Listen to or download this article:
World War II veteran Quinton Kelley recounted his life story to an avid biographer – his daughter, S. L. Kelley, a documentarian and award-winning video producer.
Kelley’s tale begins in Coker Creek, Tennessee, where he was raised on an 80-acre farm, in a log cabin that he described as rough, but “brightened” with flowers. Taught to be honest and hardworking by his parents, he grew up with kerosene lamps for light, a fireplace for warmth and a wood stove for cooking. His recollections are colorful, with language that recalls his roots.
As a boy, he wore shoes only to church or to town and attended a church that doubled as a one-room schoolhouse. Everyone in the region knew someone who made moonshine, “a scruffy bunch,” Kelley called them; the local country store had bullet holes in the walls from fights between that bunch and the storekeeper. In his teens, he began work away from the farm, first for a local gold prospector, then for the TVA. Then in 1940 he heard about World War II and knew he’d be drafted.
The second part of the book shows Kelley leaving Coker Creek for Camp Beale, California, where he became the company carpenter. Assigned to an armored division, the former farm boy showed his worth as the only member of his group who did not need the training to drive a tank. He met fellow recruits from all over America, and despite the manly joshing and rough language among them, the boys in his platoon once generously gave him money to get home when his sister was dangerously ill.
He drove into combat, first in France, then in Germany, as part of an initiative that ultimately saw the end of Hitler’s Third Reich. Kelley (who passed away before the publication of his memoir) did not glorify himself in recounting his war exploits, but vividly described what it’s like to sit in a tank, looking at the action through a tiny window, always in danger of being killed while trapped inside the metal box. There’s not much room, he opined, for mistakes in battle.
In his Tennessee argot, he states that combat “made me a bit jubrous.” Still a homeboy at heart, courting a girl by mail, Kelley noted that French and German people were good farmers, though still using horses, and very orderly in their houses and fields. Camped near Berchtesgaden after victory, he refused to go see Hitler’s former hangout: “I didn’t want to waste a minute on that sorry ol’ scudder.” Once back in the US, marriage to his sweetheart soon followed.
Two books in one, this substantial memoir can be read equally avidly by nostalgic southern and mountain folk as a wide-ranging recreation of simpler times, or by anyone who is drawn to tales of war – both the battles and the long days and hours waiting and watching for the next conflict – as seen up close and personal. Using her writer’s instinct and flair, S.L. Kelley has done a remarkable job of combining her father’s spoken words, his accent, and slant, with those of fellow combatants, and others. Her book would make a splendid gift for old-timers, and a wholesome educational read for younger generations who would do well to remember and revere the sacrifices of America’s soldiers, and a heartfelt recollection that those who make history can be kindhearted and good!
Kiffer’s favorite quote from this book: “…it took all of our personal sacrifices to go from war to peace.” Quinton Kelley