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Captain William B. Kenney

Company Commander

C/B Company, 115th Infantry Regiment, 29th Infantry Division  

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William Buckner Kenney was born to John C. and Lucy Kenney in 1911. His parents owned a large farm just outside the town of Paris, a fairly rural farming town about 20 miles from the long-established city of Lexington, Kentucky. His childhood was quiet, spending most of his time exploring and playing in the vast fields and forest surrounding the town and his family farm. He developed a strong appreciation and respect for Kentucky farmers and the agricultural nature of his community. After graduating from his local high school, Kenney decided to pursue a future in the trade and attended the University of Kentucky. While at the university Kenney was a fairly involved student, not only performing well academically, but joining the Phi Delta Theta fraternity, the drama club, and a livestock club. He graduated in 1932 with a degree in Agriculture and moved back home to Bourbon County where he began his career. In 1934 he joined the newly created Resettlement Administration, a Rooseveltian federal program designed to resettle people into unused arable farmland across the United States. The program had its criticisms but in Kentucky, aided in the creation of many sustainable farms across the state. In 1937 the program merged into the more well-known Farm Security Administration where Kenney was then promoted to a regional supervisor, helping oversee farmer aid and welfare programs in Kentucky during the latter parts of the Great Depression.

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As war broke out in the Pacific and Europe, Kenney could not stay still, rather answering the call for service by enlisting into the United States Army as a Private in 1941. At the age of 30 and with a college degree he completed basic training at Camp Robinson, Arkansas, spending some time as an enlisted man and making corporal before putting in an application for Officer Candidate School. The army accepted his request and he became the oldest in his OCS class at Fort Benning. Upon completion and his official commission as a second lieutenant, Kenney was assigned to the infantry branch and immediately traveled to England to join the 115th Infantry Regiment of the 29th Infantry Division. It was here he fell under the first battalion and became a platoon leader in Charlie Company. By this time the invasion of Europe was in full preparation and he along with his men began learning amphibious tactics for the up-and-coming campaign. During this training, Kenney recalled how they showed the platoon leaders where they were going and what landmarks to look for once the men made it onto the beach.

 

On June 6th, 1944 Kenney began Eisenhower’s “Great Crusade.” While the 116th Infantry took the brunt of the first early morning assault, Kenney and his comrades stood on deck off the shore watching the distant smoke rising as they awaited their ride to France. Around 0900 he and the company received the order to board their landing craft, LCI(L)-412. Thankful to not be stuck in the smaller landing craft of the initial waves, the boys of Charlie Company were still quiet as they made their way towards the French shore. Reports came in that while the beach itself had been cleared, the beachhead was in no way secure. Smoke obscured much of the bluffs and causeway, yet the small boat traveled on. While circling around waiting to land, Kenney decided to poke up his head and see whether he could recognize any of the landmarks or signs they taught him to find. "I couldn't recognize a damn one of them," he later claimed, "and I thought we were in the wrong place." Around 1025 the ship, along with those of the rest of the 1st Battalion, hit the shore at the Fox Green sector of the beach. There Kenney and his men gathered their packs and took their first steps onto the European mainland. Kenney was the very first man off of the landing craft and had a rope tied around his waist. Told that he would be making a "dry landing," that they would be walking onto the sand, Kenney was quite surprised when he walked off of the ramp and fell six feet over his head into the water. "I had a pack and six rounds of mortar ammunition tied to me," he said, "when I got to the beach I used the rope to full some of the men to shore." As they got closer, other men were able to wade in water up to their stomachs, the unloading was somewhat uneventful until German artillery from the interior began pounding the beach once again. "We had to fight to take the beach. It still wasn't secure," Kenney recalled later. These first shots shook the men, but the rounds were largely imprecise and inaccurate. Even still, the troops ahead of them had progressed very little and there was serious concern over whether they would be able to properly hold the beachhead. Kenney gathered his troops onshore and the company joined the rest of the battalion for the drive inland towards St. Laurent.

LCI(L)-412 landing Kenney and the men of C Company
LCI(L)-412 landing Kenney and the men of C Company

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Kenney as an enlistedman prior to his commission
Kenney as an enlistedman prior to his commission

Courtesy of the Hopewell Museum in Paris, Kentucky

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Kenney as a platoon leader in C Company prior to his promotion
Kenney as a platoon leader in C Company prior to his promotion

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LCI(L)-412 landing Kenney and the men of C Company
LCI(L)-412 landing Kenney and the men of C Company

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It would not be too long after the initial landing that Kenney became a critical part of his battalion. He first earned the respect of his superiors early in the campaign while leading a combat patrol under heavy fire during the battle for St. Clair sur l’Elle and quickly stood out from the other officers of the battalion as a quick-thinking and capable combat leader. On the evening of June 17th, while fighting in the forests west of Bois de Bretel, new battalion commander Major Glover S. Johns met with his battalion staff and some company commanders to discuss an upcoming assault when a lost German machine gunner sighted the group and sprayed them thoroughly. Many officers were wounded, and several were killed, including the commanding officer of Charlie Company. While Kenney was out of the company at the time, recovering after literally collapsing due to exhaustion, the desperate Major had a dire need for capable commanders amidst the dense brush fighting of the hedgerows. Upon his return, Major Johns called up this bright lieutenant to test his mettle and talent as the new CO of Charlie Company. Thankfully, Kenney was an absolute natural. Not only was his talent as a previous platoon leader great for uniting the soldiers under his command, but he quickly picked up company-scale tactics and became a natural in the harsh fighting amongst the fields of Normandy.

 

In one anecdote from “The Clay Pigeons of St. Lo,” we find Major Johns explaining to Kenney the necessity of reporting the death of a replacement officer early on in his stint at CO. As Kenney called some of his men over to take the body of a platoon leader killed by a sniper, Johns noticed an outpost covering an important field of fire dozing on the job and not paying attention. Both officers snuck up on the enlisted men and surprised them, finishing with the Major giving the GIs and Kenney a good chewing out for carelessness. After a feeble salute from Kenney, a nearby soldier warned the pair that a German rifleman had been launching rifle grenades on the exact spot they were standing. They took the word lightly and both began walking back towards the CP chatting casually, but no less than twenty seconds later a large pop marked the smack of a rifle grenade on the same spot they stood before exactly as the rifleman had warned them. Little did they know, but an alert squad leader just saved their lives.

Fighting through the Hedgerows
Fighting through the Hedgerows

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Fighting through the Hedgerows
Fighting through the Hedgerows

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Fighting through the Hedgerows
Fighting through the Hedgerows

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Fighting through the Hedgerows
Fighting through the Hedgerows

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      At this point, the battle of the Hedgerows was in full swing and the “Big Red Team” was locked in a hectic battle with the German 3rd Fallschirmjager Division. Kenney’s life entirely revolved around a few hundred yards of French dirt barricades and the fields which connected them. Fighting was fierce as sporadic artillery bombardments punctured the wait between mass assaults against heavily fortified enemies. From organizing nightly combat patrols to setting up field of fire outposts, the rural Kentucky farm boy once again found his world encapsulated by whatever field was right in front of him. The conflict lasted several weeks as Allied forces attempted to secure their foothold and gather their troops for the prolonged campaign towards Germany. Before they could do so, however, several key cities needed to be captured to coordinate the logistics of the advance.

          On July 11th Kenney and Johns were personally confronted by General Gerhardt, commanding general of the 29th Infantry Division, and warned that their battalion would play a crucial role in the final drive to St. Lo which was to come the next day. Kenney spent the night preparing his men, ensuring rations and ammo were in ample supply despite their ever-waning manpower. What came next, unknowingly, was the action that netted each man the French Croix de Guerre and Kenney, the Silver Star Medal.

While waiting in the dark of night for the inevitable jump off the next morning, Kenney was shaken to arms by one of the largest artillery bombardments he had ever seen. German 60mm and 120mm mortars, 88s, 150s, rifles, machine guns, and more began pounding up and down the line of the first battalion as every man clutched deep into their foxholes hoping to avoid the mist of shrapnel enveloping their section of the line. With the amount of fire incoming, there was no feasible way to even look over the hedgerow to see what was happening, but Kenney suspected the immediate arrival of German infantry and called back to Major Johns in a warning. Less than two minutes later the first wave of German paratroopers hit Kenney’s line with grenades, rifles, submachine guns, and everything else they had. Moving up and down the line personally securing each position and outpost, Kenney worked amongst his troops to ensure there was no break in his part of the line. Without any reserves, any potential break could lead the Germans directly to regimental HQ. Kenney knew this and spent just as much time firing his Garand as the troops he commanded. The fight was tumultuous and raged for several hours of the early morning, especially since regimental HQ failed to believe the severity of the attack, leaving Kenney and his compatriots to fight off the four companies of elite German Fallschirmjager all by themselves. Finally, at around 0330 did the regiment began taking the pleas of Kenney and the other company commanders seriously. Kenney took advantage of the change and went up front with his observers, directly calling howitzer strikes on the largest clumps of Germans he could see. At around 0400 he reported that the attacks on his line had let up and his flanks were secure. The battered but staunch American defenders recouped as relief swept across the line. Three well-undermanned American companies had not only held off four strongly-supported companies of elite German troops but had provided a strong enough counterattack to drive them back towards St. Lo. For their critical actions in holding the line with no help from the division the battalion was awarded the French Croix de Guerre, an award Kenney wore for the rest of his service with pride.

115th troops marching towards St. Lo
115th troops marching towards St. Lo

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Positions of the 115th on 11 July, Kenney's company made up the reserve line for the 1st Battalion
Positions of the 115th on 11 July, Kenney's company made up the reserve line for the 1st Battalion

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Kenney's wounds listed on the 11th
Kenney's wounds listed on the 11th

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115th troops marching towards St. Lo
115th troops marching towards St. Lo

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Just three days later on July 15th, Kenney and a rejuvenated 1st battalion found themselves preparing for a final push for the city of St. Lo. Forming up the right of the battalion flank by the Isigny-St. Lo road, no less than two miles away lay the grand prize of the US First Army. Kenney was faced by a determined German force consisting of remnants from the 352nd Volksgrenadier Division and the Fallschirmjager they had met before, but this didn’t stop him. The Germans beat them to the punch again by opening heavy fire in the early morning hours, but the attack was already on the move. At 0600 Kenney and Charlie Company advanced through a large bit of marshy ground directly in front of them before the Germans even had a chance to wake up. The German outposts which had kept another battalion stuck for three days were overrun by Kenney’s men in less than a matter of minutes. The assault was stopped, however, as Germans in the next hedgerow had now manned their positions and began to fire back at the 29ers. Crawling up to the edge of their hedgerow while both sides were fully exchanging fire, Kenney peeked up his head to “develop the situation,” taking a mental note of every German position firing and its strength while his men were busy distracting them. Deciding that the German left flak was weakest due to a lack of manpower, Kenney discovered a deep ditch running alongside the main road which provided a dangerous but clear opportunity for a flanking party. Sending his best squad leader and 20 men, Kenney carefully observed as they inched forward through the trench towards the left side of the German lines. At the last moment before they reached the end of the ditch Kenney ordered the entire company to perform a massive feint which almost turned into a full-out charge. Smoking the German lines in white phosphorus and artillery fire, Kenney and his men yelled and fired as fast as humanly possible to draw the attention of the German infantry. At that moment the flanking squad rushed out of their cover and began causing mass destruction amongst the German lines from their rear. The Germans sat in utter confusion at why their left flank was quickly falling apart giving Kenney time to call for the rest of the company to charge from the hedgerow and jump straight into the German lines. The action worked flawlessly, netting Kenney 28 prisoners, a dozen dead and wounded, and not a single US casualty.

 

The next section of land was not as easy-going and rougher ground kept Kenney and his troops stuck behind yet another hedgerow. Well-hidden and entrenched German fire teams kept up a steady pressure on the company and a flanking party was quickly put to rest by a hidden German machine gun. Artillery was not doing much, rifle grenadiers were shot twice by snipers, and things were not looking good. It was at that moment Major Johns rolled up with a 75mm Sherman ready to keep up the attack. The steel monster let out a rip from its main gun, sending a German paratrooper scurrying from his spot and strafing the German lines with .50 machine gun fire. Kenney and the company broke loose and within seconds another 100 yards of French real-estate had changed hands. By dusk of that first day, Kenney and his men had taken over 500 yards of German territory, far more than any other unit in the regiment, albeit with some heavy casualties sustained in the later parts of the day.

Route of Kenney's advance on 15-16 July
Route of Kenney's advance on 15-16 July

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Newspaper detailing Kenney's injury at St. Lo
Newspaper detailing Kenney's injury at St. Lo

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Route of Kenney's advance on 15-16 July
Route of Kenney's advance on 15-16 July

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According to Major Johns, the darkness failed to stop Kenney. Described as a “whirlwind of leadership,” Kenney worked throughout the night up and down his front from one end to the other refusing to stop for rest or food. Encouraging each one of his men, Kenney found every potential problem in the company and came up with some solution that would allow for an even greater attack in the morning. He was so distracted that right before dusk he failed to notice an incoming mortar round which landed so near to him that the concussion slammed him into the side of a hedgerow, knocking him out cold. Thankfully, the round hit a shallow hole, saving Kenney’s life. While his radio operator was making a desperate call to Major Johns that Kenney had been seriously wounded, Kenney woke up, ran over, and grabbed the phone to correct the report himself. Sadly, this was not the end of the night for Kenney, and several hours later yet another mortar shell landed almost identical to the first but this time leaving Kenney’s back and legs peppered with shrapnel. He woke up before litter-bearers could arrive and began walking back towards his company, continuing to give orders and direct the troops. Johns would hear none of it and ordered him back to an aid station with no further argument. Johns claimed that “Kenney was too good a man to risk any further and he had done his job for the time being.”

 

For the next two days, while Kenney recuperated in a field hospital, the Big Red Team led the American charge into St. Lo, becoming the first US unit to enter the city by clearing resistance street by street until all Germans had been pushed from the city proper. The defense was rough and German counterattacks came swift, heavy, and often. Johns lost many officers and several other company commanders as well as their replacements. Kenney, all the way back at the division clearing station, could tell the situation was getting dire by how many company officers were being sent back. Despite still being in recovery from surgery to remove the mortar fragments from his back, Kenney was not one to leave his outfit in a mess. The morning of the July 18th he woke up before any orderlies could get to him, put on a fresh set of clothes over the bandages covering his entire back and legs, and made his way on his own staggering several miles through roads and hedgerows until he reached the city of St. Lo. Walking into Johns’ command post as the sun began to go down, Kenney claimed: “Major, I heard you got into town all right, but were sort of short of company commanders.” Johns’ face lit up with utter joy as he welcomed back one of his top field leaders.

St. Lo when the wounded Kenney returned to the battalion
St. Lo when the wounded Kenney returned to the battalion

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Kenney re-entered as company commander on 26 July
Kenney re-entered as company commander on 26 July

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St. Lo when the wounded Kenney returned to the battalion
St. Lo when the wounded Kenney returned to the battalion

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The following morning Kenney regained control of his company as the 1st Battalion rotated out of St. Lo and to a rest station, allowing the 134th Infantry of the 35th Division to take over. These are just a few of the stories revealed about now Captain Kenney’s time in those first two months of combat. A proven, capable, and respected combat commander, Kenney became Major Johns’ right-hand man for almost any pinch on the field. For his actions contributing major feats in the success of the 115th to capture St. Lo, Johns put Kenney in for the Silver Star, our nation's third highest medal for valor and one sparingly given within the 29th. Unsurprisingly, General Gerhardt agreed. The citation reads as follows:

 

"Captain William B. Kenney, 115th Infantry, US Army, for gallantry in action against the enemy in Normandy, France. During the period 11 July 1944 to 15 July 1944 which included the attack on St. Lo, the manner in which Captain Kenney performed his duties as company commander was conspicuously outstanding. On one occasion when his company's position was seriously threatened as a result of a strong enemy attack, Captain Kenney, by his cool and courageous leadership, led his company in a night attack and successfully repulsed the enemy with minimum loss to his troops. Then, for four consecutive days, Captain Kenney gallantly led his company against strong enemy opposition on a continuous assault. Although wounded, he refused to be evacuated and continued to lead the attack until so severely wounded a second time that he was carried from the field in a semi-conscious condition. He later returned to his unit and performed superbly in the capture of St. Lo. His great skill, courage, and constant example of the finest qualities of an officer have been a source of inspiration to his men and reflect great credit upon himself and the military service."

115th men outside St. Lo
115th men outside St. Lo

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115th men outside St. Lo
115th men outside St. Lo

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115th men outside St. Lo
115th men outside St. Lo

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115th men outside St. Lo
115th men outside St. Lo

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Kenney led C Company through the 29th’s great campaigns from Vire to Brest to the defense of Teveren-Geilenkirchen. At the end of October Kenney was transferred to serve as Major Johns’ assistant S-3, a job which he enjoyed, but not so much as leading his troops back in the field. Johns granted his request to once again command a company of his own, this time B Company, as the division prepared for their drive to the Roer River. Unfortunately, this command would not last long. While advancing south of the main road through pastureland towards the town of Siersdorf Kenney and his company came under some of the harshest recorded fire the battalion had ever undergone. German artillery sighted in the company directly and machine guns let loose from all directions. There was quite literally nowhere for anyone to go and inches of dirt hastily piled up in front of a man made the difference between life or death. For Kenney, his desperate pleas for support were only answered with radio silence from the division. Within minutes the company suffered over 25 casualties and by the time they were rescued, Kenney was among them. Although not physically wounded, Kenney is believed to have suffered a severe stress attack, possibly combat shock, from the devastating attack in which he had been thrown. Marked as returning to a hospital as a non-battle casualty, Kenney would never return to see his boys of the Big Red Team. I suspect after seeing so much brutal combat almost consistently from D-Day up until that fateful day in November which finally broke his will.

Major Johns did not want to risk the life of a man he respected so greatly and refused Kenney’s many letters begging to once again rejoin the unit up until the very end of the war. Kenney spent the months afterward with a training regiment in England, preparing fresh divisions and replacements arriving from the United States for the harsh combat of the continent. He did his job well, although begrudgingly, and finished his combat career as a self-described “chairborne” commander. By the end of Kenney’s military career, he had racked up an impressive amount of awards including a Silver Star, two Bronze Stars, two Purple Hearts, a Croix de Guerre with Silver Star, and a Croix de Guerre with a palm leaf.

A letter Kenney wrote while recovering from his breakdown to his then girlfriend, Waller
A letter Kenney wrote while recovering from his breakdown to his then girlfriend, Waller

Courtesy of the Hopewell Museum in Paris, Kentucky

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A list of items with Kenney at the time he was relieved from field duty
A list of items with Kenney at the time he was relieved from field duty

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Newspaper announcing Kenney's return
Newspaper announcing Kenney's return

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A letter Kenney wrote while recovering from his breakdown to his then girlfriend, Waller
A letter Kenney wrote while recovering from his breakdown to his then girlfriend, Waller

Courtesy of the Hopewell Museum in Paris, Kentucky

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Once back in Bourbon County he married his true love Waller Payne in 1947 and settled once again as a farmer cultivating crops and livestock such as tobacco, beef cattle, hogs, and sheep. He was heavily invested in his community and in 1949 served on the board to create Bourbon County's first African American Youth Center which signaled a major step towards integration in the county. For many years he worked in the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, at one point taking on the job of state director for the US Farmers Home Administration overseeing rural housing and farm-related loan programs for families across Kentucky. He remained in the US Army Reserves until 1968 and was forever proud of his service, although rarely talking about it. From 1951 onward Kenney worked at the reserves training school in Lexington, Kentucky and remained there for the rest of his career, becoming commandant of the school fo for his last years. In 1962, while serving as the commandant, one officer asked him whether he had watched the latest movie "The Longest Day," since he was a D-Day veteran himself. Kenney replied that he had not seen it, but asked whether he was depicted in the film. The staff officer replied that he did not see him in the movie to which Kenney replied, wearily, with head tilted down, "I was there, all day." Kenney later retired from the reserves in 1968, ending a long career of public service to his country and community.

Kenney's wedding in 1947
Kenney's wedding in 1947

Courtesy of the Hopewell Museum in Paris, Kentucky

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Kenney with his wife and daughter
Kenney with his wife and daughter

Courtesy of the Hopewell Museum in Paris, Kentucky

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Kenney's uniform resting at his grave
Kenney's uniform resting at his grave

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Kenney's wedding in 1947
Kenney's wedding in 1947

Courtesy of the Hopewell Museum in Paris, Kentucky

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