Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Happy D-Day

Lots of men died so you could celebrate it. Donald Sensing has a post on the costs and risks of D-Day.

Working for the Army, I have had the opportunity to attend several ceremonies commemorating past events. Last year my organization held a 60th anniversary ceremony at the Army Ordnance Museum here on the Proving Ground. The keynote speaker was Sgt. Ralph Kelly, a soldier in Ida company of the 101st Airborne. He was one of only a handful of men in his company to survive the battle.

Kelly was what his commanding officer referred to as a "special soldier". The reasons for this twofold. The first is that he fought like hell and had a knack for staying alive. As Kelly put it, "I never took the easiest path, because that was the one the Germans had the machine guns sighted in on." The second is that when not fighting like hell, he had a knack for getting into other forms of trouble. He accidentally broke onto an RAF airbase once while in Britain. At the time he was just trying to get away from the well-armed husband of a very attractive (but not very faithful) British woman. After recovering from wounds he received in Holland, he "took a French vacation" without leave. He "borrowed" an Army jeep to do this and supported himself by teaching French girls how to drive. When he returned to his unit, he was thrown in the stockade and told the war was over for him. The Battle of the Bulge began the next day. Kelly tried to hold the Army to their word, but no such luck.

Sgt. Kelly oscillated from private to sergeant more times than he could count over the course of the war. You can understand why. He wasn't the only colorful soldier in the bunch though. One of his colleagues reacted very badly to being told he was "in the Army" especially when told by officers. According to that man, he was simply in the employment of the federal government to "kill krauts."

Like countless other Screaming Eagles, Sgt. Kelly was dropped nowhere near his dropzone on D-Day. His pilot was busy dodging anti-aircraft fire. Kelly bailed out in during a dive and barely survived the drop. Before his next drop in Operation Market Garden in Holland, he and his fellow Eagles let the pilots know that if anything like that happened again, they would be leaving a few live grenades behind before they went out the door. The drops in Market Garden were much more orderly.

Kelly was wounded several times in Normandy during the process of killing Germans getting to where he was supposed to be. When he came upon an Aid Station, the medics there forced him to disarm. Since Murphy's Law held, the aid station was overrun a short while later and, while did Kelly escape, he was left unarmed in the middle of a war zone. He had a few choice words for those doctors.

Sgt. Kelly did not want to be called a hero. "I wasn't even a very good soldier," he said, "I'd never make it in the Army today." According to him, and this was one of the many times he got a little teary eyed, the real heroes didn't make it home. Many of them still stand watch over the ground of a foreign land they gave their lives to free.

We called Sgt. Kelly a hero anyway. It was an honor just to shake his hand.

No comments: