winter since.
Though his time in the Corps has longed passed, Stevenson is glad to have been a part of it and to see where it is today.
“The Marine Corps took me and made me into a man. It gave me value,” he said. “My generation is gone. I think the Marine Corps of today is in better hands than when I was in.”