The Medal of Honor symbolizes the ideals of patriotism, courage, sacrifice, and integrity and is the highest award presented for military valor in action. Those recipients have shown bravery in combat, going above and beyond the call of duty, risking – and often sacrificing – their lives for the welfare of others.
First introduced for the Department of the Navy in 1861, the Medal of Honor would be created for the Department of the Army’s Medal of Honor in 1862. The Department of the Air Force, which originally used the same Medal as the Department of the Army, introduced their own Medal of Honor in 1965. Since its inception during the U.S. Civil War, more than 3500 recipients have been honored with the Medal of Honor.
This is the story of a Medal of Honor recipient.
I had never been on Route 220 south of Interstate 68 until this journey. The day’s journey was taking me to Keyser, West Virginia, the county seat of Mineral County. I crossed over the North Branch of the Potomac River and entered the community – I was only in the city proper for a couple minutes before taking West Virginia Route 46 eastward out of town.
A right turn onto Lime Stone Road and another immediate left turn onto Cemetery Road soon had me at the entrance to Queen Point Cemetery. Following the set of coordinates I had been sent, I carefully drove the extremely narrow roadways until I arrived at the spot where the coordinates where taking me. As I drove through the cemetery I noted that many of the graves of those who had served in the military had an American flag standing watch over their stones. Only there were no American flags marking the graves in the area of those coordinates and I could not image his grave not being decorated.
I stepped out of the vehicle and scanned the area and still did not notice any flags in the immediate area. With the size of this cemetery – it had close to 6,500 burials – I understood that I might be making another visit in the future.
The closest grave marked with an American flag was almost one hundred yards away and up the hillside from where I currently stood. Maneuvering the vehicle carefully along the roadways, I got within twenty yards of the gravesite before I stepped out of the vehicle and carefully made my way up the steps towards the grave. I could see the marker as I reverently approached the grave of a young man whose life was cut short during World War II and for his actions, he would posthumously be awarded the Medal of Honor.
Jonah Edward “Eddie” Kelley, was born in Rada, West Virginia on April 13, 1923, the middle of the three children of Jonah and Rebecca Kelley. He attended Keyser High School where he played basketball and football. After Kelley graduated high school, he attended Potomac State College until he was drafted in 1943.
Kelley was sent to Germany where he was a staff sergeant in Company E of the 311 Infantry Regiment of the 78 Infantry Division. The division was involved in the fighting at the village of Kesternich, Germany. The importance of this city was whoever controlled it had control of the Roer River dams.
January 30, 1945, the squad Kelley led was involved in the house-to-house fighting in an attempt to drive the Germans out of the buildings they had fortified themselves within. In the process, Kelley was wounded twice – one of those wounds had ruined his left hand – but he refused to withdraw to get medical attention.
Kelley’s bravery on that day is described best in his Medal of Honor citation: “Although twice wounded, once when struck in the back, the second time when a mortar shell fragment passed through his left hand and rendered it practically useless, he refused to withdraw and continued to lead his squad after hasty dressings had been applied. His serious wounds forced him to fire his rifle with one hand, resting it on rubble or over his left forearm. To blast his way forward with hand grenades, he set aside his rifle to pull the pins with his teeth while grasping the missiles with his good hand. Despite these handicaps, he created tremendous havoc in the enemy ranks. He rushed one house, killing three of the enemy and clearing the way for his squad to advance. On approaching the next house, he was fired upon from an upstairs window. He killed the sniper with a single shot and similarly accounted for another enemy soldier who ran from the cellar of the house. As darkness came, he assigned his men to defensive positions, never leaving them to seek medical attention.”
The following morning the squad encountered a German machine gunner who kept them from advancing. Kelley ordered his men to remain where they were and set out alone to eliminate the enemy threat. His bravery on the morning of January 31 continues in the Medal of Honor citation: “At dawn the next day, the squad resumed the attack, advancing to a point where heavy automatic and small arms fire stalled them. Despite his wounds, Staff Sergeant Kelley moved out alone, located an enemy gunner dug in under a haystack and killed him with rifle fire. He returned to his men and found that a German machinegun, from a well-protected position in a neighboring house, still held up the advance. Ordering the squad to remain in comparatively safe positions, he valiantly dashed into the open and attacked the position single-handedly through a hail of bullets. He was hit several times and fell to his knees when within 25 yards of his objective; but he summoned his waning strength and emptied his rifle into the machinegun nest, silencing the weapon before he died. The superb courage, aggressiveness, and utter disregard for his own safety displayed by Staff Sergeant Kelley inspired the men he led and enabled them to penetrate the last line of defense held by the enemy in the village of Kesternich.”
Kelley was just twenty-one on the day he was killed and for his actions that deadly day, he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor on September 10, 1945. In December 1948, his family was permitted to have his body returned and placed to rest in the sacred grounds of Queens Point Cemetery in Keyser.
In October 1947, Kelley was honored by having a Liberty ship named for him — USAT Sgt Jonah E. Kelley. The US Army decommissioned the ship in July 1950 and turned it over to the US Navy, which recommissioned it as the USNS Sgt Jonah E. Kelley. The ship would be taken out of service in 1960 and in 1972 was sold for scrap.
While the USNS Sgt Jonah E. Kelley is no more, Kelley’s name is still honored in the naming of a number of buildings. At Fort Dix, New Jersey, the Army Reserve Building is named in Kelley’s honor. At the US Military base in the suburb of Moehringen, in the southeast corner of Stuttgart, Germany, the barracks were named in honor of Kelley.
Movement caught my attention and I could see deer slowly beginning to appear from the woods. I took their arrival as a sign for me to move on and I left Kelley resting on the hillside, remembering his sacrifice as I carefully made my way back to the vehicle.