This Day in History: WWI Hero John Joseph Kelly

On this day in 1918, a hero engages in an action that would earn him the Medal of Honor. Actually, he didn’t earn just one Medal, he earned two for the same action: one from the Navy and one from the Army.


When Private John Joseph Kelly learned that he would receive the Medal, he was surprised.


“I never thought I would get that wonderful ribbon,” he said. “Really, I don’t think I deserve it. So many other good lads equally brave were knocked out before the end. You are not kidding me, are you?”


He still seemed flustered. “I guess I’ll send it home to mother, as she hasn’t got much except worry out of this war,” Kelly concluded.

The young 20-year-old had once thought that he’d become a “great salesman.” Instead, he became a United States Marine, fighting for our country during World War I.


Kelly was serving with the 6th Marines on October 3, 1918, during the Battle of Blanc Mont Ridge. For a solid week, he and his fellow Marines would fight until the Germans were forced to retreat from the Champagne region of France.


Kelly’s heroism came on the first day of the battle, although he thought that his action “wasn’t much.” He’d been at the front when the attack got under way.


Enemy machine gun fire was coming at our men hard and fast, but Kelly wasn’t going to take that situation lying down. He ran through the barrage, attacking the enemy nest and killing the gunner with a grenade. He shot another of the enemy with his pistol. He was soon returning to the American lines with eight prisoners: four from the enemy gun nest and four that he’d “picked up” along the way, as Captain James McBride would say.


Naturally, Kelly’s description of these events was modest.


“A machine gun was shooting at our men,” he described. “I went forward alone in the fog and smoke until I was able to see the gun hidden in a shell hole. I threw a grenade, and then, when the gunner swung the gun toward me, I shot him with my pistol and brought the others back.”


By “brought the others back,” of course, he meant the 8 prisoners that he’d taken.


Kelly was supposed to receive his Medal of Honor from General Pershing on March 16, 1919, but he’d been “too busy” that day, as newspapers laughingly reported. It turned out that Kelly was busy digging trenches on the front lines and couldn’t get away.


He received his Medal from the General a few days later instead.


Sometimes the men and women of World War II and the American Revolution seem to get all the attention. But haven’t there been men and women fighting for God and country all along the way?


This nation is nearly 250 years old.Perhaps today is a good day to remember our long, rich history of brave, selfless heroes, most of whom never made it into a history book.


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