Keith Renstrom died on the Fourth of July at age 97 with hand-grenade shrapnel in his body dating to the bloody invasion of Iwo Jima in February 1945. He received two Purple Hearts and two Bronze Stars for his service, which also included combat on Tinian and Saipan. He had recently returned from a travel tour to the Pacific during which he revisited those remote islands as a guest of The National WWII Museum.
During his first visit to Saipan, Renstrom witnessed Japanese avoid capture by committing suicide at Marpi Point. The vivid memory, recounted in his Museum oral history, can be viewed in the Richard C. Adkerson & Freeport-McMoRan Foundation Road to Tokyo: Pacific Theater Galleries (Renstrom attended the exhibit’s December 2015 grand opening).
Gunnery Sergeant Renstrom’s full Museum oral history—watch it here—is a chilling document of the brutality of the action he saw in the Pacific more than seven decades ago. Museum Curator Larry Decuers, who accompanied Renstrom and other WWII veterans on the recent Victory in the Pacific tour, wrote in a website travelogue that the time he spent revisiting faraway battlegrounds with the veterans “had us laughing out loud one minute and our eyes welling up with tears the next.”
The tour anecdote from Renstrom that Decuers recounted was in sharp contrast to the battle accounts Renstrom shared in his oral history. (“When in doubt, empty your magazine,” Renstrom says there. “Don’t take a chance.”)
“(He) told us about the night on Saipan when he chose not to fire his weapon so he wouldn’t frighten or endanger the orphaned little girl he had taken under his care,” Decuers wrote. “As the battle raged all around this tough Marine, he refused to abandon this little girl. The next morning, a corpsman came to take her to the rear. Hesitantly, she went with the corpsman, timidly taking several steps forward then stopping and turning to look back. With Renstrom signaling to her that it was OK, she turned her head for one last look as the jeep carried her away and out of sight.”
A US Marine Corps video crew that accompanied Renstrom and others back to Iwo Jima on the Museum tour opened the resulting clip with Renstrom delivering a hearty “Semper Fi!”
“Out of the hundreds of oral histories I conducted, sitting down and capturing Mr. Renstrom’s story was one of the more powerful experiences I had,” said Tom Gibbs, who conducted Renstrom’s oral history and who is now Museum Special Programs Manager. “When I think of the United States Marine Corps, I think about Keith Renstrom.”