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McCrabb: Medal of Honor recipient was ‘mad man with machine gun’

When Robert Kessler Jr. drives down South Main Street or through Woodside Cemetery and Arboretum in Middletown, his mind flashes back to 1944 and the heroic actions of his uncle, Pfc. Patrick L. Kessler of Middletown.

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There are two somber reminders of his uncle and his gallant efforts during World War II: the armory on Main Street is named in honor of Kessler, a member of Company K, 30th Infantry, 3rd Infantry Division, and one of the 167 white crosses in the World War II section of the cemetery bears his uncle’s name and date of death.

While Kessler Jr. wasn’t born until 1952 — eight years after his uncle was killed on May 25, 1944 — stories of his bravery have been passed down in the Kessler family for generations.

They’re certainly worth retelling, especially on Memorial Day weekend.

“He did some heroic things,” Kessler Jr., 64, said of his uncle. “How he dodged all those bullets. That had to be an act of God.”

A retired house painter, Kessler Jr. paused, then, like he was adding paint to his brush, told this colorful tale: “He was a mad man with a machine gun. You can picture that.”

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Unfortunately, portraits of World War II veterans are fading too fast. On average, 372 members of what has been called The Greatest Generation die every day. Only 620,000 Americans who served in World War II were alive two years ago, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

It won’t be long before there are no World War II veterans alive. That will be a sad day in our history.

Kessler earned the nation’s highest award — the Congressional Medal of Honor — for his “action involving actual conflict with the enemy” and distinguished himself “by gallantly and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty.”

President Abraham Lincoln authorized a bill that created the Medal of Honor on Dec. 21, 1861 and since then, nearly 3,500 military personnel have received the award, including more than 10 from Butler County.

Kessler was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously on Jan. 4, 1945.

The 22-year-old earned his medal for action in the Battle of Anzio, which began in early 1944. On May 23, 1944, the Allies were near Ponte Rotto, Italy. This is when Kessler, acting without orders, raced 50 yards through a hail of machine gun fire that had killed five of his soldiers and halted the advancement of his company.

He snaked his way to the enemy machine gun, killed the gunner and his assistant, captured the third soldier and injured the fourth. He then grabbed a machine gun from a wounded soldier, killed another gunner and captured 13 Germans.

If Kessler’s life was made into a movie, this is where the theater audience would have clapped.

His nephew laughed at the thought of Kessler killing so many Germans.

“We’re part German,” Kessler Jr. said. “Think about that.”

Then, two days later — nearly 74 years to the day ago — as the two Allied armies united in the advance toward Rome, Kessler was killed.

Two months later, he would have been 23 — “still a young man,” his nephew said.

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