Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
U.S. Navy veteran Jim Keele doesn’t like to talk about his experiences in World War II, and with good reason.
The retired Seaman 1st Class – who described himself as a Tennessee farm boy when the war began – had a front-row seat for two of history’s bloodiest battles.
Seventy-five years ago today, he was an 18-year-old gunner on a landing craft ferrying troops to Omaha Beach on D-Day.
“I saw a lot of people get killed that day,” said the Sandia Park resident, who is a few days shy of his 94th birthday. “I was on a Higgins boat, taking troops to shore. Half the people would get killed before they got to shore.”
The landing craft he was on “got hit, too, got damaged,” he said.
“But we were able to make it back to the States,” Keele said.
He will be among 13 New Mexico veterans from the war participating in a commemoration ceremony of the 75th anniversary of D-Day today at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. They will lay wreaths after flying to the nation’s capital on an honor flight that also includes Korean and Vietnam veterans.
Keele said he’s happy to be participating with his fellow veterans, who will also be visiting Arlington National Cemetery, the Iwo Jima and Air Force memorials, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Korean War and Vietnam memorials on the National Mall.
He’s proud of his service, saying, “I feel like I did my part.”
Still, his son Chuck said, he keeps those war experiences “buried.”
“I think I’ve heard more from him (about the war) in the last few days than I’ve heard my entire life,” Chuck Keele said.
“I’ve seen too much of it,” the elder Keele said. “It brings back too many memories. I came home, and I owned guns. I took a sledgehammer and busted up all of my guns. I said, ‘I’ll never kill another person.’ ”
And he wasn’t done seeing the carnage after D-Day.
The transport ship he was stationed on returned to Norfolk, Virginia, after the invasion of Normandy. He quietly celebrated his 19th birthday on the voyage back to the States.
“From there, they put me on a train and sent me to the West Coast in San Diego,” Jim Keele said. “They already put a crew on the LST (ship) I was supposed to be on. We were there for about 10 days or more. They took of 10 of us. They said, ‘You 10 guys are going to Camp Pendleton to train with the Marines.’ ”
That didn’t sit too well with him.
“Of course, they (the Marines) tried to kill us,” he said. “The Marines and the Navy didn’t get along that well. I trained with the Marines and went in the invasion of Okinawa.”
His participation in one of the bloodiest battles of the war in the Pacific, included helping build the airport as part of the Navy Seabees, a construction battalion.
He made it through the battle unscathed. But he was wounded by a sniper after the surrender of Japan.
“There were a few snipers on Okinawa who weren’t aware of the surrender,” he said.
D-Day and the Battle of Okinawa were only parts of Keele’s journey after he enlisted in the latter part of 1942.
“I was all of 17 years old,” said Keele, who grew up in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. “I lied about my age.”
He wanted to be an electrician in the Navy, But he was told the Navy needed gunners and not electricians.
Keele was sent to Mississippi for training.
“We did our gunnery training on World War I battleships,” he said.
At the time, they were putting gunners on merchant ships. And that’s where he was assigned.
“My first trip out, they gave us .50-caliber machine guns,” Keele said. “What are you going to do with .50-caliber machine guns except shooting at submarines? We loaded up with tanks and guns and took them to North Africa for (Gen. George) Patton. Our orders were, ‘Don’t let them take the ship. Let them sink the ship.’ ”
On another trip, he was on a ship that delivered supplies to Russia.
“On our way back, we got sunk,” he said. “We got picked up by a rescue ship from Canada in a convoy. They had big convoys back at that time. There were maybe 30 to 40 ships in a convoy. They took me to Halifax, Nova Scotia. I was in the hospital there. I had gotten pneumonia.”
He recovered and later served on a merchant ship that took supplies to Egypt.
“We made it back, but we got into a hurricane,” Keele said. “It was pretty rough riding.”
After that trip, he was assigned to a troop transport ship.
“And that’s when I went to Normandy,” he said.
Keele said that he was happy when the war ended and that he hitchhiked to Ohio when it was over. It’s a story he said he’d never told his family.
He lived in Akron, Ohio, where he had family, for a few years, and he lived in North Carolina for a time. Keele ended working for Trans World Airlines and later for NASA at Cape Canaveral, Fla., from the early days of the space program through time with the shuttle program.
After the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986, he created a zip line to help astronauts escape the shuttle in case of an emergency.
“I was the first to test it,” Keele said. “I was the first to ride it.”
He and his wife, Kathy, settled in New Mexico because of her health.