By MICAH HENRY
At first, you wouldn’t think Corporal John David “J.D.” Keller is 94 years old. He stands up straight and tall, speaks with clarity of thought, and recalls details of events and conversations from over 70 years ago, back during his time in the U.S. Marines during World War II. That’s when you realize J.D. has seen a few more winters than you first guessed.
J.D. moved to Alexander County from Lincolnton a few years after World War II ended. His parents, Anderson Keller and Ida Pennell Keller, lived in the Ellendale area, near Dover Church, before he was born. They later moved to Kannapolis, where factory work was available. J.D., born in 1925, is youngest and the last living member of his siblings.
His mother worked in the sewing room at Cannon Mills in Kannapolis. The family lived in a mill company house.
“I was two years old when my dad died,” said J.D., “and I was eleven and a half years old when Mom died of cancer. At that point, only me and my sister Bessie were left living at home; the rest had moved off.”
The company gave J.D. and Bessie only a few days to vacate the home. Bessie went to live with their sisters. J.D. lived with his brothers for a few years. Both knew they were a burden on their siblings’ families as times were hard during the Great Depression.
At 16, J.D. got a job at Cannon Mills. He worked there a couple years, then had to report for the draft at age 18.
The potential recruits were herded into a big room and told to disrobe. They were checked all day by a series of about 21 doctors for various health tests. Out of J.D.’s group, of about 50 to 100 men, an official told them that there had never been a draftee in the Marine Corps, but said 10 would “volunteer” to become Marines.
“They called my name, the first one. And they got the ten people that they wanted,” he said.
The others got to leave the base, but J.D. and the new Marines had to stay all weekend. The following Monday, they went through eight more doctors and were finally accepted for basic training.
Marine Basic Training for J.D. was taught at Parris Island, South Carolina. He was then sent for more training, and was assigned to guard the Goose Creek Ammo Dump. Marine commanders assembled a large group to report to out west; the men were sent on a passenger train to the Marine base in California.
From there, a week or two later, J.D. and many others were put on an aircraft carrier and shipped to Hilo, Hawaii, where the 5th Marine Division had a base at the “Dust Bowl” (an extinct volcano). J.D. trained with that division and went into the 26th Battalion.
“We went to the last one of several islands the Marines had already taken,” J.D. recalls. “The Fifth and the Third Marine Divisions went to Iwo Jima. But I did not even have to get off the ship. I didn’t want to. But I was trained for several different things. I was universal. If they needed me, they’d call me and send me in. I was qualified for .30 caliber rifle (M1), qualified for tripod machine guns, qualified to shoot a Bazooka, Browning and Reising machine guns, BAR, several things. I was at Iwo Jima, but I was in the reserves on the ship. There were probably 100 or 200 of us on the ship. They never did call me. They called very few out of the group.”
Then, it was back to Hilo, Hawaii, and the Dust Bowl. Leaders filled up the Marine division again, and put the men back on ships. The Marines were not informed of their destination. J.D. thought they would deploy to another island. However, the 1st Division, 5th Divison, and others were put in a convoy.
“I found out later we were going to Japan,” J.D. said. “While we were in that convoy, as far your natural eyes could see were ships loaded with people. They had battleships on all sides of the group. Come to find out, [Japan] had surrendered because they had dropped that [atomic] bomb on Nagasaki [August 9, 1945]. We were all set up for invasion.”
Since the troops were so close to Japan, leaders decided to deploy them, but to have them in a peacekeeping role. They were sent ashore in multiple waves in Higgins boats. Weapons were loaded, just like in regular battles. When they hit the shore, the troops circled back up, and went on in to the targets.
“Our group took Sasebo, Japan,” J.D. explained. “We went in there and took over the whole town. We had our ammunition and everything, but we couldn’t carry a round in the chamber of the rifle. After about two weeks had gone by, they took all our ammunition up.”
On September 2, 1945, the surrender of Japan was signed in Tokyo harbour on the battleship Missouri, according to the Encyclopedia Brittanica.
J.D. and the other Marines walked street patrols in Sasebo.
“It would make the hair stand up on your head, I tell you it would,” J.D. said. “You’d walk down the street and you’d see nobody but the Japanese police, and they didn’t have a weapon. The only thing they had was a sword on their side. They’d step off the street when you come walking down through there. We patrolled that way about four weeks.”
J.D. was issued a Reising machine gun at first, which he didn’t like due to its tendency to rise up off its intended target due to recoil. About two weeks later, he was instead issued a Browning machine gun. Both were .45 Auto caliber. After another two to three weeks, all the machine guns were taken back and patrols relied on sidearms.
“After that, the Japanese started discharging all these soldiers, what was left, the kamikaze, or death, pilots. When that happened, the kamikazes thought everyone was supposed to bow down to them and step off the streets when you walked by them, such as that. Me and my buddy — you never walked by yourself — we walked the street.”
“I got tired of walking all the time. I got tired of messing with the kamikazes and stuff like that. They didn’t want to step off the street, so I’d take the machine gun off my shoulder and r-r-r-r-rap! Then they’d step off the street. But nobody shot anybody, not even close to where I was at,” J.D. recalled.
The city had buildings with stores in the first floors and living quarters above them.
“You’d walk down the street and you wouldn’t see anybody. They had plank things over the windows, sort of like shutters. You’d turn around real quick and see one or two of them looking out, and they’d slam those shutters real fast. That makes you feel sort of funny. If they had a weapon, they might shoot you in the back or something,” he recalled.
Not long afterward, J.D. began serving as an MP (Military Police). Then, he was transferred to work as a prison guard. J.D. worked there about a month, and his superior told him he was able to go back to the MPs. However, J.D. preferred the controlled environment of the prison to the streets of Sasebo and worked on another couple months at the prison.
J.D. was in Japan about eight months. Then, he was tasked with picking a group of guards and getting a group of prisoners back to the United States. Prisoners were placed in the gun turret of the ship and food was carried to them. J.D. issued his guards a solid white arm band to help them. This allowed the guards to advance to the head of the chow line, saving them up to an hour’s wait at meals.
The ship came back to the U.S. through the Panama Canal.
“It’s something to see,” said J.D. “One link of chain on the lock gates weighs 40 pounds. That’s a big chain.”
They came back to the U.S. at Norfolk, Virginia.
J.D. was discharged and came back to Kannapolis after the war. There, he met Frances Blankenship, who would later become his wife. They dated several months. J.D. worked for CV Supply Company, delivering building supplies, for about two years. He still recalls his first car, a 1933 Ford, with doors that opened to the front (rear hinged).
They soon moved to Hiddenite, near where Frances’ family lived. J.D. got a job with Steele Furniture Company for a while, then was hired at the new Broyhill Furniture plant in Taylorsville. He worked there 29 1/2 years until he retired. Frances worked for several years at Beauty Maid Mills in Statesville.
At age 36, J.D. started attending Mt. Nebo Baptist Church, where he still attends and is a deacon.
Frances died in 2014. J.D. and Frances’ son, also named John, lives next door to J.D.
“A lot of people tell me, ‘I wish I had a memory as good as yours!’ I tell them, all you have to do, is use it. That’s what God put it in there for!”