It is often described as the “greatest of American generations.” That generation is the people who not only lived through World War II (WWII) but also fought for our country’s rights and freedom during this most perilous time in history. Although the United States entered the war in 1941, it was a global war that existed from 1939 to 1945, directly involving more than 100 million people from over 30 countries. In this state of total war, major participants threw their entire economic, industrial and scientific capabilities behind the war effort, thereby blurring the distinction between civilian and military resources. WWII was the deadliest conflict in human history, marked by 50 to 85 million fatalities and the only use of nuclear weapons in war. However, since the formal surrender in Japan, aboard the battleship USS Missouri on September 2, 1945, Americans of all ages, in their own way, have remembered this significant war as National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day is observed on December 7.
As the years go on, the generation of people who lived during those times is dwindling. It is with that in mind that onthetown remembers and honors one of those who served. Flint born and bred, Charles “CB” Kelley enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps Division on September 18, 1943, as an 18-year-old and a junior in high school.
The consequences of leaving high school never entered his mind because “that’s just what we did!” he says as a matter of fact – in reference to the spirit and culture of his generation. After his basic training – or “boot camp,” as Kelley calls it – he was assigned to San Diego’s Camp Elliott for heavy machine gun training. Immediately after the completion of his training, he got the notice that he would be going overseas and boarded a ship in January of 1944. Hearing Kelley speak of his experiences so clearly is a lesson in perspective because this is no Hollywood script – this is serious; this is real life.
He recalls the ship being very primitive and confined because it was a converted cargo ship with bunk beds stacked 11 high in the sleeping quarters. “You couldn’t hardly turn over without hitting the bunk above you,” he says, shaking his head.
His first stop was in New Caledonia, France, where his 22nd Regiment C Company replacement battalion was to stock and supply a ship headed for Guadalcanal. He was thankful he packed a fishing line and hook because the food was not agreeing with him. So, from the ship, he dropped a line in the water and caught a nice batch of panfish, which he took to the ship’s cook and soon enjoyed a good seafood meal.
He later boarded the Windsor-class attack transport USS Leedstown, a purpose-built vessel to transport troops and their equipment to foreign shores to execute amphibious invasions using an array of smaller assault boats integral to the attack transport itself. The class was well armed with antiaircraft weaponry to protect itself and its cargo of troops from air attack in the battle zone. The ship’s destination was the island of Guadalcanal – secured at the time but the site of the first major offensive by Allied forces against the Empire of Japan a year earlier.
He remembers just before landing, they were told of wild tigers and Japanese troops occupying the island. “To a bunch of 18- to 19-year-olds, this was scary!” he says. “But when we landed, we found the 4th Marine Regiment was already there. The joke was on us!”
From there, it was on to Okinawa Island, eventually engaging in a fierce 82-day battle that, in the end, resulted in significant numbers of casualties to both the Japanese and American sides. Kelley’s eyes are fixed, his expression stern, as he recounts going into the battle to capture Charley Hill.
“Before we started down the street, we knew they [the enemy] were waiting for us.” Kelley distinctly describes using 54 ammunition magazines (each holding 20 rounds of bullets) in his .30 caliber M1918A2 Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) in less than 30 minutes. “Guys were pinned down and couldn’t shoot,” he says, “so they threw them [the magazines] at me. Thankfully, the BARs had an assistant that carried ammo for you.”
He also noted that each Marine platoon had three BARs per squad and three squads per platoon. “We had lots of firepower,” he says. He continues, “As we were engaged, somebody hollered at me and when I looked, a grenade went off; I just didn’t see it in time.” Even though his leg was wounded, he fought on, thanks to a medic’s assistance. After his platoon secured Charley Hill, he sat in a foxhole when a chaplain came by to offer some peaceful encouragement. The chaplain told of how the company ahead of theirs suffered even more casualties and reminded him somebody always has it worse.
“I’ve always remembered that – to this day,” Kelley remarks.
He was honorably discharged from the Marines on March 18, 1946, and notes he never had a furlough in all those years. On his way home to Flint, he wanted only to get off the train and head to Cooper’s All-Night Café in Flint for a hamburger and malted milk.
As Charles “CB” Kelley reflects, he is always mindful how fortunate he is to be in the United States of America. He says, “I still have a sense of pride in serving my country. I always had a feeling I was around an elite bunch of people who respected each other. And when I get thanked for my military service, I always mention – I had lots of help.”