Sergeant Ken Espenes: Marine, police officer, hero
Sgt. Espenes, the quiet indomitable warrior, retired in 1981 after 28 years of law enforcement and went on to enjoy 30 more years among us
It was fitting day to bid farewell to Sgt. Ken Espenes, an American Hero, who was one of the few surviving Marines, who took Mount Suribachi. The rain came down steadily as thunder rolled in the distance like the memory of artillery unleashed in a battle fought long ago. Three sharp volleys were fired by the honor guard and then came the beautifully mournful notes of “Taps” from the bugle of a Marine in dress blues, who performed his duties stoically undeterred by the steady rain.
Espenes the Marine
The year 1944 was a tough time to be 17 years old. A young Ken Espenes joined the United States Marine Corps, concerned the war would be over before he could get “over there.” As it turned out there was plenty of war left for Ken. On February 19th, 1945 Ken hit the volcanic beach of the bleak, pork chop shaped Island of Iwo Jima as a member of Company E, 2nd Battalion, 28th Regiment, 5th Marine Division. The resistance of the enemy was furious and on the first day Ken was wounded by a mortar round and to the Navy Corpsman caring for him it appeared Espenes’s wounds would put him out of the fight.
Ken did not subscribe to that prognosis. After Ken was treated he put his helmet back on, shouldered a B.A.R. and returned to the fight, where he knew his buddies needed him. At 8:00 AM on February 23 Ken was part of a 40 man patrol tasked with taking and holding the crater at the top of Mount Suribachi. After a naval bombardment on the mountain was halted, the unit climbed determinedly to the top.
At the top Ken was assigned to hold the perimeter while a small flag was hoisted, then taken down to be replaced by the second larger flag. A photo taken of the raising of the second flag became the most iconic image of the war and reignited resolve back home.
The raising of the flag signaled neither the end of the fighting nor even the beginning of the end. Ken Espenes was wounded a second time in a fierce fight for the Motoyama airfield on March 1. The battle of Iwo Jima would officially end March 26 with 21,844 Japanese killed or missing and 6,800 Marine dead along with 26,000 wounded, including Ken Espenes. Only 216 Japanese allowed themselves to be captured.
Ken would rejoin his regiment after recovering from his wounds. Ken re-enlisted at the outset of the Korean War, picked up his B.A.R. and went off to war once again.
Espenes the Police Officer
In 1953 Ken returned home, married the girl next door and joined the La Crosse, Wisconsin Police Department. At a time long before Field Training Officers, Ken was known as one of the senior officers, who would take a new officer under his wing and show them the ropes. In an age pre-dating SWAT Teams Ken was a Sergeant, who would take charge of a bad situation and bring it to a successful conclusion. He was described as, “Rock steady in a crisis,” by one officer, who worked under him.
One such legendary event occurred at a burglary at Marquardt Heating in downtown La Crosse. The suspect had been working on a safe inside, when he realized the business was surrounded by police officers. The stubborn criminal refused to come out and called out to officers, “I have a gun!”
Sergeant Espenes made a flanking movement and dynamically entered the room occupied by the suspect. The Sergeant had weapon in hand as he performed a perfect tuck and roll, while shouting for the suspect to surrender. One officer, who witnessed the event said, “I have never seen anything like it before or since. Sergent Espenes scared the [bleep] out of the guy—quite literally. He defecated in his pants.”
I first saw Sergeant Espenes in action when I was a young officer in court waiting to give testimony. There was a man creating a disturbance in the court room and I fully expected he was going to have to be taken down and handcuffed. Sergeant Espenes, who was the court officer at the time, went forward and without laying a hand on the man spoke in a quiet but firm “I mean business,” tone that strikes me to this day. He simply said, “Settle down young man. This is a court of law. Show some respect!”
The cretin looked into Espenes’ eyes, looked away and quietly sat down like a yapping poodle, who had just been silenced by the determined gaze of a “Devil Dog.”
Sgt. Espenes, the quiet indomitable warrior, retired in 1981 after 28 years of law enforcement and went on to enjoy 30 more years among us.
The Quiet Message for Law Enforcement From a Warrior
Sergeant Kenneth Espenes never called himself a warrior, but he was the genuine article in every sense of the word. I was privileged to know him and in watching him this is what I learned:
1.) Warriors never give up.
2.) Warriors sometimes get knocked down, but they get up and finish the fight.
3.) Warriors pass on powerful lessons, but do so subtly. Pay attention!
4.) Warriors strive mightily to survive the peace after they have survived the battle.
5.) Warriors find a deep purpose and meaning in life.
6.) Warriors try to live life for those, who were left behind.
7.) Warriors do not feel a need to boast, for their deeds speak for themselves.
8.) Warriors are selfless, living their lives in service of others.
9.) The body of a warrior may at once possess a fierce fighting spirit as well as a gentle soul.
Sgt. Kenneth Espenes’s priorities in life were made clear, during his Catholic funeral service in September of this year. A large section of the church was cordoned off for his wife of 58 years, sons, daughters, grand children, and great grandchildren. A number of selected hymns were played throughout the service. Then as the Sergeant was being taken from the church the last requested song, “God Bless America,” was sung by the choir.
Sergeant Ken Expense Company E, 2nd Battalion, 28th Regiment Fifth Marines had designed the service in such a manner to once again send one more subtle message to those, who might aspire to follow the path he followed. He was proclaiming, “A selfless life dedicated to God, Country and Family is a life well lived. Semper Fi!”