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North Side's battlefield hero found life's wounds too deep

Monday, May 31, 1999

By Steve Levin, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Chuck Kelly had never depended on anyone for anything before and, at 64 years old, he wasn't going to start. On a cold late-December day in 1984, he shuffled out of the North Side apartment he shared with one of his brothers and waited patiently for the bus to take him to Veterans Hospital in Oakland.

  Chuck "Commando" Kelly, Pittsburgh's World War II hero and the first soldier in the European war theater to receive the nation's Medal of Honor. (Post-Gazette Archives - Undated)

During admissions he told hospital personnel that he had no relatives, even though five brothers lived in the Pittsburgh area. He was admitted in critical condition with kidney and liver failure. That night, when the nurses left his room, he pulled out the tubes that doctors had hoped would save his life.

By the time two of his brothers arrived the next day, Kelly was unconscious. He died Jan. 11, surrounded by doctors unaware of his heroic past and forgotten by the city that had once claimed there was no "braver man living or dead."

Fourteen years after his death, much remains unknown about the life of Charles E. Kelly, the North Side native son and Medal of Honor recipient better known as "Commando" Kelly. Yet he was the first soldier in the European war theater to receive the nation's highest military award for valor and was one of the most celebrated military heroes of World War II.

Were he alive, Kelly would probably be nonplused by the attention. But he would understand it. When he came home from the war, he was feted with parades and promises. Later, he endured relentless stories in newspapers around the country about the vagaries of his life. He never complained, maintaining that "I take life as it comes, the good with the bad." In the end, he died alone in his hospital room.

"He was just the kind of guy that didn't want to bother anybody," said older brother James Kelly Jr., 82, of West View. "Chuck was a nice kid. All the way through, he never asked for nothing."

Drawn to danger

Combat and Chuck Kelly went well together. Volunteering repeatedly for the most dangerous reconnaissance missions, he thrived on making snap decisions in life-and-death situations. In war, he had a knack for doing the right thing.

  Kelly poses for a photograph in Europe in 1944. (Post-Gazette Archives)

Kelly took after his father, James, a man people described as "independent as a hog on ice." Before Chuck ever saw combat, he'd been absent without leave twice, enduring fines and time in the stockade. Kelly, who'd enlisted in the Army in May 1942, said later that he had just needed time for himself; he didn't consider the consequences of his actions.

That philosophy held true Sept. 13 and 14, 1943, in and around Altavilla, Italy. Private Kelly, a week before his 23rd birthday, had seen his first combat only four days earlier with L Company, 143rd Infantry, 36th Infantry Division, as part of the U.S. amphibious invasion force at Paestum on the Gulf of Salerno.

On Sept. 13, he volunteered to crawl two miles under German mortar, sniper and artillery fire to reconnoiter an enemy-occupied hill. After returning with his report, he led three men on a second sortie near the town of Altavilla, a militarily critical hill town 20 miles inland. Coming under fire from several machine gun nests and as many as 70 German soldiers, Kelly wiped out one nest and was credited by the other men with killing as many as 40 of the enemy.

Immediately after, on the same day, he was asked to go into Altavilla for ammunition. Kelly organized a chain of men 1,000 yards long to ferry ammo back and forth. When that was completed, he was told by his commanding officer to secure a three-story house at one end of Altavilla's town square. Kelly spent the night guarding the rear of the house.

Early on the morning of the 14th, the Germans began attacking the town, focusing much of their firepower on the house. Ensconced at the start in a second-floor window with a Browning Automatic Rifle, Kelly spent the day firing an array of weapons, including a tommy gun, a bazooka, an '03 Springfield rifle from World War I, a carbine and an M-1. At one point, he manned a 37 mm antitank gun in the house's courtyard and destroyed a sniper's perch in a church steeple.

From inside the house, he lobbed a phosphorus grenade onto the roof of a nearby building that Germans had infiltrated. The house burst into flames.

He did find time to drink some champagne. As Kelly relates in a 1944 biography titled "One Man's War," he was sent to the house's kitchen to try to provide soldiers there with relief from snipers. He was shocked to find several soldiers cooking spaghetti and sauce as well as a table fully set with flatware, goat cheese, sliced bread, watermelon, tomatoes and grapes.

Kelly was angry at first but then shrugged his shoulders and grabbed a bottle of champagne. Between picking off several German snipers, he drank champagne. "It was the first champagne I'd ever had," he said in his book. "To me, it tasted like soda pop or 7-Up."

Later, while rummaging through the house for more ammunition, Kelly found several 60 mm mortar shells. Experimenting, he pulled out the pin controlling the propulsion charge. But there was a secondary safety pin that Kelly couldn't get out. He tapped the shell on the window ledge and the pin dropped out. With the shell now live, Kelly knew that if it landed on its nose, it would explode.

Spotting several Germans approaching through a ravine outside the rear of the house, he began heaving the mortar shells at them. Seven or eight shells exploded, killing five Germans and blunting the attack.

That night, Kelly provided the cover so the remaining Americans could escape the house and return to their lines. He was the last to leave.

Kelly was promoted to corporal after Altavilla. During the next several months, he was in the thick of other battles, including the assault on San Pietro and the bloody three-day crossing of the Rapido River, where he was promoted to sergeant in January 1944.

A story about his exploits in the U.S. military newspaper, Stars and Stripes, referred to him as "Commando Kelly," and the name stuck. By the time he was approved for the Medal of Honor, it was spring 1944.

Kelly recalled in his book that until then, the biggest day of his life had been a family picnic at Stone Oaks, off Babcock Boulevard, for swimming and fishing. Soon after he was decorated personally by Lt. Gen. Mark W. Clark, he was flown back to the United States. Once he arrived, there were plenty of big days to come.

The hero returns

April 25, 1944 was "Commando Kelly Day" in Pittsburgh. He had returned from the war the night before to a tumultuous welcome on the North Side. Police had to restrain well-wishers outside his home at 532 Shawano St.

  Kelly rode with dignitaries in a motorcade through Pittsburgh's streets upon his return from the front. (Undated, Post-Gazette Archives)

The Kelly home was the second and third floors of an old frame building on an alley of converted barns, junkyards and dangling fire escapes. The house had no electricity, hot water or toilet. All nine Kelly boys slept in the attic. The alley outhouse was down two flights of outdoor steps. A New York newspaper story reporting on Kelly's upbringing called the house a "decrepit shack" and the neighborhood one step removed from the shabbiness of "Tobacco Road."

But inside, the house was spotless, thanks to Irene Kelly. She scrubbed and washed the outdoor steps daily and kept the house as ordered as any mother with nine sons could. Her husband, James, was a blacksmith, and he was strict, but neither parent believed in corporal punishment. While the Kelly boys got in their share of scraps in the tough German and Irish immigrant neighborhood, they were well-behaved at home. "Our father would just point to the razor strap that hung beside the sink," James Kelly Jr. said.

Most of the boys did not finish high school, preferring to work instead for North Side businesses such as P.A. Freyvogel painting company, Fisher's Feed Store and Kampas Transfer. Chuck Kelly began working for Freyvogel after ninth grade.

In 1944, two years after her husband died of a heart attack, the Pittsburgh Public Housing Authority offered Mrs. Kelly an apartment, but she declined. Now, her seven sons in the military were home to celebrate Chuck's heroism along with her, two younger sons and the City of Pittsburgh.

Mayor Cornelius D. Scully presented Kelly a gold key to the city. The state Senate adopted a resolution expressing its "admiration for the feats of valor performed by Sgt. Kelly." More than 5,000 people gathered in front of the City-County Building.

Kelly stood shyly behind the microphone, his slumped shoulders accentuating his slight build. Running his hand through his wavy dark hair he said in his Pittsburgh brogue: "Folks, I don't know what to say. But thanks a lot."

A motorcade then zipped him, his family and local luminaries, including David Lawrence and U.S. Sen. Joseph F. Fuggey,throughout the city -- the South Side, the Hill District, Oakland, East Liberty, Lawrenceville, the North Side -- and at each stop, Kelly spoke a few words to the adoring crowds. An estimated 10,000 people crammed West Park on the North Side, surging against police lines to get closer to him.

A banquet that night at the William Penn Hotel featured jumbo shrimp cocktails, sirloin steak and a dessert called "bombe commando Kelly." The family was offered a suite, but Kelly refused, spending the night instead on Shawano Street. "This [house] is good enough for my Mom and it's good enough for me," he told the mayor.

Kelly was a hero and was treated like one. The Saturday Evening Post paid him $15,000 for exclusive rights to his story, and a book followed that same year. Twentieth Century Fox paid him another $25,000 for the movie rights for his life. The Army provided him with a temporary adviser, while two county officials voluntarily looked after Kelly's business interests. A World War I veteran offered him six acres of land near Oakdale, and business opportunities were thrown at him.

He even received eight votes for president in the Republican primary election.

But Kelly was still in the military, and for several months he and three dozen other battle-experienced infantrymen toured the country as part of the Army Ground Forces' "Here's Your Infantry," demonstrating various battle techniques. The group also hawked war bonds. Kelly was not only the unquestioned star of the show but, at the time, also had the deepest pockets.

While the Army paid him a per-diem of $6, public relations handlers booked him at the swankiest hotels and restaurants, where Kelly always paid the difference. He bought food and wine for others on the tour and kept himself supplied with plenty of Mail Pouch, his favorite chewing tobacco. He rarely had time to launder his uniforms, so he bought new ones -- 26 at his own expense.

"We put the infantry on the front page," Kelly said in a 1956 magazine article, "but it cost me plenty to do it."

Other expenses included dozens of long-distance phone calls to Pittsburgh and weekend flights back home to see his family -- and to visit with a North Side restaurant cashier named Mae Frances Boish.

After the tour ended, Kelly was assigned to the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Ga. It was just over the border in Phenix City, Ala., that he married Mae on March 11, 1945, the anniversary of his decoration with the Medal of Honor.

After the applause

When Kelly and his bride returned to Pittsburgh after his honorable discharge in 1945, local papers breathlessly reported on the couple's first shopping trip for civilian clothes, their wedding gift of a cocker spaniel named "Rebel" and Mae's lack of prowess in the kitchen. (She admitted that she couldn't "cook a drop" or sew but added, "I can wash dishes like mad.")

After initially living with Mae's parents on Jacksonia Street, the couple moved to Resaca Place in the Mexican War Streets neighborhood and, in 1946, purchased their first home on nearby Armondale Street. He bought his mother new furniture and gave his brothers cash gifts. His first child, Virginia, was born that year.

Kelly had his choice of numerous business offers. He decided to plunk down $1,500 to lease a Sun Oil gas station at the corner of well-traveled Western and Allegheny streets on the North Side. A huge banner proclaiming "Commando Kelly's" hung over the station, and while his brother James said "Chuck didn't know two plus two was four," the station prospered initially, due in large part to Kelly's prominence.

His cachet was recognized by state Republicans as a valuable political tool, and he was a featured member of the successful 1946 GI caravan tour that charged Democrats with giving veterans "the run-around." There was talk by Kelly and others of a future political career for him.

"I'm getting interested in politics," he told one interviewer, "to stop us GIs from getting kicked around."

A sales slump in 1947, plus a robbery and some ill-advised loans, hurt the business. Kelly also grew restless being bound to the station, and he spent less and less time there.

His son, Charles Jr., was born in September, but Mae became ill soon after. Doctors diagnosed her condition as uterine cancer. Even in the best of times, Kelly rarely shared his thoughts or fears with others; now, with Mae's health deteriorating despite expensive radium and X-ray treatments, he retreated further into his shell. He sold the station at a loss and spent the bulk of his time taking care of his wife and their children.

"It was a closed subject as far as he was concerned," said Virginia "Gunga" Kelly, 75, of West View, who grew up with Mae and later became one of Kelly's sisters-in-law when she married his brother, Ed.

His brother, George "Hammy" Kelly, used to try and visit. "He'd say, 'Ham, you can't come over. She's sick. She's too sick,' " said George, 80, who still lives in the North Side apartment he shared for several years with Chuck. "That's all he would say."

In 1950, Chuck helped his youngest brother, Danny, enlist in the Army at age 17, signing the age waiver himself. Danny idolized Chuck and had long talked of following in his footsteps. After training, the younger Kelly was flown overnight from California to Japan, and the next day landed in Korea as an infantry replacement. A week later, he was reported missing in action, and his body was never found.

"Chuck always felt bad that he had signed for Danny," said Ed Kelly. "He always felt if he hadn't signed for Danny, he would have been alive today."

When Mae died in July 1951, she was 25. At the same time, the bank foreclosed on the couple's home. Kelly reeled from the setbacks. "He went out of control when she died," Virginia said.

Initially, she and her husband cared for the two children. Then Kelly's in-laws took them in. After working several months as a residential painter, he asked Pittsburgh lawyer and former state Attorney General Charles J. Margiotti for a job as a bodyguard. Kelly spent so little time with his children that one day his in-laws brought them to Margiotti's office and left them so he'd have no choice.

In a pattern that would repeat throughout the rest of his life, Kelly would take a job, hold it for several months and then quit. He left Margiotti for a security guard job at a Somerset strip mine and then left that to paint commercially. By election year 1952, he had another job: stumping 6,000 miles across the country for Republican presidential candidate Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.

A second chance?

At a political stop in Louisville, Ky., Kelly was approached by a young woman.

"You owe me another nickel," she said, brandishing one in a hand. "I'll need a dime if you want me to call you."

Kelly looked at the girl in surprise. Betty Gaskins reminded him of the night at Fort Knox in 1945, when he had flipped a nickel to a teen-age girl and told her to call him when she grew up.

They married six weeks later. Betty had a child from a previous marriage, and, with Kelly's two children now back in his charge, the family of five settled in Pittsburgh. Kelly struggled to find work. At one point, they pawned Betty's $275 wedding ring for $43. Finally, in February 1955, they moved to Louisville and settled in a $23-a-month public housing project. Kelly took a construction job working for Betty's uncle.

He worked 50 hours a week in Frankfort, Ky., making less than $100 a week. Since Kelly, 35, couldn't afford the 50-mile commute home, he spent his nights in a cabin with co-workers. When that burned down, he lost most of his medals and clothes. Unable to afford a cheap hotel, he spent his nights in an unheated trailer at the construction site. His bathroom was at a nearby gas station; he took baths at the airport. The couple's fifth child was born that spring.

A few months later, Kelly's mother died. Then his construction job ended, and Kelly was unemployed through June 1956. That August, the couple's sixth child was born. A few days after Betty came home from the hospital, Kelly's appendix burst. Because he couldn't afford a hospital visit, he stayed home, using trays of ice cubes strapped to his stomach to ease the pain. By the time he got to the hospital 24 hours later, peritonitis had set in.

Kelly bore the setbacks stoically. In a magazine interview he said civilian life had been much harder for him than combat.

"When you're in combat, you have a job to do, you know how to do it and you know you can do it," he said. "But these years have been rough. Your hands are tied. You have a thing to do, but you can't do it. You go in and ask a man for a job. It's a job you never had before, and you're asking for it, but you don't know if you can do it. And you get so many 'No's.'

"Then there's your family. You give the kids cereal in the morning, and they ask you for more, and there isn't any more. When you tell them, you don't feel like much of a man."

Kelly's problems found their way into a Louisville paper and were soon picked up nationally. People brought furniture and clothes to his family's tiny apartment. He received more than 100 job offers, including one from the Allegheny County commissioners. President Eisenhower sent an invitation to appear with him on national television. That led to a guest appearance on the quiz show "Strike It Rich."

Although Kelly desperately needed the $500 top prize the show offered, he was too embarrassed by his lack of education to appear alone. County Commissioner John M. Walker, who had read of Kelly's plight, appeared on the show with him. Before the final question was asked, a telegram was read from Eisenhower asking the country to help Kelly, who appeared to blink back tears.

He did win the $500 and, after returning to Louisville, received word that a Commando Kelly Fund at Mellon Bank in Pittsburgh had raised $2,800. That fall, Kelly took a job with a St. Louis scrap iron company and made a down payment on an eight-bedroom home there for his family.

But the job didn't work out, and Kelly returned to Louisville before his family ever had a chance to leave. By the summer of 1957, he was working for the Kentucky highway department and stayed in the job until April 28, 1961. That was the day he called his wife and told her that he was going to Cuba to fight Fidel Castro. He promised to set up a trust fund for the six children. Before he hung up, he told his wife not to try to find him. And with that, Kelly was gone, along with the family car.

Vagabond's life

No one knew where he had gone. He surfaced in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and Texas, supporting himself with odd jobs and by painting. Always fond of a cold beer, Kelly began drinking more heavily. In the late 1960s, he was the victim of a hit-and-run accident, suffering two broken legs, a skull fracture and internal injuries and spending nearly a year in a D.C. hospital.

During those years, he never sent child support to his wife in Louisville. Virginia and Chuck Jr. volunteered to enter an institution to keep the rest of the family together, but Betty managed to raise all six children on her $60 weekly bookkeeper's salary. She divorced Kelly in 1962, and a grand jury later indicted him for failing to provide child support.

When Kelly finally surfaced, it was in his hometown of Pittsburgh. Out of touch with his entire family for nearly 15 years, he didn't provide any information and, true to the Kelly personality, they didn't ask.

"He was like a free soul," said John Kelly, 76, of Brighton Heights, one of his younger brothers. "Whatever he did, he did it because he wanted to do it."

When Chuck Kelly came home, it was on legs too battered to work for more than a few hours a day. Fellow Medal of Honor winner Leonard Funk offered to get him a desk job at the Veterans Hospital, but Kelly never accepted. Other acquaintances also offered work, but Kelly was satisfied to labor occasionally as a house painter. For a time, he lived with his brother George's family on East Street on the North Side, getting by on his meager income, his $100 monthly Medal of Honor pension and a Social Security check. Even then, he kept moving.

"My wife would say, 'Go up and get Charlie for dinner,' and I'd go up to his room, and he'd be gone," George recalled. "He'd met a friend down on the corner, and they'd gone to Texas for a reunion."

In the late '70s, he moved in with his brother Ed and Ed's wife, Virginia, for several months.

"He never talked about [the kids]," Virginia said. "I have no idea if they knew he was staying here."

She said that when Kelly returned from his travels, neither she nor her husband asked where he'd been or what he'd been doing. "There's holes in his life we don't even know," said Ed, 73.

During his travels, Kelly sometimes visited his children, who were now grown. But never for long. Once his oldest daughter, Virginia, brought him to live at her home in Louisville, but he left after two weeks. He finally moved into an apartment with George on Lockhart Street on the North Side.

"He was a drinking man, and I was a drinking man, so there was no problem between us," George said.

The pair often drank at bars on Ohio Street and Madison Avenue. Another favorite was the 222 Tavern on Federal Street, which was owned by a Kelly cousin. It was there in 1982 that Bob Martin met Commando Kelly.

For Martin, a shipping superintendent at an Ohio steel mill, it was an encounter he'd dreamed of since he was 15, when he had seen Kelly as his 1944 war bond tour passed through Zanesville, Ohio. That first afternoon, the two spent three hours talking.

Martin described Kelly as looking "pretty well beat up from living." But "he was a war hero, a Medal of Honor recipient. There was something great about him."

From that time on, Martin drove from his home in Steubenville, Ohio, to Pittsburgh every other Saturday to visit with Kelly. Sometimes they went to a bar; sometimes they took trips.

Once Kelly told Martin: "I'll never be a burden for any of my children. I wasn't around when they needed me. I'm not about to sponge off them now."

Some Saturdays, Martin would find Kelly on a park bench in a grassy area where East Street met East Ohio.

There he'd hold court for anyone interested in listening. James Kelly, an older brother, also found his brother there.

"I'd ask him, 'You need anything?' " James said. "He would lie like hell. He'd say, 'Nah, I don't need anything.' I'd give him 10 or 20 bucks."

Martin and his wife took Kelly to the 1983 Medal of Honor convention held in New York City for all the medal recipients.

The couple flew with Kelly to New York and gave him spending money for the weekend. After registering, they didn't see him again for three days.

"They went down to an Irish pub and practically lived there for three days," Martin said of Kelly and his buddies. "Chuck showed up for the big dinner. He didn't make any excuses for where he'd been.

"I don't know if he really knew himself. I used to take him and go places, and he was always fidgety. He couldn't relax and just enjoy life as it is."

An uneven legacy

All of Kelly's family attended his funeral at Highwood Cemetery in Marshall-Shadeland and then met at a private North Side club to toast his memory. A year later, a local monument business donated a granite headstone, and, in 1987, the military supply facility in Oakdale was officially renamed the Charles E. Kelly Support Facility.

The only recognition from the city of Pittsburgh is Kelly's inclusion in a display of decorated veterans at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall.

Commando Kelly's legacy is an uneven one. He survived World War II without a scratch, but his wounds as a civilian were mortally deep. Despite all the lifelines thrown his way, he never grabbed hold of one.

The 10 medals he won, including two Silver Stars and valor medals from the Italian and British governments, were lost or given away. In the end, the words he spoke after his Medal of Honor ceremony in 1944 came true: "These medals will just be a lot of brass after the war, and I'll just be another ex-soldier."

His eldest child, Virginia, said in a brief interview that her father "was a hero, and I understand the world and Pittsburgh had a part of him."

But in explaining why neither she nor any of her siblings or their mother wanted to talk about Charles E. "Commando" Kelly, she said, "We got the short end of the stick of what we had of our Dad."

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