Veterans remember their service

Ken Kelly was used to doing farmwork at the family farm in Coopersville, so he didn't hesitate to sign up for the Navy Seabees - a new construction outfit - when he enlisted during World War II.
Len Painter
Nov 12, 2011

 

Gary Byl’s Marine unit was under attack at the Changjin Reservoir battle in South Korea when a mortar shell exploded, injuring him in the leg. A fellow Grand Haven soldier helped load Byl on the plane that took him to a hospital in Japan.

Max Riekse was situated in the middle of Vietnam, scouting enemy troop positions. He didn’t carry a calendar, so he never knew how long he had been in the jungle until he was handed $50. Riekse sent his pay home and kept $30 a month for himself. Riekse knew he had been in the jungle for some time.

Kelly, 86, of Spring Lake; Byl, 81, of Grand Haven; and Riekse, 64, of Fruitport, will be among the local veterans remembering Veterans Day today — 11/11/11.

Ken Kelly was certain he was going to be drafted, so he joined the Navy Seabees. His farming experience paid off.

“It was fairly common for large families such as ours to do a lot of chores,” Kelly recalled.

He was sent to boot camp in Virginia — where even Seabees were trained in infantry fighting, as well as construction work. He was later sent to Mississippi for more training.

Kelly volunteered for the South Pacific in December 1943. His Seabee battalion left New Orleans on Jan 1, 1944, for assignment in the South Pacific. “That was some trip,” Kelly recalled. The Seabees stayed in cargo holds.

They arrived in New Caledonia. From there, they were sent to Espirotos Santos, an island south of Guadalcanal. His outfit then went to Guadalcanal and finally to New Guinea.

After a short stay, Kelly was shipped to the Admiralty Islands — where his outfit helped build airfields, docks, warehouses, mess halls, Quonset huts and other types of facilities.

“I was a jack of all trades,” he said. “They (U.S. government) wanted to use the islands in preparation for an attack on the Philippines.”

Kelly said he vividly remembers seeing American troops being brought to the islands in body bags. He said that memory is one of the reasons why he is so keen on building a war memorial in Grand Haven — to honor those who lost their lives during World War II and other wars that followed.

After work was done at the Admiralty Islands, Kelly returned to New Caledonia for R&R (rest and relaxation). He then shipped out to Okinawa, where he worked on airfields by driving a tractor. Kelly remembers seeing six U.S. battleships lined up and firing at Japanese positions.

Kelly was discharged on March 15, 1946.

Gary Byl enlisted in the U.S. Marines in 1947. He was among the Marines at the Pusan Perimeter, where Gen. Douglas MacArthur launched an offensive against the North Koreans.

“We cut their supply line in half,” Byl recalled.

Soon after though, the Chinese entered the war. They would attack in droves, Byl said.

“They would travel by night and hide by day,” Byl said. “They (Chinese) suffered horribly, but we lost a lot of soldiers, too.”

Byl’s 7th Marine Regiment was in a fierce battle at the Changjin Reservoir when a mortar came crashing near him. Byl and three of his friends were injured in the blast.

To read more of this story, see today’s print or e-edition of the Grand Haven Tribune.

 

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