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BattleFire! Combat Stories from World War II, by Colonel Arthur L. Kelly, University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, 1997, $22.

Not long ago, retired U.S. Army Colonel Arthur L. Kelly embarked on a self-imposed, all-too-rare mission. A Kentucky resident and a veteran of World War II, as well as the Korea and Vietnam wars, Kelly felt it was a downright shame that no one was making an effort to collect and record the tales of his fellow World War II veterans from Kentucky as a contribution to that commonwealth’s history. “Their extraordinary war experiences ought to be shared and preserved for posterity,” he explains in the introduction to his book. “They have earned the nation’s gratitude and a space in its public memory.”

No one else was doing the job, so Kelly decided to tackle it himself. He soon accumulated more than 100 taped interviews with fellow WWII veterans, all Kentucky residents. The tapes are safely housed in the Special Collections Department of the Margaret I. King Library at the University of Kentucky. And now 11 narratives based upon those 100-plus interviews have found their way into a book.

“I tried to choose the stories that best represent the breadth and depth of the combat experience,” Kelly explains in his introduction. Thus, the very personal accounts of wartime action (and reaction to those events) range from a young sailor’s experiences at Pearl Harbor, Leyte Gulf and Okinawa to the stories of men caught up in combat at Normandy, New Guinea, Iwo Jima, Monte Cassino and Bastogne. A submariner in the Pacific and a Boeing B-17 crewman flying over Germany are also represented, along with a POW in Germany’s Stalag 17 and a survivor of the horrific Bataan Death March in the Philippines.

The stories “are so dramatic and powerful that no invention on my part was necessary,” says Kelly. “My own voice can only be heard in supplying information that the combatant could not have known at the time. My task was to capture the essence of what the combatants experienced.”

That much Colonel Kelly has accomplished, beyond doubt. Would that every state had an Arthur Kelly collecting the stories of its veterans for posterity.

C. Brian Kelly