Visit to WWII battle site lets siblings connect with father in a 'personal way'
PITTSFIELD — Walt Kelly's eight children knew he was part of the Allied invasion of Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944.
For years, that's all they knew.
Kelly rarely spoke to his five daughters and three sons about his role during the turning point in the European theater of World War II.
"He would never go down that track," said Paula (Kelly) Saunders.
The family's patriarch usually avoided any conversation about his nearly three years as a private in the Army, the majority of which was spent overseas preparing, before engaging the enemy during Operation Overlord, the military code name for D-Day. The Pittsfield native survived the invasion and remained in Europe until the end of the war in 1945.
"He didn't want to talk about it because he lost so many friends during the war," said David Kelly.
With the 75th anniversary of D-Day approaching, the seven surviving siblings — sister Catherine died in 2006 — decided last Christmas that they needed to visit Normandy. The pilgrimage in early May was important to connect with a "wonderful, kind man in a historical, yet personal way" that the Kellys never did when their father was alive, said Patricia (Kelly) Taylor.
"We wanted to see how one young soldier from Pittsfield landed at Normandy and had the courage to face and defeat the Nazis," she said. "We were inspired to find the part he played in one of the world's most enormous historical events."
Walter P. Kelly's part in "the greatest generation" began March 23, 1923, when he was born, one of seven children to James and Ellen Kelly.
He would attend, but not graduate from, St. Joseph Central High School in Pittsfield.
Kelly served in the Army from roughly 1942-43 to 1945, but the exact dates are sketchy, as the family couldn't access their father's military records. Kelly's military career documents were destroyed July 12, 1973, when fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis consumed 80 percent of the documents of Army veterans discharged from November 1912 to January 1960.
After the war, Kelly worked for 20 years as a custodian at Pittsfield High School, until 1967, when he moved his family to Springfield for a new job. The Kelly family returned to Pittsfield in 1976, when Walt joined General Electric as a machinist in its ordnance department, retiring in February 1984.
The elder Kelly died in July of that year at Berkshire Medical Center, after a short illness.
Growing up, the Kelly children learned bits and pieces about their father's role in the Normandy invasion 75 years ago. They found out that he drove a DUKW, or "duck" boat, which delivered supplies from ship to shore, gradually learning over time about the significance — and the deadly danger — of operating such a vessel.
Kelly was with the Army's 459th Transportation Corps Amphibious Truck Company, part of the 5th Engineering Special Brigade. The 459th was one of three truck companies assigned to the initial assault.
"We knew the basic history of the landing, but it wasn't until we went to the beaches with Jozef that we really understood what happened," Taylor said.
Jozef Prihoda was the tour guide who led the Kellys to various invasion landmarks, including the Omaha Beach monument that honors the 5th Engineering Special Brigade.
Prihoda's research on behalf of the Kellys found that a large majority — 41 — of the duck boats with the three companies were lost at sea during the invasion because of overloading, sunk in high seas or were damaged when they reached the shore. With duck boat drivers being up front, in the line of fire, Walt Kelly was fortunate to survive the landing, according to his children and the tour guide.
"Personally, I am not even surprised your father did not want to talk to you about the war," Prihoda wrote the Kellys after they returned home from France. "Landing at Omaha Beach ... your father must have seen the beach and whole Normandy countryside as from a horror movie."
The Kellys' tour began May 2, with visits to Utah Beach and Pointe du Hoc, where Army Rangers scaled the cliffs overlooking Omaha Beach in a well-celebrated assault re-created in the D-Day movie "The Longest Day."
The trip reached an emotional peak on the second day, not far from the Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer that honors the U.S. servicemen who died on European soil during World War II.
Near the cemetery, the Kellys found the name of the 459th company etched in the Omaha Beach monument.
"Immediately, I lost control and began to cry," said Denise Kelly.
The Kellys finally felt a connection to their father — and each other — that they hadn't felt before their visit.
"That was the pinnacle of our trip," Saunders said.
Peter Kelly added: "I could have gone home at that point."
The trip continued, though, with the Kellys making an unexpected connection with the French.
The American tourists returned to Utah Beach for food, drink and camaraderie at Le Roosevelt Cafe in Saint-Marie-du-Mont. The Kellys found very welcoming the eatery built over a German bunker next to the Utah Beach D-Day Museum.
Visiting American World War II veterans and/or their relatives are encouraged to sign the interior walls. As the Kellys added their names, the cafe staff asked them to send a photo of their father to be put up next to their signatures.
Wherever the group went, the locals treated them like celebrities.
"How emotional it was that the people living there wanted to take pictures with us," said Mark Kelly.
The Kellys moved on to Paris for several days of sightseeing, but it didn't compare to seeing where their father helped turn the tide of the war in Western Europe.
"This has been a wonderful life-changing experience for all of us," Barbara Kelly-Kinney said.
The change was a better understanding of Walter P. Kelly, the soldier, and others who have served, fought and/or died defending freedom.
"I appreciated my father's humility and that he didn't want any praise," Denise Kelly said.
Peter Kelly added: "My outlook on veterans makes me more aware and appreciative of them."
Dick Lindsay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 413-496-6233.
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