Heroes From the Heart of Virginia: John Kessler

Roanoke, VA - For years, the common take was that a thousand World War Two veterans die each day, but that's not the case anymore.

That's because the number of those vets is much smaller as the greatest generation becomes our oldest.

One of those veterans, Lt. John Kessler, was about to experience the worst events of his life in 1944.

Lt. Kessler has spent the years since fighting to preserve his story and the legacy of his fellow World War Two vets.

One of the most important things Kessler has going these days in his 91st year, is making sure generations of young people don't forget the most tragic war this world has ever seen.

"You know for 40 years no one gave a damn about World War II. That was just a bunch of stuff nobody wanted to listen to," said Kessler.

So for his part he visits school after school and senior group after senior group telling his story.

"I love every one of them and they love me. Always want to be up around all close to me," said Kessler.

His story began back in 1921 when Kessler was born in the same house as Stonewall Jackson.

Perhaps prophetic in a way because at the age of 17, he followed in Jackson's footsteps and went to war. Except in Kessler's case, and millions of others like him, he was trying to help save the world.

"We lost men by the thousands over there in the invasion of Europe, the invasion of Africa, the invasion of Italy. All of those places are very important," said Kessler.

Beginning with the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion, Kessler would see combat from France to Germany, earning a purple heart in action at St. Vith, Belgium and again during the Battle of the Bulge where he also earned two Bronze Stars; one for leading his men as they held off a major German counterattack.

In fact it wasn't the Germans who put Kessler out of action; it was Mother Nature as one night stalking a German tank, he fell through some ice.

"The next morning I was froze from here down. I couldn't move. I was frozen in space. The guys had to pick me up; put me in a jeep. And they didn't stop at the medical tent, they took me straight to Liege, Belgium, to the hospital," said Kessler.

While in the hospital more than 90% of Kessler's battalion was killed or wounded so when he came back he was assigned to the 82nd Airborne where the inhumanity continued.

He helped uncover a concentration camp and mass graves.

He and his men were forced to kill scores of allied Russian soldiers who they continually caught raping and murdering women in a conquered Berlin.

"Where do you turn the line when you see stuff like that? You don't. Not me. Not me. If I see something like that, I'm going to correct it right quick. And me and my men did."

They are stories that take a toll for Kessler to tell but stories that he is proud of; that he wants to tell. Stories he insists cannot be forgotten for the sake of all those tens of thousands who died during that time.

Ironically, it took John Kessler more than 40 years to receive his awards for valor and blood because when his unit was wiped out during the Battle of the Bulge... all of the records were destroyed as well.

Kessler says he is one of just five remaining members of that unit still alive today.