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WWII Veteran Tells About Wartime Experiences

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Staff Writer

John Kessler a D-Day veteran visited Roanoke College as a part of a series of seminars representing the school’s Honors Program. 

Kessler was born on June 3, 1921, in Lexington, VA.  Both of his parents were deaf mutes and he learned to speak from his grandparents. After his two sisters were born, he taught them how to speak. Kessler volunteered for the service during the depression before WWII and was assigned to the 29th Infantry, based out of Roanoke VA, the oldest American infantry division that traces back to the American Revolution. 

 In 1942, Kessler attended Officers Candidate School and was promoted from an enlisted soldier to an officer. The young officer was assigned to the 509th Combat Paratrooper Battalion and sent to Northern Africa. He fought the Germans in Africa and then began a tour in Sicily and Southern Italy. 

Kessler continued fighting in Southern France, and then on June 6, 1944, was part of the largest amphibious invasion in history: D-day.  After he invaded Omaha Beach with the 29th Infantry Division of the National Guard in Normandy, France, Kessler was reassigned to the 391st Battalion of the 98th Division. Kessler was also on the front lines in Bastogne, Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge, the infamous Nazi offensive. 

After a long four years of service during the war he finally arrived in Berlin. Kessler was a member of General Eisenhower’s Honor Guard when he made an appearance at the end of the war. 

“I enjoyed my time in combat even though I lost a lot of good friends,” Kessler said.  “I’ve had a good life surrounded by good people.”

The WWII vet told stories of his time in combat and commandeering Nazi motorcycles, “half-tracks” and even a white stallion. The veteran displayed his original collection of WWII gear: rigging knife, WWI bayonet, and even a disarmed grenade. 

Kessler has been hardened from combat but also had a side of good humor.  Kessler said he once punched a German officer in the face when he aggressively refused a personal search.  But the solemnity quickly arose when Kessler spoke of his fallen friends; the 89 year old man was halted by his memories and fought back tears.  His valor and commitment to his men was palpable throughout his stories.

  Kessler experienced over 190 days of combat including 17 jumps. For his dedicated combat, he was awarded five combat stars and 12 medals two of which are the Purple Heart.  His medals were presented to him 40 years after his discharge from the service.

  Ethan Guebert ‘13, a psychology and religion major, attended the speaker.

 “Being from Southside Virginia I was really proud to see someone from our area that had served, and [received] such decorations from the military,” Guebert said.

Kessler still stays active with the remaining WWII veterans.  He Appears in parades and at the D-Day commemorations at the WWII memorial in Bedford, VA.