95-year-old veteran who was wounded in neck by sniper fire recounts WWII experience
Kyle Barnett - Aug 15, 2013
Richard Keller was leading a combat unit on the front lines at Bougainville Island in the Solomon Islands when he was shot by a sniper.
It was 1942, and the 24-year-old Hahnville native had just been elevated to the rank of captain and was overseeing the movement of around 200 troops.
The invasion of Bougainville Island was Keller’s fourth occupation in the Pacific front since the war began in late 1941.
Although Keller had been through three previous invasions, it was not until Bougainville that his unit saw any heavy action.
"Bougainville was larger than the other islands and it had more of a Japanese presence," he said.
Keller’s units had been in skirmishes before, but they had only been minor up until this point. The set up at Bougainville was different given that around 25,000 Japanese troops were stationed on the island.
It was during this battle that things went bad for them for the first time. The night before, Keller’s unit had lost some men in firefights. Now, the next day, they were trying to take more ground.
"I was taking calls from my commanding officer and I was trying to give orders to my men, but he kept calling. The last time I turned to get the call a sniper shot me through the neck," he said.
Keller was knocked to the ground, but remained conscious.
"It felt like I got smacked by a two by four," he said.
Pointing to his Adam’s apple, Keller said he felt lucky.
"A couple of men had been shot right through here and had their spinal cords severed, but I guess when I leaned over to pick up the phone the bullet passed through the side of my neck and my back," he said.
Even though he was bleeding through his neck and did not yet know the extent of his injuries, Keller said he was not afraid of dying. The now 95-year-old put the situation into perspective.
"The big thing about the war was that you were in charge of people and you can’t be worried about what is going to happen to yourself. You’ve got to be worried about what is going to happen to everybody because that is your responsibility," he said.
He was taken to a field hospital for emergency treatment.
"When the guys brought me in, the doctors saw where I had been shot and said ‘put him over there. If he is alive we’ll take care of him later,’" he said.
Although his lung had collapsed, he was successfully treated and spent a number of months recuperating.
It was a long road from Hahnville to the middle of the Pacific.
His first step was as part of the first class to attend the old Hahnville High School located on River Road next to the courthouse. Following graduation in 1935, Keller went to LSU where he enrolled in the Routine Officer Training Corps program and later graduated in 1939 with a Bachelor degree is General Science.
About two years later he was called to active duty as a second lieutenant in the infantry of the 37th Division based out of Ohio.
"The unit was first made up solely of Ohio National Guard members," he said. "And then me and other officers I knew from Louisiana came up there and were the first outsiders to join the unit."
Although Adolf Hitler had taken control of the German government in the early 1930s, and the Japanese military had been engaged in a campaign against the Chinese mainland and surrounding island communities, the war was far away from the United States.
"Europe was way over here and Asia was way over there so we didn’t think we’d ever get into battle," he said. "We didn’t actually see any threats in the United States."
Plus the unit was not equipped for war. The only equipment they had was leftover rifles and helmets from World War I.
"We had ‘03s left that they had used in World War I and flat front helmets," Keller said.
But better equipment soon began to arrive. Troops from all over the country started to join he unit as well. It was clear that the country was gearing up for a battle, but most soldiers were still not expecting to see any action.
"A lot of them were just guys who had regular jobs coming from little towns. They expected to drill for about a year and then be able to go back home," he said.
Then the group was ordered back to Keller’s home state for the Louisiana Maneuvers that took place in the central and northern areas, where troops spent a hot June and July sleeping in the outdoors in a mock battlefield. After wrapping up those exercises the unit moved to Camp Shelby, located just south of Hattiesburg, where they remained until Dec. 1941.
On Dec. 7, one of Keller’s fellow officers came running into his tent.
"He threw back the flap and told us Pearl Harbor had just been bombed," he said. "I said ‘where the hell is Pearl Harbor?!’ But that’s when we knew it was going to happen, we were going to war."
Within a few weeks the 37th Division was transported to Pennsylvania, but a transport ship that was being renovated to carry troops to Europe caught fire while under construction and the unit received orders to move again.
"They loaded us all up on a train and sent us to San Francisco," he said. "I knew a lot of guys who said they’d be happy to go to the European front, but did not want to go to the Pacific. But at that time they were attacking North Africa so I was more than happy to be headed to the Pacific."
The 37th Division’s first orders were to secure perimeters around airfields on islands in the Pacific. Their first stop was Fiji where they did not meet any resistance. Then they went on to Guadalcanal.
"Fiji was nice, it was not the tourist destination it is now. It was primitive, but it was nice," he said. "Guadalcanal was a bit different. It was a larger island, but most of it had been coconut and palm groves. Our job was to go in and clear out an area to build an airstrip."
At Guadalcanal, Keller got the first taste of what war was like. For the first time they had to live off of C-rations.
"We only had three different meals and all of it came out of cans and packets," he said.
Throughout the rest of Keller’s time in the war he would have extended periods in the field without access to a kitchen.
From Guadalcanal, Keller’s unit moved onto New Georgia where he and his soldiers saw their first extensive action against the enemy.
"We were trying to take territory. Every night we would dig a hole and sleep in it and it would drizzle on us. We would get up the next day, completely soaked, and march and then dig another hole and go to sleep again," he said.
After New Georgia they moved on to Bougainville where Keller was injured and his time on the war front ended. After recuperating from his wounds, he returned to the United States where he was asked to attend the Command and General Staff College and later stayed on as a faculty member for the rest of the war.
"I guess they wanted someone who had actually been in action in the Pacific to teach," he said.
For the remainder of the war, Keller taught at the college before leaving active duty for good at the end of the war in 1945. During his time in service he received the Combat Infantry Badge, Distinguished Service Cross and Purple Heart.
After returning home to St. Charles Parish, Keller did not know what he was going to do for a career after the military.
"I had a general degree in science and I didn’t really know what to do with it so I used the G.I. Bill and went back to LSU and received my teaching credentials. I was fortunate they asked me to stay on and get my master’s degree," he said.
Keller said he always jumped at the chance to receive more education.
"You can always get educated," he said. "There is always something to learn and you pick it up as you go along."
After graduating, he went on to work for St. Charles Parish Public Schools and taught a semester at Des Allemands Elementary before he became the first counselor in the school system’s history. He later moved into administration. In the meantime, he also maintained membership in the Army Reserves, but did not see time in either the Korean or Vietnam wars and retired after a combined 30 years in the military.
In 1980, he also retired from the school system and has maintained a busy volunteer schedule serving for 30 years with the Council on Aging, helping set up the Louisiana Special Olympics and was the first lay person to serve on the State Supreme Court’s Disciplinary Board.
Even now, he volunteers every week with St. Charles Parish Hospital, which he has done for the past 15 years.
Keller said he has been blessed with good health and good luck in his longevity.
"I have been lucky. Of course I was shot, but the big thing is I have remained active," he said. "We just take life easy. The best you can do is live life one day at a time. Yesterday is gone. You can’t live for that."
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