When exploring the lives of military heroes, one often finds their battlefield achievements bordering on the super-human. No way could mere mortals face such overwhelming odds and live to tell about them with a sense of humility and grace, saying that they merely did their jobs, which further grips us in awe of them.

Take Charles E. Kelly for example. Born into poverty in 1920 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as one of eight brothers, he enlisted in May, 1942, and found himself looking through bars of a stockade twice for going AWOL. Later he admitted he just needed time alone and never considered the consequences of his infractions. Hardly a promising start to his superiors.

Yet, like another celebrated warrior named Audie Murphy, whose inauspicious beginnings and frequent visits to sick bay almost kept him from ever firing a shot, such deeds can be deceiving. As he deployed in September 1943, as part of the amphibious group bound for the beaches of Salerno, Italy, one could surmise, not even he could have imagined the feats he would accomplish in the coming days. One of which would leave jaws agape after it was discovered that one man had pretty much done it all.

Private Kelly landed ashore as part of L Company, 143rd Infantry Regiment, 36th Infantry Division and experienced his first combat on September 10th. He began volunteering for dangerous missions immediately, with one of these occurring September 13th, when he started a crawl some two miles across a no man’s land filled with artillery and sniper fire to scout an occupied hill. With close calls from beginning to end he succeeded, and returned with vital information. Private Kelly selected three men and set out again to scout the area around the town of Altavilla.

Charles 'Commando' Kelly
Charles ‘Commando’ Kelly

They soon encountered several enemy positions which spewed fire at them. Kelly, in the lead, began assaulting, firing and hurling grenades wherever the enemy dared shoot from. Nothing could stop him as he cleared each emplacement and moved to next in methodical fashion until the fighting ended, and he stood alone as enemy bodies lay sprawled all around him.

Those with him reckoned he had just killed forty Germans.

Later in the day, he went into Altavilla, now held by the U.S., to retrieve badly needed ammunition. He organized a chain of troops nearly three quarters of a mile long to pass the ammunition to the distribution area. He then was ordered to secure a three story ammunition store house beside the town square. The Germans had tried a push into the town earlier, so tensions were high. As day fell to night, he watched and listened from the second floor window for telltale signs of enemy movement. With a handful of other soldiers downstairs but alone up in the window, he waited for the first rays of dawn when he would be relieved.

The German army had other ideas.