When exploring the lives of military heroes, one often finds their battlefield achievements bordering on the super-human. No way could mere mortals face such overwhelming odds and live to tell about them with a sense of humility and grace, saying that they merely did their jobs, which further grips us in awe of them.
Take Charles E. Kelly for example. Born into poverty in 1920 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as one of eight brothers, he enlisted in May, 1942, and found himself looking through bars of a stockade twice for going AWOL. Later he admitted he just needed time alone and never considered the consequences of his infractions. Hardly a promising start to his superiors.
Yet, like another celebrated warrior named Audie Murphy, whose inauspicious beginnings and frequent visits to sick bay almost kept him from ever firing a shot, such deeds can be deceiving. As he deployed in September 1943, as part of the amphibious group bound for the beaches of Salerno, Italy, one could surmise, not even he could have imagined the feats he would accomplish in the coming days. One of which would leave jaws agape after it was discovered that one man had pretty much done it all.
Private Kelly landed ashore as part of L Company, 143rd Infantry Regiment, 36th Infantry Division and experienced his first combat on September 10th. He began volunteering for dangerous missions immediately, with one of these occurring September 13th, when he started a crawl some two miles across a no man’s land filled with artillery and sniper fire to scout an occupied hill. With close calls from beginning to end he succeeded, and returned with vital information. Private Kelly selected three men and set out again to scout the area around the town of Altavilla.
They soon encountered several enemy positions which spewed fire at them. Kelly, in the lead, began assaulting, firing and hurling grenades wherever the enemy dared shoot from. Nothing could stop him as he cleared each emplacement and moved to next in methodical fashion until the fighting ended, and he stood alone as enemy bodies lay sprawled all around him.
Those with him reckoned he had just killed forty Germans.
Later in the day, he went into Altavilla, now held by the U.S., to retrieve badly needed ammunition. He organized a chain of troops nearly three quarters of a mile long to pass the ammunition to the distribution area. He then was ordered to secure a three story ammunition store house beside the town square. The Germans had tried a push into the town earlier, so tensions were high. As day fell to night, he watched and listened from the second floor window for telltale signs of enemy movement. With a handful of other soldiers downstairs but alone up in the window, he waited for the first rays of dawn when he would be relieved.
The German army had other ideas.
They hit Altavilla that morning. Infantry rushed down the streets and pathways toward their objective…Kelly’s location.
He saw the green-gray uniforms moving into the town square and began spraying them with a Browning Automatic Rifle, killing several and pinning down others wherever they moved. His other comrades joined in, but they lacked good firing angles, leaving the killing up to Kelly. The Germans fired back, filling the area around him with lead, but he still kept the BAR chattering as rounds singed over his shoulders.
He went through so many magazines the barrel glowed red and eventually jammed. He switched to another until it too glowed and jammed. Moving from window to window, he then utilized a Thompson Submachine Gun, Springfield bolt action rifle, M1 Garand semiautomatic rifle and M1 carbine, each one adding their own brand of sound and death to Kelly’s steady, well-aimed fire.
He also lobbed a phosphorous grenade onto the roof of a nearby, house burning it to the ground and forcing the Germans setting up to flee.
Then came the Bazooka.
Finding an area to lessen backblast danger, Kelly began streaking rockets to tear into clumps of men still peppering his position. The carnage he wreaked was beyond words as the Germans, already bleeding and shocked at this one-man army’s power, was forced to break off their assault to lick their wounds, leaving dozens of dead in and around the square.
Kelly then rushed out of the house and into its courtyard, found a 37mm Anti-Tank gun, and sent a round ripping apart a sniper’s nest in a nearby church steeple.
Kelly, realizing he was low on all forms ammo, went back inside and began searching the house for more, and found himself tasting Champagne for the first time as he was handed a glass by a buddy. “It was the first champagne I’d ever had,” he said.
He located some 60mm mortar bombs, removed their safety pins, and headed back up. There, Germans still sniped at the windows and came in force again a short while later.
60mm bombs sailed through the air exploding among the attackers. Kelly made sure he hurled them nose first so they would detonate on contact. And that they did, halting the charge quicker than the first, leaving more piles of dead, and sending the Germans reeling from the square a final time.
An order came to withdraw before it got too hot again, but Kelly pleaded with his Sergeant to let him stay behind and cover the men. He won out and waited until they were safely away before extricating himself.
He left behind more than two hundred enemy dead.
From that day of September 14th, Charles Kelly forever became known as ‘Commando’ Kelly for his incredible feat of almost singlehandedly holding off the capture of Altavilla.
Papers broadcast his tale over Europe and the United States, and on March 11, 1944, then Sergeant ‘Commando’ Kelly received the Medal of Honor, the first issued to an enlisted man in the European theater.
He was sent home on a goodwill and war bonds tour and received a hero’s welcome in Pittsburgh. Thousands turned out to glimpse the hometown boy who had done the impossible. He was presented with a key to the city and courted by Hollywood, authors, and many other influential people and firms who wanted to hear his story.
Overwhelmed and humbled by it all he told someone “These medals will just be a lot of brass after the war, and I’ll just be another ex-soldier.”
Sadly, he was never more right.
The offers faded away once the war ended. He tried to adjust to civilian life, married, and watched his wife die in 1951 of cancer. He married again, then his youngest brother went missing in Korea, and a business venture failed. What money he made he gave to his family, and began a descent into alcoholism. No job stayed with him long, and his two kids ended up living with their grandparents.
Kelly suffered, in all likelihood, from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and his troubles became so well known that President Eisenhower got into the act of helping him. But Kelly refused to accept charity and anything he was offered, he never took advantage of. He left his family abruptly in 1961, got divorced and drifted, refusing to be a burden to anyone.
In the early 80’s, a man who idolized Kelly as a boy found him in a tavern in Pittsburgh. ‘Commando’ was back home, but not for long. Suffering from liver and kidney failure, he was admitted to a veteran’s hospital and died alone on January 11th, 1985. Those treating him were unaware of his status and the magnitude of what he had accomplished on that special day long ago.