Posted on September 30th, 2016 by:

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Charles Kelly was hailed as the “One man army” and “Commando”. He earned the Congressional Medal of Honor in a far away war and became a hero of America when he came home. He would be feted by Hollywood and loved by the public and be given more money than he ever saw in his life. Kelly was the idol of a adoring nation and his future looked bright until the war that made him ended and he realized he had the rest of his life ahead of him.

On September 13, 1943, a skinny Irish kid from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania named Charles E. Kelly was approaching the town of Altavilla, Italy. Fair faced with wavy dark hair, he moved carefully through the dirt and brush of the Mediterranean. Kelly was a tough kid, having grown up in a mean immigrant neighborhood of Irish and Germans. He had joined the army to fight since he never liked to be left out of the action. In the morning he had gone on a patrol to wipe out German machine gun nests and was credited with killing 40 men. Now Kelly was leading three men on a mission to establish contact with American forces in Altavilla where a German counterattack was expected.

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Commando Kelly in Italy

Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on September 20, 1920. Kelly grew up on 532 Shawano Street in a home with no electricity or hot water. His family lived on the 2nd and 3rd stories of an old building in an alley full of converted barns, junkyards and hanging fire escapes. His room was an attic he shared with his eight brothers. The house had no toilet so they used the alley outhouse which was down two flights of outside stairs.

Kelly’s parents kept their children in line. His mother Irene kept the inside of the house clean and their blacksmith father James, kept them fed and well-behaved. While the Kelly boys got into fights in the neighborhood, their father kept them in line at home by pointing to a razor strap that hung beside the sink.

Charles Kelly, like most of his brothers, chose work over education. He took a painting job after leaving the 9th grade and never looked back to higher education. Kelly grew up tough, he never had to look for danger because it always came to him and he always wanted to be right were the action was. Kelly was like his father, James, a man people described as “independent as a hog on ice.”

When America entered World War Two, Kelly joined the infantry and was assigned to L Company, 143rd Infantry Regiment of the 36th “Texas” Infantry Division. Before going into combat Charles had run ins with authority. He went AWOL twice and was fined and spent time in the stockade. Kelly later said he went AWOL because he just needed time to himself and he didn’t consider the consequences. Garrison duty wasn’t for Kelly.


Soldiers of the 36th Infantry Division land at Salerno

Kelly landed with the Allied invasion of Salerno on September 9th, 1943 and moved inland with the invasion. After taking part on the patrol on the morning of September 13th, Kelly made his way to Altavilla where he was tasked with resupplying the American forces holding the town. Organizing a 1,000 yard long chain of men, he succeeded in resupplying the town. He was told to secure a three story house at one end of the town square where he would guard the rear of the house. Kelly thrived in combat. He was made of snap decisions and drew breath off of danger. In combat, Kelly always knew the right thing to do.

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Insignia of the 36th Infantry Division

On the morning of September 14, the Germans attacked the town, focusing on the house that Kelly was in. Kelly took position at a second floor window with his Browning Automatic Rifle. The men with Kelly started to get hit. One was killed and several were wounded but Kelly stayed at his position and kept firing at the enemy. When his automatic rifle overheated he found another BAR and continued the fight until the second BAR jammed. He tossed it away and found whatever other guns were around. Throughout the day Kelly used a Tommy gun, a Springfield rifle, an M1 rifle a carbine, and at one point manning a 37mm antitank gun in the courtyard to destroy a sniper’s position in a church steeple. When Germans got into a nearby building he tossed phosphorus grenades and set the house on fire keeping the enemy away.

During a break in the fighting Kelly went into the kitchen in his building and was shocked to see several soldiers cooking spaghetti and sauce as well as a table piled with goat cheese, sliced bread, watermelon, tomatoes and grapes. At first he was angry, then he shrugged his shoulders and took a swig from a bottle. It was champagne, the first he ever had and it tasted like soda to him. He took the bottle with him and between drinks he picked off enemy snipers.

When the Germans attacked again and threatened to overrun his position, Kelly took 60mm mortar shells, tapped them on the window sill to arm them and hurled them at the enemy. When the position finally became untenable, Kelly, against his sergeant’s orders, volunteered to stay behind to cover the retreat. He was seen from the window loading a bazooka waiting for the German attack. When the enemy fell back, Kelly slipped out of his position and rejoined the rest of his men.

He was promoted to corporal after the battle, and made sergeant in January 1944 after surviving the meat grinders of San Pietro and the Rapido River crossing.

In early 1944, Charles Kelly was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions at Altavilla back in September 1943, and he was sent back to the USA to sell war bonds.

Commando Kelly is awarded the Medal of Honor on February 18, 1944, for his actions at Altavilla. He was the first American enlisted man on the European continent to be awarded the medal.

Commando Kelly is awarded the Medal of Honor on February 18, 1944, for his actions at Altavilla. He was the first American enlisted man on the European continent to be awarded the medal.

Until Kelly fought in World War Two, the biggest day of his life had been a family picnic at Stone Oaks, off Babcock Boulevard, for swimming and fishing. When he returned to the US on April 24, 1944 he was a national hero. April 25, 1944 became “Commando Kelly Day” in Pittsburgh. The Police had to restrain well-wishers outside his home. Pittsburgh Mayor Cornelius D. Scully presented the hometown hero with a gold key to the city. The state Senate adopted a resolution expressing its “admiration for the feats of valor performed by Sgt. Kelly.” and over 5,000 people gathered in front of the City-County Building to see him speak.

When Commando Kelly stood at the microphone, he looked over the thousands of people who came to see him. People who would scarcely give the skinny 22-year-old a second glance if not for the war. Kelly looked at the crowd, shy and uneasy. He ran his hand through his wavy dark hair and said “Folks, I don’t know what to say. But thanks a lot.” That night he had a banquet at the William Penn Hotel with jumbo shrimp cocktails, sirloin steak and a dessert called “bombe commando Kelly.” The Kelly family was offered a suite, but Kelly refused, wanting to spend the night at his home. He told the mayor “This house is good enough for my Mom and it’s good enough for me”.

Money soon came with his prestige. The Saturday Evening Post paid $15,000 for exclusive rights to his story. A book about him came out later that year. Twentieth Century Fox paid him $25,000 for the movie rights for his life. He got a temporary adviser from the army, and two county officials voluntarily looked after his business interests. A local World War I veteran offered him six acres of land nearby with business opportunities. Kelly was even seen as a political possibility, getting eight votes for president in the Republican primary election.

After his heroes’ welcome, Commando Kelly went on tour for several months with three dozen other decorated infantrymen as part of the Army Ground Forces “Here’s Your Infantry” to give demonstrations of battle tactics and sell war bonds.

The Army paid him a per-Diem of $6, but public relations handlers got him into the fanciest hotels and restaurants. He treated people and made sure he had plenty of Mail Pouch, his favorite chewing tobacco. He bought 26 new uniforms since he rarely had time to wash them. He spent his money on long distance calls home and weekend flights to see his family. He also became involved with a Pittsburgh restaurant cashier named Mae Frances Boish.commando kelley and fiance

commando kelleyCommando kelly and wife

After his tour, Commando Kelly was assigned to the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia and married Mae Boish on March 11, 1945.

Kelly returned to Pittsburgh after being discharge from the army in 1945. He was still the hometown hero and local papers reported on his every doing like he was a Hollywood celebrity. Every part of him was in the public eye including his first shopping trip for civilian clothes, a wedding gift of a cocker spaniel named “Rebel” and his wife Mae’s poor showing in the kitchen. The newspapers quoted her as saying she couldn’t “cook a drop” or sew but she could “wash dishes like mad.” Kelly had his first child, a daughter later that year.

The couple lived with Mae’s parents until they got a place of their own. Kelly bought new furniture for his mother and gave money to his brothers. He paid $1,500 dollars to rent a Sun Oil gas station hanging a huge banner with “Commando Kelly’s” over it. The station did well initially thanks to his fame.commando kelly

Fame also helped him get involved in politics. He was a featured member of the 1946 GI caravan tour that proclaimed Democrats were giving veterans “the run-around”. Kelly told one reporter that he was getting interested in politics to “stop us GIs from getting kicked around.”1945_Pittsburgh_Commando_Kelly

1947 was a fateful year for Kelly. He didn’t like routines or being stuck in one place and his appearances at the station declined. His business at the gas station dwindled and then suffered a robbery. His wife was diagnosed with cancer soon after the birth of his son. He sold his station at a loss and spent time with his family and paying for expensive cancer treatments.

In 1950, Kelly helped his youngest brother, Danny, enlist in the Army at age 17, by signing the age waiver. Danny Kelly had idolized his brother and wanted to be a war hero like him. Danny Kelly was sent to Japan and then to Korea as an Infantry replacement. A week after arriving in Korea Danny was reported missing in action and his body was never found. Charles Kelly’s wife Mae died in July 1951, at age 25. At the same time, the bank foreclosed on the couple’s home.

Kelly’s siblings, then his in-laws took care of his kids while Kelly lost himself in his grief. After several months working as a house painter, he got a job from Pittsburgh lawyer and former state Attorney General Charles J. Margiotti as a bodyguard. Kelly became more restless. He began a habit of taking a job for several months and then quitting. He left Margiotti for a security guard job at a Somerset strip mine, then left that job to paint commercially. In 1952, his job was crossing the country trying to get Republican presidential candidate Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower elected.

On the Eisenhower campaign trail, Kelly married again, this time to Betty Gaskin, who had a child from a previous marriage. The family of five settled in Pittsburgh and Kelly tried to find a job. At 35, Kelly was destitute. All the thousands of dollars he made during the war had been squandered or lost. For money, the couple pawned Betty’s $275 wedding ring for $43.

In February 1955, they moved to Louisville in a $23-a-month public housing project. Kelly got a construction job working for Betty’s uncle working 50 hours a week in Frankfort, Kentucky. He made less than $100 a week. Not being able to afford the 50-mile commute home, Kelly slept in a cabin with his co-workers. The cabin eventually burned down and Kelly lost most of his medals and clothes. Unable to afford a hotel, he moved into an unheated trailer on the construction site and used the bathroom at a nearby gas station and the bath at the airport. Between trips home to see his wife, he had another baby born.

In 1956, Kelly’s mother died and his construction job ended. In August of that year, the couple’s sixth child was born. A few days after Betty came home from the hospital with their new child, Kelly’s appendix burst. He stayed home, using trays of ice cubes strapped to his stomach since he could not afford to go to the hospital. By the time he finally went to see a doctor peritonitis had set in.

The wartime hero was not surviving his life as a civilian. He gave magazine interview about where he was now and said that 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.”

When Commando Kelly’s problems became public, people brought furniture and clothes to his family’s apartment. He received more than 100 job offers and President Eisenhower sent an invitation to appear with him on national television. He even got a guest appearance on the quiz show “Strike It Rich.” for a chance to win a $5,000 prize.

Kelly was too embarrassed by his lack of education to appear alone on the show. County Commissioner John M. Walker, appeared on the show with him. Before Kelly was asked the final question on the show, a telegram from President Eisenhower was read asking the country to help Kelly, who seemed to blink back tears.

Kelly won the $5,000 top prize from the show and later received word that a Commando Kelly Fund at Mellon Bank in Pittsburgh had raised another $2,800.

Seeming to be back on his feet, Kelly took a job with a St. Louis scrap iron company and made a down payment on an eight-bedroom home. But Kelly’s turnaround didn’t last. The job didn’t pan out and Kelly returned to Louisville before his family ever had a chance to leave for St. Louis. In the summer of 1957, he started working for the Kentucky highway department where he stayed until April 28, 1961. The day he quit he called his wife and told her that he was going to Cuba to fight against Fidel Castro. He promised to set up a trust fund for the six children and told his wife not to try to find him. Then he disappeared.

Kelly was seen in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and Texas. He drank heavily and did odd jobs to stay alive. In the late 1960’s he suffered two broken legs, a skull fracture and internal injuries and spent almost a year in a Washington D.C. hospital after a hit-and-run accident. In his years away Kelly never sent child support to his wife. Betty raised six children on a $60 weekly bookkeeper’s salary. She divorced Kelly in 1962.

Kelly eventually returned to Pittsburgh. He lived with his brothers and their family. His legs were too inured for him to work more than a few hours a day. He got job offers from friends but he never accepted. Kelly preferred living with his brother and surviving on odd jobs and his $100 dollar a month Medal of Honor pension.

Kelly never talked with his family or to his siblings about his past. He lived with various brothers, his daughter and finally with his brother George. The two spent most of their time in bars and disappeared from time to time.

In late December 1984, Commando Kelly left his apartment and went to the veterans hospital. He told hospital staff that he had no relatives and was admitted in critical condition with kidney and liver failure. That night, he pulled out the tubes that were there to save his life. When his brothers arrived the next day, Kelly was already in a coma. Commando Kelly died January 11, 1985.

Charles Kelly’s words in 1944 proved right about himself when he said “These medals will just be a lot of brass after the war, and I’ll just be another ex-soldier.” When he was 22-years-old he had held off the German Army almost single handedly, but when the war was over and the parades and accolades faded all that was left was a man who could not be saved from himself. Commando Kelly was not a team player, but a man who fought, lived and breathed in a world to himself . Kelly once said “I take life as it comes, the good with the bad.” He died alone, just as he lived and he probably wanted it that way.

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