Remembering an old soldier

59911624_428592601288375_1450526308307042304_nVillisca has always had military heroes. But as time passes, the town’s collective memories of old soldiers pass away and modern day Villiscans don’t remember those heroes as they once did. I’m not suggesting they’re no longer honored. But perhaps they’re not remembered as they might be. The Review was aware of this “problem” and sometimes wrote a column or an article about one of the town’s old soldiers.

It seems appropriate for this Memorial Day to recall one of the heroes of yesteryear. Here’s what the Review wrote almost 96 years ago.


To serve his country in three wars and still be here to tell about it is surely an unusual record, but such is the experience of Capt. William A. Kelley, veteran of the Spanish-American war, Mexican border warfare and the world war. And such a record is worthy of special mention as one of the outstanding features in the history of this community, and for that reason is mentioned here…Captain Kelley is the only man in this community with such a record.

Although Captain Kelley is still here to tell about his experiences in the wars in which he has taken part, he doesn’t do much telling except to give the specific information for which he is asked. It’s a way that soldiers who have been real soldiers have about them, they are not anxious to recount the unpleasant experiences they have gone through on the battle fields or to tell of their acts of bravery.

Captain Kelley was born April 4, 1874, on the farm four miles southwest of Villisca which is now owned by John Brannan. He came to Villisca in 1897, and in April 1898, he went as a private with Company B, 55th I.N.G. to San Francisco, Calif., leaving there on October 3 of that year for the Philippine Islands where he fought in defense of his country’s flag, arriving at San Francisco on Oct. 22, 1899, on his return home with his company.

Company B was mustered out in San Francisco in November 1899, and when it was reorganized in Villisca in December of that year Private Kelley enlisted as a second lieutenant. He has been a member of Villisca’s military company continuously since his enlistment for the Spanish-American war until its reorganization following the world war, with the exception of two years.

On Jan. 1, 1901, Mr. Kelley was married to Miss Pearl Clough in Villisca, and their home has always been in this city. In June 1916 Mr. Kelley went as a first lieutenant with Company F of Villisca to the Mexican border, returning home in February of the following year.

On July 15, 1917, he reported for duty in the world war, leaving Villisca with Company F on August 17 of that year. He arrived in France on Dec. 17, 1917, and was there until Jan. 30, 1919. He went over as afirst lieutenant and was made Captain of Company B of Des Moines on March 17, 1918, following the death of Capt. H. C. McHenry on March 5. He was in command of that company until July 15 of that year when he was wounded and sent to the hospital.

Upon being released from the hospital he was given command of the Fifteenth Company, provisional regiment with which organization he remained until he was sent to the hospital a second time suffering from gas which his company encountered on October 14, 15 and 16, 1918. When released from the hospital he took command of Blois Casual Company and had charge until he took the company to Hoboken, N.J. There he was placed in command of Hoboken Casual Company No. 122 which he took to Camp Dodge at Des Moines where they were mustered out of the service.

Captain Kelley fought more than 100 days in the trenches in the Lorraine district in France in command of Company B and then went to the Marne district where he was wounded on July 15, 1918. He rejoined his company on September 6 and on the next night started with his men for the San Mehiel district. He took part in the fighting at the Meuse Argonne until he was gassed in October 1918, and when he again was released from the hospital the war was over and his company was already on its way into Germany with the army of occupation. He was then placed in other commands which he held until honorably discharged from the service at Camp Dodge.


After Capt. Kelley came home, he continued his military leadership by being the prime mover behind the establishment of the Villisca American Legion Post Ker-A-Vor No. 251. He sent off to the Legion headquarters to get the charter, organized the local veterans, and as a result was elected first commander of the post. He only served as commander for a few months, as he had other business occupying him. But even after he was succeeded by C. L. Meyerhoff as commander, he continued to serve on various leadership committees in the Legion. For the rest of his life, he was called Captain Doc. (Nowhere does the Review explain why he had that nickname.)

By profession, Capt. Kelley was a builder/contractor. He and his firm were responsible for many of the most outstanding homes in Villisca and the surrounding area, several of them on upper Third Avenue. He was also the architect of record for the design of the 1912/13 National Guard Armory as well as being involved in the construction. He also built the club house at the golf club in 1924 and the 1926 high school addition.

He was warmly remembered by those he served with. For instance, Sgt. Harold Normand Denny, one of the Des Moines Co. B’s sergeants who served under him recalled:

“Capt. William A. Kelley of Villisca took command of B Company shortly after Captain McHenry was killed. I have heard him referred to a hundred times as “a good scout,” the highest compliment a soldier can pay his commander.

“I remember him particularly the morning after the raid on the Third platoon at Badonvillers, May 29. We were all somewhat shaken. Capt. Kelley strolled down the front line and jollied the men and talked with them in a calm, fatherly way that did much to soothe jangled nerves. And I remember him in Champagne—his face tense with pain from a shrapnel–torn arm—still looking after the safety of the company and insisting there was no sense in his leaving it just then…

“Captain Kelley was past middle age and gray haired. He underwent all the hardships of the men and shared all their dangers. He grieved much over our casualties. But not a man in B Company lost his life through the fault of our line officers. The extreme hardship and the strain finally broke down the captain’s health and he was invalided home.”

When World War II rolled around, Captain Doc was clearly too old to serve yet again, although a younger brother, Capt. Fred Kelley,carried the flag on the family’s behalf. But although at 68 he was too old to enlist again, Captain Doc was an enthusiastic speaker at a Villisca war bond rally at the Rialto in 1942.  Introduced as a veteran of three wars and author of several articles on the life of General Douglas MacArthur, he asked “Can we at home pay in full measure as they will pay in devotion? Can we pay as those men paid who went down in the Battle of the Coral Sea? Have we the courage of those men who raided Dieppe?” Emphasizing that it would be a long, hard war, Captain Kelley pleaded that those at home buy their limit and more to support the cause, as long as our boys were fighting.

At a reunion of the Rainbow Division Veterans in Des Moines that same year, Capt. Kelley and a private from the Iowa 168th Infantry were interviewed by the Des Moines Register. The private recalled it was March 9, 1918 and the Yanks were ready to go over the top.

“How do you feel, private?” a handsome young man wearing a turtle-neck sweater asked.

‘Ready to go over and rip hell out of them, sir.” The private recalled saying as the man in the sweater moved on through the trench. Turning to a lieutenant nearby, the private asked, “Who was that guy?”

“That was Col. Douglas MacArthur,” replied Lt. Kelley. “He came up from the division headquarters to get in our first attack.”

Twenty-seven years later in Des Moines, the private asked Capt. Kelley how he could recognize MacArthur who wasn’t wearing any officer’s insignia. Kelley said he recognized the Colonel because he had seen him once before when Kelley served under MacArthur’s father, Gen. Arthur MacArthur in the Philippines. Both veterans agreed, “There was a fighting man.”

But even fighting men have to hang up their weapons eventually. Captain Doc Kelley, one of nine children of Ezekiel S. Kelley who was a Villisca pioneer from Highland County, Ohio, passed away on May 28, 1953 at the age of 79.  Services were held at the Methodist church with burial at the Villisca cemetery; military honors were provided by Company F of the national guard and the American Legion. Fittingly, the next day was Memorial Day. So, if you’re up on the hill next Monday, stop by Captain Doc’s grave and let him know that Villisca hasn’t forgotten his sacrifices and thank him for his outstanding service to our town, our state and our country.

Happy Memorial Day!


The Rainbow division, with 3,600 Iowans in the 168th Infantry division as part of the division, was an early American war unit arriving in France in 1918. It was one of the farthest advanced at the close of the war and was with the army of occupation in Germany.

When MacArthur was ordered to form a division of 42,000 men by selecting crack regiments from practically every state, he announced that it would be a division that will represent every state, to cover the country like a rainbow.”

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