If you want to talk to Jack Darnell during the day, you better make it quick. Someone’s cows always need moving.

He’ll sit with you for a while, reclined back in his leather chair in his house in Jeffrey City, but before long he’ll put his hat back on, zip up his coat and politely take his leave.

Herding cows on a horse is just what he does, even at 85 years old.

“Most of my life I’ve been following that dumb old cow around. I don’t know when I will give it up,” he says.

“When they pat me on the face with a spade, I guess.”

It’s what he started doing when he returned from the Pacific in World War II, not quite 20 years old, his cheek sewn up from a sniper bullet hole.

Darnell went to high school in Hudson and enlisted in the Marines at 17. It’s what everyone else was doing and he figured he should join the fray.

Still 18 and fresh from training, he joined scores of other Marines leaving Hawaii and headed for an island called Iwo Jima.

U.S. forces bombed the little piece of land for a month. Everyone should be dead or gone, commanders in Darnell’s 5th Marine Division told their men.

But a couple of nights before the actual landing, the 4th Division reconnaissance crew went on land and never came back.

“Most of us never went on that deal until the morning of the 19th of February,” Darnell said.

When they did land, it was a bloodbath. Dead American soldiers littered the ground as Darnell and the other men scrambled to follow orders.

“I didn’t know until I read it in the papers and saw it on TV that that thing was honeycombed with caves everywhere.”

His job in Iwo Jima was to move with the 28th Regiment and place divisions between the Americans and Japanese. Often these were four-by-four-foot phosphorescent yellow and red panels that told American strafing planes where the Marines were fighting.

Other times they set trip wires that illuminated the night sky when a Japanese soldier hit one. The soldier wouldn’t live for long.

“Those mortar barrages at night were spooky. They would rain in on you pretty hard,” he said.

“They had thousands of those things up there raining down at night, but our company didn’t have hardly any casualties.”

Not until one of the last days of the battle, anyway.

On March 13, 1945, almost a month after the soldiers landed on Iwo Jima, Darnell’s team got to shower. They also had a hot meal and opened any mail from home.

“You could take a salt water shower and change your underwear. You didn’t want to change your outer clothes because you didn’t want to show up too good,” he said.

The next day they trudged back to their post. A couple more days and the battle would be done.

As the lieutenant and his gunner stepped into an open area a Japanese sniper hit them both.

Darnell and another soldier started running.

Then Darnell was shot. Straight through the mouth.

“My mouth was bleeding pretty bad. I didn’t get knocked out or anything, it was kinda like getting hit in the head with a baseball or something. Kathunk.”

He stumbled back into the trees and out of firing range.

The bullet went in his mouth and out the bottom of his cheek, knocking out some teeth and narrowly missing his jaw.

He figured they could put a Band-Aid on it and he could get back in there. He wanted to get even.

The medic didn’t think so. He gave Darnell a shot of morphine and sent him with another soldier back to an aid tent.

“The only thing I learned later was those guys at the aid station had a hell of a time wrestling my rifle away from me,” he said.

“Of course you get that drilled into your head. You don’t part with your rifle.”

The Marines put him on a ship headed for Aiea Heights Hospital in Hawaii to recover and sent a letter to his mother saying he had suffered a gunshot wound to the head.

Once Darnell was well enough to write, he sent his mom another letter explaining what happened.

“Dear Mom: I guess you have already heard I zigged when I should have zagged.”

He went on to explain how it happened before telling her he would be fine.

He had a formal military picture taken to send back home that, with a little touch-up, didn’t show any wounds.

Not quite 20, with new false teeth and a clean bill of health, Darnell went home to chase cows.

The local newspaper printed the letter to his mom. He still has a copy of his reassuring words.

“It really isn’t very serious, quick as the swelling leaves my face I will be OK ... It took my ears a long time to get back to normal but they are alright now. Love Jack.”

Reach Open Spaces reporter Christine Peterson at (307) 460-9598 or christine.peterson@trib.com.

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A Casper native, Christine Peterson started as a Star-Tribune intern in 2002. She has covered outdoor recreation, the environment and wildlife since 2010, and became managing editor in 2015. If not tracking bears or elk on assignment, she's chasing trout.

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