MILTON W. KELLY
Milton W. Kelly was born and raised in East Camden. The Kelly family lived at 3007 Carman Street, his paternal grandfather, Milton A. Kelly having bought the house when it was first built in the 1910s. His maternal grandfather, William J. Roles, owned, managed and lived at the Roles Court Apartments in the 100 block of North 34th Street. Milton W. Kelly graduated from Camden High School in 1942 and was inducted into the United States Army not long afterwards. He was assigned to one of the three armored infantry battalions that were components of the 14th Armored Division.
The 14th Armored Division landed in France at Marseilles on October 29, 1944. Within two weeks some of its elements were in combat, maintaining defensive positions along the Franco-Italian frontier. The division was assigned to US 6th Army Group on November 1. On November 10, the division was assigned to US Seventh Army. On November 12, the Combat Command Reserve (CCR) was detached, and ordered to the Maritime Alps by 6th Army Group to relieve units in defensive positions there. On November 15, Combat Command A moved north from the area of Marseille to Epinal to take part in the VI Corps drive through the Vosges Mountains, and was followed by Combat Command B five days later. Hard fighting at Gertwiller, Benfeld, and Barr helped VI Corps to crack the German defenses, the division was on the Alsatian Plain in early December.
On December 17, the 14th Armored Division attacked across the Lauter River into Germany itself. Unfortunately, Private Milton W. Kelly and two of his comrades were captured and made Prisoners of War the following morning.
In 1979, Milton W. Kelly wrote a letter to his daughter, Carol Kelly, recounting his experiences as a soldier in October and November of 1944. On September 1, 1984 he wrote another letter to his daughter, telling in great detail the events leading up to his capture, his time as a POW, his liberation and return to Camden. The letters are below.
A beautifully crafted letter to me from my father, Milton W. Kelly, recounting his experience in World War II. - Carol Kelly
Monday, July 9, 1979
Received your card last week, glad my letter arrived O.K. I’m wondering if that little inlet is where you live? …Times are a little crazy lately. Inflation, gas shortage has caused some panic among my fellow Americans. We’re like children without our cars. Now we’re awaiting Skylab’s fall in a matter of hours.
Anyway, since I believe we will survive all this, and since it’s always fun to get a long letter from someone in the family, I’ll indulge my high school level of literary talent in hopes you enjoy this one. I say high school level because I was in 1942 a pretty hammy storyteller in English composition. My juvenile imagination was pretty well caught up with adventurous accounts based on the war that was presently on at the time. My only fear was that I would miss out on it. I won’t bore you with anything epic-like but you’ll forgive me if, while I write this, I reflect on a state of mind that came out of those years. To us older guys it’s like a private club of memories. I find we only get blank looks from the younger generation. It explains my last letter’s inhibition in telling you much about it. My one thought is that I’ve got a pretty sharp and aware individual for a daughter.
You have no doubt seen Marseilles, so you can picture the harbor when I first saw it from ship’s deck, approx. date Sept. 27, 1944 [The month was October - PMC]. The sounds of cranes and gear unloading tanks and other vehicles. Off the gang-plank and up cobbled streets, children tagging along – (cigarettes for Papa!), and little armfuls of cheap red wine scavenged from Papa’s cellar for sticks of that magical American chewing gum. We tented down in meadows outside the city. Evenings we’d go in pairs or three’s and wander the boulevards and alleyways. Only a month before it was the Germans who walked those streets. Most had been chased North, the rest holed up in the Maritime Alps to prevent our forces from entrapping theirs in Italy. My first revelation was in passing the open door of a brothel. We thought we were seeing things, a totally unexpected vision of semi-clad ladies in negligées and whatever! Very plush and exotic and all in the midst of poverty. There was an evening when we invaded what appeared to be a Turkish bath, and instead we were somewhat bashfully hosed down by a fat bored French woman with hot water spray attached to a pot-bellied stove. I remember newsboys hawking papers (Vichy Soir or Midi?), pavement card tables selling small brown cakes. Or the time we sat at a sidewalk café looking over our meatless lasagna, and doing a disappearing act when the bill for 1600 francs showed up. Up in the thug district criminal elements were garrotting some of our truck drivers to hijack our supplies. Liberation was one thing, business was another.
After some weeks there, we started East along the coast road. Our (14th Armored) division passed through the Côte d’Azur and it was somewhere there as I’ve said that I saw Somerset Maugham standing at the high grilled entrance way to the estate. Looking dapper, cigarette holder and all, I’d know that face anywhere. Later we left the coast road up until the little hills behind Monte Carlo. Finally in a village we bedded down in empty chalets, polished floors and marble fireplaces. One quiet afternoon I spent time penciling a high mural on an empty living room wall. Like the sketch I recently sent you it was one depicting a caravan of mules and troops bringing up supplies. I can hear the owner when he returned, (but my French obscenities were non-existant). On Thanksgiving Day I lay on my side in a snow bank popping away with a sub-machine gun at an empty pillbox. Across the valley the Germans leisurely fired back rifle shots which sounded like whip-cracks over our heads as they would part the cold air. At noon we would run back down the trail (to get our turkey dinner) laughing and yelling like triumphant schoolboys while our enemy followed us closely with mortar bursts that blackened the snow around us. (Positively Hemingwayesque that line!) There was the night of the lion. Mountain cat really and a big baby. Moonlight, 3 AM and he walked majestically across the sights of my machine gun about 5 yard away. In a foxhole I nudged John awake and this startled the cat into running down the slope. A moment later it set off a trip wire and yellow flare and came back bounding directly for us. Only at the last moment did it dodge aside and up into a low tree, its yellow eyes the only thing visible. Lastly I recall one midnight after sentry duty going into the sleeping village with two other fellows. There was still a bar open and we took a table. And then something very European happened. An accordion started up from a darkened corner and one of the workmen seated at a table nearby solemnly rose and launched into a beautifully quiet song that sounded Italian. Everyone respectfully waited until the last note. No applause of course. Just a perfectly natural incident that just seemed to be a part of their way of life and to a kid from Jersey, another revelation in the midst of war.
Later we boarded trains north to Epinal and the real war. But that’s another story.
time in Monte Carlo raise your wine glass to the mountain. Somewhere up
there is the offspring to the big cat that got away.
My Dad wrote the following September 1, 1984, after I sent him clippings from the “Nice Matin” including articles and photos of the 1944 landings on the French Mediterranean coast. - Carol Kelly
“I’m at my desk at work, hoping for no interruption in answering your latest letter. It’s just after midnight and I have so many thoughts. First of all, thanks so much for including the articles on the 1944 landings. I really have a remarkable daughter. Most women are not given to take an interest in past events. As far as what happened up North in the Vosges Mountain country no one has ever expressed an interest. Any attempt by me to relate such was usually met with blank looks, a tolerant smile. I just learned to clam up. Certainly I’ve never detailed it in words or writing to anyone. (Forgive the handwriting, it’s careless and hasty, yours is so beautifully controlled, almost exquisite.) Much of the following will be off the top of my head, totally spontaneous, including misspellings and scratching out probably.
What follows is a series of events that took place after the Riviera patrols. Hope to keep it condensed, yet with some balance of flavor. Will probably edit out some of the brutality I saw, yet include the necessary coarseness of my experience. There will be the underlying motif of camera eye, the movies being a strong influence in my early days. So settle back, get comfortable and don’t spill the popcorn.
We came off the mountain sometime late November. The train ride North was uneventful, until we reached the rail yards of Epinal. Boxcar door was flung open, and we saw our first indication of violence. A hospital train heading south clocked by slowly. Inside men with bloody bandages gazed back at us. No shouts or waves, just the interchange of young men, those who had seen Hell and those who were the newly innocent. We detrained, set out in armored column headed for Black Forest area. In ditches along the way bodies in German uniform sprawled, hobnail boots askew. I remember clattering over cobblestone streets of Strasbourg, the Germans no doubt watching us from across the Rhine. Made our way further, to the outskirts of Ober-Auterbach, a small village with the Siegfried line just beyond. German engineers had spent almost ten years making this into an impenetrable area, with deep bunkers underground, in answer to the MAGINOT LINE; We did foxhole duty on the approaches to this particular village – flairs at night – no firing. Relieved at 5 a.m. (Dec. 16, ’44) I bed down in straw only to be roused minutes later with “Come on, let’s go, orders to take the town, we’re moving up to the front.” (Oh sure, nothing to it) Bleary eyed we wait in a trench as the first light of dawn appears. 7 a.m. – whistle blows – we clamber out – about a hundred or more of us. We fall into a long skirmish line, walking through the morning mist, the only sound the swishing of boots over dewy meadow grass. The fog is lifting, we can see the village now. Suddenly, a rattle of machine gun, we trot forward, throw ourselves to the ground, rise again. The tension is broken. Reaching the edge now, running, sweating, firing blindly into windows and wine cellars. Shouting now to encourage ourselves. I find I have no hesitation in pulling the trigger. Alleyways, courtyards with geese and chicken fluttering wildly at our intrusion. The homes are empty of furnishings. The town is deserted. Only the Germans on a slope overlooking the town are witness to this amateurish charge by green troops. They pick us off with sniper fire. At one point my rifle became clogged with mud and refuses to fire. And then I did the damnedest thing. With no cover whatsoever I lay in a shallow furrow of open field calmly disassembling my rifle and cleaning its parts with a toothbrush, only vaguely conscious of tracer bullets that whine overhead. God must have been on my shoulder that day. I make my way to a cellar entrance. Some guys in there I knew. We spent the afternoon pulling in through cellar windows those wounded who had crawled their way to us. I remember placing a duckboard down over the wet floor, carrying a young kid onto it, comforting him with, “It’s all O.K. now, you’ll be going home now”, he was shivering with shock and rear full of shrapnel. Doc’ Savage bragging that the dumb bastard had missed him, his canteen riddled with bullet holes. And then it happened. A minute of reel that stays imprinted in my mind, like a candid camera gone crazy. I had been talking to a guy I didn’t know, he broke off conversation to step out into the cellar entranceway, climbed 3 steps to ground level, and immediately a shell burst at his feet. A scream, his body tossed back upon me, his rifle clattering down the steps. Unbelieving, wild-eyed, I bellowed for “Medic, Medic”! Took him ten seconds to die, his chest stopped heaving, eyes rolled back. He was my age, only 20. I’ll never forget it, or the fact that I’ve had an extra 40 years of life.
Late winter afternoon, we have a plan (mine) to get back to our lines at dusk with just enough light to shield us and show us the way. We crawl over the body in the stairwell, go Indian fashion slithering through the mud, ducking behind houses. The firing had stopped. We came upon the main street, alight now with fire coming from windows, telegraph wires sagging, rubble everywhere. Picture us, silence except for crackling of fire, picking our way down the street, exposed certainly to the light. (Three of us, Lieppe and Petersen.) Street ends, continues as a muddy road. I’m in the lead. A barn is burning, red sky glows, shadows move suddenly behind haystack and tree trunk, we stop dead. Famous last words – I call out “Don’t shoot Joe, we’re Americans.” Silence and then the harsh babble of German all around us. Young kids with necklaces of bullets over camouflage capes surround us, submachine guns cradled in their arms. Our rifles are flung into the mud, hands probe our pockets for cigarettes. It is over. (I tried to tell Petersen we were going the wrong way!)
A few days later the three of us are sitting under guard in a railway car compartment. We are exhausted from lack of food and sleep. I stare out the window only dimly aware that the great river below us is the Rhone. We arrive at a temporary camp, a single barrack with some other American captives. I trade off my ring with a guard, for a loaf of bread, which is cut up into 35 pieces. Later none of us would be so charitable with each other. Prison and survival would change us.
It is Christmas Eve and the three of us are marched up to some sort of prison headquarters. The other two are quickly dispatched after some questioning. I am led in. At his desk a typical Hollywood model of villainy sits, monocle and all. He begins politely enough, but when I refuse to give any information, he thunders with authority, fist pounding the desktop. I repeat name, rank and serial number, according to the tenets of the Geneva conference. He rages, has the guard strip off my helmet and jacket, orders me to stand outside (at attention for 2 hours). It is bitter cold, snow is falling lightly. I stand under lamplight with a change of guard. Finally it dawns on me I really have nothing to tell this guy anyway. After about 45 minutes I make the guard understand, O.K. I’ll talk, and back inside I reveal the weaponry I trained with, what camps etc. (all common knowledge) and No, I did not know of an oil pipeline running up from Marseilles. The pompous bastard had proved his point and retrieved his ego. Hell of a way to spend Christmas Eve…
Karsrhule! we march through now about 50 in number, towns people shake their fists at us, recently bombed by the Air Force, their homes shattered and still smoking. Women carve up a dead horse in the square, an old man sidles up to me, toothily grinning “Prisoners, yah? You vill like Chermany”.
We are headed east now, somewhere in lower Bavaria, our ultimate destination Villigen near the Swiss border. This is several days’ march and I can recall vividly sights along the way. I remember the beautiful white castle set within a huge lake, misty with the past, like something out of Camelot. I remember too the field full of skeleton men in striped uniforms, hacking away at rocks with picks, hunched over wheel barrows, our guards panicking ordering a trot so that we might not see what we had seen. Months later the truth had become real for all the world to see. Need I say more. And then there was the sight of a lone American bomber, its wings shattered, floating to a stop directly over us, so close we could see the faces of the three American airmen tumbling out, their chutes opening and the bark of police dogs turned loose as they came down in woods nearby. The plane crumbled like tissue paper, its engines, wings and parts spiraled down upon us. Where were the other seven crewmen? Unforgettable. And finally, near the end of this march one late rainy afternoon, we slog the muddy road approaching a village, thunder, branches dripping, and in the half light of evening the road sign reads “Frankenstein” – a childhood Gothic nightmare come true. I had always thought the name was fictional.
The stay at Villigan lasted only a week. Only two things stand out – watching a small number of Russian officers next door who made a daily ritual of stripping to the waist and lathering themselves with snow while we watched shivering behind frosted windows – across the way what appeared as a cadet school where baby-faced boys did close order drill on a snowy parade ground, and at a signal would dash forward, drop into the mud and the snow, rifles pointed, rise again etc. Germany was preparing to scrape the barrel.
From there North. Our ultimate destination would be Luckenwalde, 30 km. south of Berlin. We were packed into box cars, 36 per car. No food, the only water to be caught from dripping icicles outside the aperture. Like the scene from “Dr Zhivago” straw on the floor, pot bellied stove. (Back in the states, German prisoners, captured by thousands in North Africa, were getting three square meals a day, showers, and clean sheets!)
One night I’m awakened by yelling, battering of fists against the wall as men stumble over each other. The stove had fired the straw and the car was filling with smoke. By luck the train had pulled into a rail station and a civilian seeing the smoke had alerted the guards. They clump back to us in the snow, unwire the door, - we tumble out. I am missing my boots and I try to make the guard understand. We are now packed into another car with 36 others! and he slams the box car door on my head. I remember a loud crack sound in my skull but was not knocked unconscious. A young German medic came around next morning and inquired, but I was O.K. Got my boots backs.
We spent the latter part of Jan. ’45 at Luckenwalde. I can remember the old German guard just outside our window making a swastika in the snow, no doubt heavily mindful of his future under the Russians, who were only a 100 KM away on the plains of Poland. From there we were moved westward now some 50KM to Autengraphel – a huge sprawling Stalag where British, French, Russian, and Americans were separated by compounds. (Maurice Chevalier had been there during the First World War) We were there until early April. Not much can be said about the camp, I’ll limit it a bit. Converted horse stables, 3 tier elongated shelves for sleep, no bedding of course. Our diet was improved now, an actual bowl of carrot soup, and chunk of black bread daily. Our stomachs had shrunk. The bread, vaguely pumpernickel, made up with a combination of sawdust and chemicals. A tin of water. Name anything in the way of food, include no soap, we didn’t see it. Nothing.
(To digress again – back in the States Italian prisoners had found paradise. Well fed, hair properly oiled, they roamed Times Square freely, enjoying the sights and American girls. I saw many of them when the Army sent a group of us to CCNY University for a short spell. I failed trigonometry with flying colors.)
The sight of Russian prisoners being herded into our camp by the thousands, gaunt, starving, diseased, ragged beards and feet wrapped in burlap. I was to meet them shortly.
Word was passed that it was possible to sneak under the wire by bribing the guard with a cigarette. I’m not a hustler or a trader by nature, but dumb curiosity got the best of me. The first night I tried it – I’ll never forget. There were only a handful of us who would dare this and we always made it clear to others how dangerous it was – to keep them from trying it and so improving our middleman status. (To digress, Bill Holden won an Academy Award years later – “Stalog XVII” in which he played an under wire man who survived by sheer bluff.) Anyway, for me it went well, bribed the guard, out again, like in an old prison movie I’m ducking through shadows while a tower searchlight plays on barrack walls. Had no idea what to expect. I’m armed with 20 cigarettes, contribution of one per man. I approach in darkness a huge barn like door and slip inside. As my eyes become accustomed to the gloom I make my way down between huge tables with candles glittering a faint light. I am in a lions’ den. I thought to find Frenchmen. Instead I find Mongol faces, red-eyed and watchful peering out of the darkness at this creature from Mars. Russians! You whistle in a graveyard. Without hesitation I slip into my Mr. Nice Guy bit, casual salute, “Hi, comrades, Hi, Hello” a cocky kid from Jersey. Silence. One of them detaches himself, is made to understand I am American (not British or French). A murmur of approval, they are babbling now. I’m lead down to the big chief himself, an ugly brute, who silently ladles out some potatoes, stuffs my pockets with them, has the interpreter tell me he is being cheated with only 20 cigarettes, but will be big about it. I’m in no position to argue but manage to charm my way out to the door. Christ, I profited 5 potatoes and a lifetime bizarre experience.
Next night, now knowing were the French were, I made my way, no cigarettes. A Frenchman came out of the shadows with a long loaf of white bread under his arm. I traded off my sweater. He was delighted. White bread was like cake in those days. He took me to his barrack’s leader and over ersatz coffee he showed me a packet of concentrated jam (to be melted down.) I had to have it, like a drug addict needs heroin. For months I hadn’t tasted sugar in any form. The next day I was like a guy possessed. I raffled off a handful of potatoes and some baby onions I had gotten somewhere. Cigarette a chance. 20 gamblers, 20 cigarettes. I really was a hustler, a damn huckster. That night got my prize jam packet, hid it in my shirt, unable to sleep, gnawed at it like a rat. By morning it was gone. Bon appetit.
A few days later it ended. An American kid lay dead halfway under the wire. The elderly guard weeping, trying to explain that orders had come down to shoot on sight. The guy’s jacket held a handful of carrots and potatoes. (I notice a matter of fact disposition as I write this. Too long ago to feel any particular emotion.)
The Russians are herded into a pen daily to grovel for garbage, mostly carrot tops. About 1 minute of groping into the mud they are chased out. We watch through barbed wire. One day a lone Russian refused to leave. A huge German guard with bull-whip charges in, slashing at the Russki, he thumbs his nose at the guard and goes on probing. He just didn’t give a damn.
There’s more of the same but it’s leading to overkill. It gets better now.
The month of April ’45 was no doubt the most climactic time in WWII. The Americans had captured the bridge at Remagen and were pouring across the Rhine. The Russians had reached the Oder River 50KM from Berlin. Hitler had returned to his bunker in Berlin never to be seen again.
We are marched out first week in April, headed West again now, and North on the Elbe River. We sleep in barns and cellars, one in which we are entombed inside an elongated coffin-like potato bin. The door slams shut for the night. We arrive at Stendahl on the Elbe approx. April 10th. We bed down in straw, starving now. The town is quiet, but the next morning all hell breaks loose. You’ve seen mob scenes in movies. The 1st American spearheads were some miles away. People everywhere were rushing through the streets in all directions. Warehouses were being looted for food. Box-cars were broken into, one containing a large shipment of ladies’ hats, neatly packaged. A certain madness was in the air. We were lined up and headed towards the Americans, to be handed over. White bed sheets were hung from windows as a sign of surrender. A Russian prisoner rolls a barrel of butter down the street, is ignored by the crowd. A drunken German officer weaves crazily down the street on a bicycle singing lustily. German troops passed us in retreat, sweating, their eyes glaring at us. We are outside the town now, on a country road, the first popping of small arms fire can be heard. Suddenly shells fall around us, we scatter into groups. That afternoon I am with a batch of 50 British and American prisoners. We make our way back to the Elbe, just south of Stendahl. We find a huge mansion converted into a hospital, with German wounded bloody and bandaged in rooms and hallways. We are placed into an attic overlooking the front yard. After a few days here, it is a Sunday eve, a patrol of young Germans armed to the teeth are seen from our loft, inquiring about us. The doctor in charge berates them for being in a “safe” zone, his authority prevails, and they leave, reluctantly.
The next morning, Monday April 16th, I start my long sleepwalk back to freedom. I go down the stairs, walk unconcerned through hallways of wounded, blissfully nod a hello to the old German guard sitting by a tree trunk on the front lawn. His reply, something like Gute Morgan – Deutchland kaput. Hunger has numbed my senses. There are no shouts, no bullet in the back as I continue my morning stroll away from the house. I have loony thoughts about finding berries. The weather is perfect, sunny. As I near the roadside I instinctively duck into the bushes, only to find two other guys there already. We set out across the road, over an open field carrying bundles of brush hoping to pass as peasants. The Germans on the Eastern bank are not fooled, they drop a shell 50 yards directly in front of us. We dash sideways, rush into the woods, panting from sudden exertion. We continue westward through the brush. I find an American candy wrapper on the trail, and it was like a band had struck up “Stars and Stripes Forever”. We stumble on in open country, climb a rise in the road and there it all was. As far as the eye could see, American cannon, tanks, lined up wheel to wheel. America at the peak of its power. America the beautiful! The troops there watched us as we staggered down the slope towards them. They embraced us as tenderly as though we were broken children. Tears in the eyes of some. We were back with our own. Back in the real world. We were lead to headquarters where we gave directions to the hospital. Within hours the other 50 were tracked back to freedom.
I am given a house in Stendahl practically to myself. Beautiful furnishings. I take three baths, have a hot meal, fresh uniform. I see my face in a mirror for the first time. I lay on a huge bed staring at the ceiling, Tommy Dorsey music is playing on the radio. I had gone from Hell to Heaven in only a matter of hours. Excitement fills me. I cannot sleep at all. I wander out and down into the town (Stendahl) where I had been a prisoner only days before. I find a warehouse, enter curiously, all the paraphanelia of war hangs spookily on the walls, gas masks, rifles, bayonets. I find a candle, sit down to write a letter, the tables around have half eaten bowls of pea soup, crusts of bread, as though the occupants had left hurriedly. I’m still having trouble believing the long nightmare is over.
Doreen was first into the room, pigtails flying. The family gathers joyfully. Only a few days before Mother had finally received my letter, the mailman made a special knock at our Carmen Street door. Dad broke down with relief at his desk in Philadelphia. Now we were together at last.
Let the camera pan high above sunny green tree tops, white frame homes below on a suburban street, American flags poke from front porches. Sons are returning home. It is the last sweet slice of Americana for me.
A mile across town little Janie Engel complete with shirt-tail hung out over blue jeans, bobby socks, and moccasins is finishing her first year of high school and looking forward to a summer vacation.
Many Thanks to Carol Kelly for her help in creating this page.
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