At Arlington National Cemetery, Section 17, Grave No. 23671-45, is the headstone of Sgt. Lawrence Russell Kelly of Altoona, the first American soldier in Paris for the liberation of France, and the first American soldier wounded as the Nazis were driven out.
Monday marks the 70th anniversary of the Liberation of France. North Carolina resident Donn Smith, a cousin of Kelly, traveled with his wife to France in June. On a gray, rainy day, they took a subway to Saint Cloud, a suburb west of Paris, and walked out to a bridge, the Pont de Saint Cloud. It's a bridge that not only crosses the Seine River but connects Paris with Altoona and the present with the past.
"Roaring down the Rue Dailly... a Jeep shot toward the Saint-Cloud bridge. ... It was Sergeant Larry Kelly, the Pennsylvania Irishman, off to keep his promise to be the first GI into Paris," states the book "Is Paris Burning?"
An uprising in the streets of Paris began Aug. 19, 1944, when word spread that Allied forces were coming.
Since 1940, the French had been living under constant martial law, and the lives of every Parisian at the time were a careful balancing act, trying to make their allegiance to France but also trying to avoid interrogations, torture or execution - "trying to avoid the wrath of the Third Reich," said Penn State Altoona history instructor Jared Frederick.
To finally receive military assistance of American, British and French forces after fighting a guerrilla war elated Parisians, who stirred up an odd combination of jubilation and urban combat in the streets, he said.
About 1,000 members of the French Resistance died between Aug. 19 and when American forces entered en masse. On Aug. 25, Maj. Morel-Deville's column was to enter Paris over the Pont de Saint-Cloud. Determined to be the first American soldier to enter Paris was "a blond Irish giant" from Altoona, a forward observer of the 1193rd Engineers, backing up Morel-Deville's column.
A photo of Kelly that would later be printed in the Altoona Mirror upon his death shows him in uniform, doe-eyed and with a dauntless smile. Born July 31, 1902, to Francis and William Kelly in Altoona, Lawrence Kelly worked at the Pennsylvania Railroad before moving to Washington, D.C., in 1933. He worked as a Navy Yard furnaceman and enlisted for the war in 1942 shortly after Pearl Harbor. His wife, Geraldine, followed him wherever his service took him until he was sent to Normandy, France.
He was proud of his war record. Mirror reports at the time stated he was wounded a number of times during the progress of the 200-mile, two-month invasion campaign in France.
He might have had the geography of Paris' countryside to blame for that. Centuries-old mounds that once divided property and kept animals penned in became "a giant maze of vegetation" between Normandy and Paris. "There's no other way to put it," Frederick said "And every time they move into a new pasture, a machine gun is waiting to mow them down."
But by the end of August, Kelly, a liaison between the French Resistance and the U.S. Army, was, as written in "Is Paris Burning?," "whooping with glee," toward the bridge of Saint-Cloud. It was a radiant summer day, and the Eiffel Tower loomed in the distance, Dr. Mercelle Thomas would later write to Kelly in a letter about that day.
Thomas and his wife, Mademoiselle Marcelle Thomas, saw Kelly's arrival from their second-floor apartment above their pharmacy in Saint Cloud. Mlle. Thomas would become the president of the Kelly memorial committee in Saint Cloud.
"Kelly stepping into that town is a signal that liberation is moments away, and it was the beginning of the end of a terrifying German occupation," Frederick said.
In fact, the French defenders had been so terrified, that Kelly was mistaken by a French gunman to be a German soldier as he crossed the Saint Cloud bridge.
Pair rush to help Kelly
With "five dreadful shots," Dr. Thomas wrote in a letter to Kelly shared with the Mirror after the liberation, "You drop down ... the splendid warrior who arose out of the sea on D-Day came to his journey's end on the pavement of Saint Cloud, just in front of Paris."
Dr. Thomas rushed to Kelly and took him to his pharmacy, where he administered first aid with Mlle. Thomas and his aides.
The author of "Is Paris Burning?" identifies the Frenchman who shot Kelly as fireman Jean David. He had just left a funeral when he saw Kelly on the bridge and shouldered his Mauser.
Kelly's behavior while suffering his severe wounds from that tragic incident impressed Mlle. Thomas "enormously," the book states.
Kelly told those around him in the pharmacy not to blame David. Kelly even passed out to them the pack of cigarettes in his uniform pocket.
He might have hearkened back to the death of his father, a teamster, who was killed in a tragic hunting accident - an accidental discharge of his friend's rifle - when Lawrence was little more than a year old, Mirror archives show.
As a school boy, Kelly was a carrier for the Altoona Mirror, and, at age 15, he lied about his age to serve in World War I, Mirror reports state. Perhaps his eight months of fighting in France during the First World War developed his love for Paris that was described as "mystic" in "Is Paris Burning?"
Clinging to his life in the pharmacy, he "smiled nobly" despite his wounds, a Mirror article later stated. He was in Saint Cloud, in the Thomases' pharmacy only for one hour.
Crowds block streets
Dr. Thomas' account of that hour later written in a letter published in the Mirror states:
"You are carried to the nearest pharmacy: mine. The doctor is sent for and gives you the best attention he can. You suffer terribly. Your face is a ghostly pale and wet with sweat, but you set your teeth, not a cry, not a moan. Two words only from time to time come from your lips. While for more than an hour, I hold your head: 'A drink. Thanks.'"
Kelly's luck, as terrible as it was, probably wasn't unusual for the soldiers who followed after him and made it further into Paris.
"One minute American GIs are being hugged and kissed by jubilant Parisian women, and just a block down they were met by German soldiers taking refuge in last-minute sand-bag bunkers in last ditch effort defenses," Frederick said.
A number of GIs wrote about this moment of liberation. GIs wrote that the biggest traffic jam they ever saw was during the liberation. Crowds blocked their advancement. They didn't mind it. It was like Mardi Gras. Soldiers, drunk off their heels, drove tanks around the city.
"There was a comedic element. It was unlike few other episodes in the annals of the Second World War. It's marked by a rather fascinating balance between entering massive jubilation and lethal urban combat," Frederick said.
Kelly thanked Dr. Thomas again before he lost consciousness in the car transporting him to the hospital in Issy, Thomas' letter states.
Over the next three days, Mlle. Thomas saw Kelly twice for 20 minutes during visiting hours at the hospital. "A sorrowing " Jean David also visited with a gift, a bottle of wine.
Word arrives home
By Sept. 16, Altoona knew Kelly was injured. Two paragraphs appeared under the head "Husband badly hurt in France." It appeared on the same page as notification that a 23-year old was back on duty after being wounded, and other updates on young men in their 20s or early 30s. Kelly, however, was 42.
In fact, he was honorably discharged from WWII when a law passed dismissing men his age from service. But he had re-enlisted.
Kelly was repatriated to the United States on Nov. 7, 1944, and continued to suffer from his wounds. He spent months in a hospital in Virginia, then was transferred to an Army Corps hospital in Miami, Fla. He was discharged in 1945, and Mirror reports stated Geraldine was with him when they returned to Washington. But Kelly moved from his and Geraldine's home in 1946, the Mirror states, because the "climate in Washington, D.C., didn't agree with him." Geraldine stayed in Washington because she had a "responsible position in the government" as an accounting clerk. Kelly returned to Altoona on Jan. 9, 1946, and lived in the Miner Hotel.
Kelly, residing at the hotel, was "amazed," states an Aug. 26, 1946, Mirror article, by reports that his story had been carried in news reports throughout France to the extent that 8,125 Paris citizens signed a memorial to him, "'toasting' him for his gallantry at Saint Cloud" as the first American soldier who entered the town on Liberation Day.
The memorial volume was a-55 pound, red leather-bound testimonial volume titled "We Remember." It was embossed in gold and insured for $16,000. The books contained messages of gratitude and goodwill from the people of Saint Cloud. The books contained 8,125 signatures. It also contained poems drawings and scenes of France.
Among the signers were noted composers, scientists, actors and descendants of French aristocrat and military officer La Fatty. The books close with a message from Dr. Thomas, the pharmacist.
"It is the gratefulness and tender love of a whole corner of France which is throbbing in this book: Royal Princesses and poor old people in the asylum, artists, writers and workmen, shopkeepers and clerks ... officers and soldiers ... little children ... famous men and women, all of them, want to send you a token of their love and remembrance," he wrote.
Books sent to hotel
Kelly, not wanting a public ceremony, requested the books be forwarded to his hotel, but he would never see them. The hero of Saint Cloud died at 9:15 p.m. Oct. 1 1946, as he was transported to the hospital. The books arrived at his hotel 12 hours after his death.
"L.R." Kelly, War Hero Dies of Heart Attack," was the story published on the Altoona Mirror front page Oct. 2, 1946, opposite the headline "New Group of High Nazis facing trial."
A huge garland of double violets, formed in the shape of a cross, was transmitted to the mayor of Altoona by Dr. Thomas on behalf of Saint Cloud, to be set at Kelly's grave in Arlington.
While the flowers and leaves were dried, it was well-preserved as the dedication from the people of Saint Cloud to Kelly would be for years ahead.
Amid news of the post-war world, the Mirror covered the continuing tributes and dedication made by the people of Saint Cloud to the late Sgt. Kelly.
A photo of Altoona's mayor placing the cross of violets at Kelly's grave abutted a story about the indictment of 23 Nazi doctors, including Adolf Hitler's personal physician, "on charges of mass murder in fantastic experiments on human guinea pigs at concentration camps."
Kelly's arrival to the bridge of Saint Cloud symbolized for the people there the end of living under constant martial law; the end of Jews being rounded up on a regular basis - "neighbors you've known your entire life never seen again. People constantly being arrested and interrogated for suspicions you or somebody you know is working in collaboration with the French Resistance," Penn State Altoona's Frederick said.
Prayers for Kelly
In December 1946, Mlle. Thomas wrote to the Mirror about a religious service held for Kelly in the Saint Cloud church the day after Thanksgiving. People arrived from more than 25 miles away. People who had not been in church for 20 years arrived to pray for Kelly and the United States. In schools, teachers gave speeches about the liberation and Saint Cloud's first liberator.
The ownership of the volume of signatures and messages for Kelly became a point of transatlantic dispute. The Mirror reported Geraldine insisted on keeping them, despite the Thomases' wishes that they be given to the Disabled American Veterans in Washington.
"I don't like Washington well enough even to think of giving the books to the Library of Congress," a May 1947 Altoona Mirror article quoted Geraldine as saying. "The books are of no national value, but they are of personal value to me. They are a small enough remuneration for the hours of loneliness I spend."
In 1948, Kelly memorial committee President Mlle. Thomas wrote to the Mirror that the people of Saint Cloud were dedicating a children's sports stadium to Kelly.
And at the bridge where Kelly was shot, the Pont de Saint-Cloud, a plaque remains there on the northeast abutment of the bridge still today.
Smith and his wife saw it in June.
The translation of its French text is: "This plaque is dedicated to Staff Sergeant Lawrence R. Kelly of Altoona, Pennsylvania, who was mortally wounded on 25 August 1944 while entering Saint Cloud in the advanced party of General Patton's liberating Army."