Veteran recalls Normandy invasion Soldier also met Patton, Churchill SOUTHEAST/Sykesville Eldersburg Gamber

June 01, 1993|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Staff Writer

Fifty years ago as a young infantryman, he met Winston Churchill and Gen. George S. Patton.

Still, the memories of the ordinary soldiers who fought by his side across the battlefields of France are the ones he cherishes most.

Grant S. Kelley recalls the British prime minister's words of encouragement and his own captain's argument with the feisty U.S. Army general.

Those historic figures were incidental to his experience. When he talks about the war, Mr. Kelley speaks most often of his Army buddies -- his sergeant, whom he followed onto Normandy beach, and his captain, who transported a stray dog from France Belgium and once refused to leave a camp until the dog was found.

Now, the 73-year-old veteran spends weekdays at the South Carroll Adult Day Care Center and tells war stories to those who will listen.

In 1943, at the height of World War II, Mr. Kelley was working in a West Virginia coal mine when he received his draft notice.

"There was a shortage of miners and coal boss asked me to put in for a deferment, but I wanted to go," he said.

A few months after basic training, he was assigned to the 237th Engineers Combat Battalion. He left Norfolk, Va., in a convoy of 132 ships.

"We thought we were headed for the Burma Road, but the Germans changed those plans," he said.

Off the coast of North Africa, German planes sank the ship carrying the battalion's heavy equipment. After a brief stay in Africa, the 237th was ordered to England, where the men would prepare for D-Day. The short journey up the coast was fraught with danger from German submarines.

"All one night, a sub chased us until our captain yelled, 'We fedhim,' " he said.

Once in England, the battalion trained heavily for the impending assault on the coast of France.

"Churchill came right out onto the beaches where the men were taking assault training," he said. "He was a nice man. Every day, he made speeches to us."

Mr. Kelley said he was among the first troops to land on the beaches of Normandy.

"D-Day morning, we were 10 miles out at sea and unloading onto smaller boats that held about 30 men," he said.

Just before launching the landing crafts, the ship's captain told the men leaving for combat to "get mad," said Mr. Kelley.

"We stayed mad. We were going in after the Germans and they were not going to send us back into the ocean," he said.

The early-morning sky blazed with explosions.

"The Germans were firing from pillboxes on the cliffs and the U.S. ships were firing over our heads. The sky looked like a ball of fire."

He remembers each piece of equipment he carried: a sledge hammer, a mine detector, a rifle and two 10-pound bags of ammunition.

"I reached the beach with everything but the sledge hammer," he said.

The unit's mission was to destroy a large concrete wall and drive inland to support paratroopers.

"We blew the wall up, but it was evening before we got to the paratroopers," he said. "Those poor boys, so many of them died, shot dead and hanging in the trees."

Bullets were flying everywhere, he said. One went through the canteen on his hip.

"The water hit my leg and I thought I had been shot," he said.

About the third day after the landing, the combat engineers were assigned to bridge construction near a small French town.

"As soon as we got it built, before anybody could get across, the Germans sank it," he said. "We built another and got two #F vehicles across and they blew that one up, too."

One more attempt and the Germans gave up. "The third one stuck," he said.

At that bridge, Mr. Kelley saw Patton, who questioned whether the newly built span could hold the weight of his tanks.

"I was standing beside my captain when he told the general our bridge would hold," he said. "He crossed the bridge that I helped build."

The 237th encountered stiff resistance and endured many casualties, as the men moved slowly across France and into Germany. Tears fill Mr. Kelley's eyes as he recalls the names of the fallen, especially his beloved sergeant, who was killed in a mine field.

At the war's end, Mr. Kelley was stationed outside Paris, helping to run a rest camp for soldiers.

"I was walking down a Paris street and heard somebody call, 'Kelley.' All that way and I heard a voice from home. It was my future brother-in-law."

Shortly after that encounter, Mr. Kelley was on a ship home. He wore five battle stars and several combat medals. "We got back in eight days because the ship captain's wife was expecting a baby," he said, recalling how the trip over had taken 21 days.

After his discharge, his Army construction experience led to a job as a heavy equipment operator.

Now retired, Mr. Kelley has Parkinson's disease and lives with his daughter in New Windsor. At the South Carroll Adult Day Care Center, his garden keeps him busy and keeps the other patients supplied with fresh vegetables for lunch.

"He is quite a gardener," said Judy Carpenter, director of the center. "It's been a hobby for many years, and he really pushes himself."

If Ms. Carpenter thinks the center's garden is a big, he said, she should see the one he tills at his daughter's home.

Mr. Kelley said he would like to reminisce about the war experience with other veterans. The memories often are painful, but he said it's important to keep the story alive with personal accounts.

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