By Lori Gottula
None of us, except those who have been enlisted in the United States Navy, will ever understand the commitment that a sailor has to his or her shipmates and vessel. Sailors become so attached to their ship that the liner becomes wife, mistress, sister, mother, and friend. Many have fought to the bitter end for their ships, but it would hard to find one who has done so with more valor than Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, Reinhardt J. Keppler.
Keppler was just 18 when he enlisted in the US Navy, back in 1936. World War II wasn’t
even on the horizon yet. Keppler just wanted a place to call home, and a job to call a career.
The son of German immigrants, Keppler was a hard-working son-of-a-gun, and quickly advanced through the ranks to Boatswain’s First Mate. He was 22 when he reported for duty aboard the U.S.S. San Francisco, and 24 when he collapsed aboard his vessel. The river of life that pumped through his veins had drenched his uniform as it drained out of his body through slices that had been administered by shards of steel.
But before Keppler’s lifeblood drained out, he had saved the life of his best friend—his beloved ship—and all of the souls on board.
It all happened on Nov. 13, 1942, during the battle for Savo Island near Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands.
The San Francisco had been wounded on Nov. 12 when a Japanese torpedo plane that had been shot down spun out of control, and crashed into the after superstructure. Keppler was manning the machine-gun on the platform at the time, but was able to escape without injury. Many of his shipmates weren’t so lucky. Bodies of the dead were strewn about, lying among sailors who writhed in pain or lie motionless in shock.
Keppler quickly went into action and tended to those who held on. He directed the triage, bandaged wounds, installed tourniquets, and did whatever else was necessary to save the lives of his shipmates—many of whom would have otherwise perished.
In the aftermath, he nursed his beloved ship, cleaning and repairing its wounds with the gentle tenderness of a nurse caring for a patient.
That night, the U.S.S. San Francisco led an American fleet into battle with the Japanese, even though the U.S. fleet was outgunned and outnumbered. Keppler, and the young sailors who had escaped injury during the morning’s battle, followed the commands of Admiral Daniel J. Callaghan, and fed the guns while the coal-black sky burst with the fireworks of the enemy’s
rockets, and the explosions of crippling hits.
One of the strikes landed squarely on the navigation deck of the San Francisco, instantly killing the admiral and captain. Another ripped through the hangar, killing and maiming dozens of Keppler’s shipmates, and slicing the steel vessel into flying, shredding shards. The hangar erupted, and the fire spread like a cancer through the body of Keppler’s best friend. Flames of death licked at Keppler’s arms. Blood seeped from dozens of julienne slices on his body. A furnace of heat ripped air from his lungs. Most men would have abandoned ship then, purely by instinct. But not Keppler.
Ignoring the warm blood that ran down his arms, legs, and torso, Keppler dragged one of the ship’s hoses through the flames, like a surgeon expertly running a life-saving vein through the body of an injured soldier. Sweat mingled with his blood, and drenched his uniform. His weakening body slumped. Still, he battled on.
While naval brothers, buddies, and bunk mates moaned and pleaded for aid, Keppler forged ahead. He knew that the hangar contained the ship’s gas reserves and its stock of ammunition. If fire met gasoline, the ship would burst into oblivion, leaving its sailors to the anals of history. So he single-handedly battled the jumping flames, protecting his beloved vessel and all souls on board from certain demise. When reinforcements arrived, Keppler issued commands to his subordinates, then disappeared into the thick smoke. While the flames sizzled into steam, Keppler responded to the moans of his shipmates. Blood surged through his body and spurted from his injuries as he ran from comrade to comrade, knowing with relative certainty that his own life was drifting away with each beat of his pulsating heart. Still, he and the rest of the men who were able bandaged the wounded, carried friends to safety, and ensured them that help was coming. All the while, Keppler resisted all pleas to care for himself.
Finally, when he couldn’t go on, he collapsed. At 24, he took his final breath. All had given some that night, but Keppler had given all, to save his fellow sailors, and above all, his best friend—the ship that had carried him for two years, the ship that had become his home and his career—the U.S.S. San Francisco.
None of us will ever understand the commitment that a sailor gives to his shipmates or his ship. But maybe, because of stories like Keppler’s, we will show unending respect to those who do.
The scene described above was painted in captivating detail by author Paul Gallico, in a March 1944 article written for Esquire magazine. The article accompanied a painting that was also commissioned by the magazine, and was painted by Falls City native son, John Falter.
The Death of a Soldier will be on display in the Stalder Gallery of the Falls City Library and Arts Center from Nov. 11 through Dec. 31, along with six other original Falter paintings that were commissioned during WWII. An art opening will be held on the first night, (which is Veterans Day), at seven p.m, and will feature a gallery talk by Dr. Adrian Lewis, a professor at KU, and one of the most renowned WWII scholars in America. The doors will open at 6 p.m. for gallery viewing.
The event is free and open to the public. It is sponsored by the Richardson County Arts and Humanities Council, with help from the Richardson County Visitors Committee.