War hero recalled at local museum

STEUBENVILLE – The heroism of a World War II veteran will be remembered with a permanent display at the Jefferson County Historical Association Museum, one of several new features showcased at an open house there Saturday.

Bob Martin, a member of the association’s board, said he first encountered Charles E. “Commando” Kelly when the Army veteran made a stop in Zanesville during a tour promoting war bonds. Martin was 16 then and admits his interest in the Medal of Honor recipient was spurred by hero worship.

Over the years, he read many articles about Kelly, who was awarded the highest honor given to service members for valor and acts above and beyond the call of duty.

According to the Congressional citation accompanying the award, Kelly and other members of the Army’s 36th Infantry Division were holed up in an ammunition storehouse under enemy fire in Altavilla, Italy. Kelly held off the advancing German troops, first with gunfire and then by lobbing mortar shells through the window, until his fellow soldiers could evacuate.

Martin brought with him several items belonging to Kelly, including the Medal of Honor, Silver Star and Bronze Star awarded to him and the Pennsylvania Medal of Honor license plate presented to the Pittsburgh native and other Medal of Honor recipients from the Keystone State by then-Gov. Dick Thornburgh.

Martin said years ago he purchased the Medal of Honor, something he noted since has been made illegal, punishable with a year in prison or $250,000 fine. Other items Kelly gave him when a cousin of Kelly’s arranged for Martin to meet his hero in the late 1970s.

Despite his early fascination, Martin shared an honest account of Kelly, noting like anyone, he had flaws. He said Kelly’s carefree nature led him more than once to overextend his approved leaves of absence, causing him to be declared AWOL, though there was little question he would return to service.

Martin said days following Kelly’s honorable discharge, as a technical sergeant, were sad. His first wife died of cancer at age 29, and he estranged himself from his second wife and children.

Martin said it’s very likely that Kelly suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome as he spent much of his post-war life wandering the country and downplayed the various military honors he received.

Martin, who often accompanied Kelly for such commendations, said there were other reasons Kelly didn’t embrace his status as war hero.

“He was a very quiet man, not a speaker. He told me he had only an eighth-grade education and didn’t feel comfortable with public speaking,” he said.

The open house also was attended by Herbert Christian Jr. of Steubenville, who brought the Medal of Honor awarded posthumously to his father, Herbert Sr.

The Medal of Honor citation issued to Christian’s widow states he was in battle near Valmatone, Italy, when, despite losing his leg to cannon fire, he charged the German troops, shooting and killing at least six and creating a diversion that allowed his fellow soldiers to escape before he was shot dead himself.

Charlie Green, vice president of the Jefferson County Historical Association, said Christian is one of six Jefferson County residents, dating from the Civil War to World War II, who were awarded the Medal of Honor.

The open house also showcased the museum’s newly expanded medical room, which includes an X-ray unit used by a mobile army surgical hospital in the Korean War and an assortment of antique medical devices; and a replica of a 1920 bathroom with hair and beauty accessories of that period.

Located at 426 Franklin Ave., the museum is open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday. For information, call (740) 283-1133.

(Scott can be contacted at wscott@heraldstaronline.com.)