By now, you should have read the stories of Arnold L. Bjorklund and William J. Crawford, both of whom were awarded the Medal of Honor while serving with the 36th Infantry Division in Italy on September 13, 1943 – seventy years ago today. Now, for the story of the third 36th Division soldier to receive our Nation’s highest honor on that day of battle.
Charles E. Kelly was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on September 23, 1920. He grew up as what today would be called a “troubled youth”, joining street gangs and often finding himself in trouble with the police. He entered service with the United States Army in May 1942, where his troubles continued, including occurrences of him being absent without leave.
Regardless, by the time the 36th stormed ashore on the Italian mainland at Salerno on September 9, 1943, he was a Corporal with Company L, 3rd Battalion, 143rd Infantry Regiment. Four days later in action near Altavilla through September 14, he fought so hard and intensely that he was later known as “Commando Kelly, the One Man Army.”
|Photo from Military Times’ Hall of Valor|
KELLY, CHARLES E.
Rank and organization: Corporal, U.S. Army, Company L, 143d Infantry, 36th Infantry Division. Place and date: Near Altavilla, Italy, 13 September 1943. Entered service at: Pittsburgh, Pa. G.O. No.: 13, 18 February 1944. Citation: For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at risk of life above and beyond the call of duty. On 13 September 1943, near Altavilla, Italy, Cpl. Kelly voluntarily joined a patrol which located and neutralized enemy machinegun positions. After this hazardous duty he volunteered to establish contact with a battalion of U.S. infantry which was believed to be located on Hill 315, a mile distant. He traveled over a route commanded by enemy observation and under sniper, mortar, and artillery fire; and later he returned with the correct information that the enemy occupied Hill 315 in organized positions. Immediately thereafter Cpl. Kelly, again a volunteer patrol member, assisted materially in the destruction of 2 enemy machinegun nests under conditions requiring great skill and courage. Having effectively fired his weapon until all the ammunition was exhausted, he secured permission to obtain more at an ammunition dump. Arriving at the dump, which was located near a storehouse on the extreme flank of his regiment’s position, Cpl. Kelly found that the Germans were attacking ferociously at this point. He obtained his ammunition and was given the mission of protecting the rear of the storehouse. He held his position throughout the night. The following morning the enemy attack was resumed. Cpl. Kelly took a position at an open window of the storehouse. One machine gunner had been killed at this position and several other soldiers wounded. Cpl. Kelly delivered continuous aimed and effective fire upon the enemy with his automatic rifle until the weapon locked from overheating. Finding another automatic rifle, he again directed effective fire upon the enemy until this weapon also locked. At this critical point, with the enemy threatening to overrun the position, Cpl. Kelly picked up 60mm. mortar shells, pulled the safety pins, and used the shells as grenades, killing at least 5 of the enemy. When it became imperative that the house be evacuated, Cpl. Kelly, despite his sergeant’s injunctions, volunteered to hold the position until the remainder of the detachment could withdraw. As the detachment moved out, Cpl. Kelly was observed deliberately loading and firing a rocket launcher from the window. He was successful in covering the withdrawal of the unit, and later in joining his own organization. Cpl. Kelly’s fighting determination and intrepidity in battle exemplify the highest traditions of the U.S. Armed Forces.
Kelly returned to Pittsburgh in 1944 as a Technical Sergeant and to a hero’s welcome with parades, banquets, and other festivities. His post-war life was as troubled as his childhood, and he found himself living through a series of failed businesses and marriages, menial jobs, poverty, and bouts with alcoholism. He passed away at 64 years old after suffering from kidney and liver failure on January 11, 1985. He rests in peace at the Highwood Cemetery in Pittsburgh.
There is a fantastic article still available from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette which chronicles more of the “Commando” Kelly’s story. From 1987 until its closure in 2005, the United States Army Reserve support facility in Oakdale, Pennsylvania west of Pittsburgh was named for this hero from the Steel City.