Above: Pictures of Herbert Kenyon during his training period at Camp Blanding in 1944.
EGHS student writes about contents of box of memorabilia donated to Varnum Armory Museum
By Summer Creeden
Below the historic Varnum Armory Museum on Main Street in East Greenwich, there are hundreds of priceless artifacts at various phases of restoration. They all tell important stories. As an intern at the museum, I was afforded the great honor of putting together the pieces of a story – one of suffering, courage, and heartbreak – that before only existed in letters and photos within a simple cardboard box. Upon opening the donated box, my eyes were first drawn to a thick stack of photos held together with a paperclip. After gently removing the clip and spreading out the black-and-white photos, I saw rows of barracks, soldiers lined up, and guns and other military machinery. I tried to imagine myself in Hebert’s situation: a young man from the smallest state in America, in training to be shipped to the most dangerous place in the world.
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, Herbert Kenyon was 20 years old. The United States’ entrance into World War II would dramatically alter the course of not only Herbert’s life but the lives of millions of American men and women too. Herbert was from Peacedale, a small village in South Kingstown. He officially entered the Army on November 12, 1943, two years after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He said goodbye to his wife and family, not knowing if he would ever see them again. Herbert was sent to Camp Blanding, a military training base near Jacksonville, Florida. At that time, Camp Blanding was known as an “Infantry Replacement Center,” tasked with training soldiers who would join existing infantry regiments that were depleting in numbers. The camp would train over 800,000 soldiers during WWII alone. I tried to imagine the anticipation of being shipped to war. Dread and fear, I thought. However, as I flipped through Herbert’s photos from his time at Camp Blanding, there were more smiles than I expected. Photos of a grinning Herbert in uniform, posing with his rifle, suggest that he was a young man eager for adventure wherever he could find it.
After taking more letters and documents out of the box, my attention was caught by a small rectangular object with a cover of rusted metal. It was a small pocket Bible, but with a unique metal covering with the message, “May this keep you safe from harm” etched on the front. On the inside cover, a note from President Franklin Roosevelt, “As Commander-in-Chief I take pleasure in commending the reading of the Bible … Throughout the centuries men of many faiths and diverse origins have found in the Sacred Book words of wisdom, counsel and inspiration.” The Heart-Shield Bible was meant for soldiers to place in their chest pockets, over their hearts. This Bible was a gift to Herbert from his wife, Francis, who on the inside cover had signed her name and the date, April 7, 1944, less than a month before he would leave for Europe. The Bible provided a shield of protection along with a shield of faith.
A little less than six months after joining the service and training at Camp Blanding, Private Herbert W. Kenyon, now 23 years old, was shipped to England on May 2, 1944. Herbert remained in England during the initial invasion of Normandy, known as “D-Day,” but soon after joined Company “I” of the 120th Infantry Regiment, 30th Infantry Division, headquartered in Northern France. One of the first major objectives of Operation Overlord was to advance south to the city of Saint-Lô, a main center of operation for German resistance against the American effort in Normandy. The 120th Infantry fought continuously throughout July, capturing cities such as Saint-Jean de Daye as they slowly advanced toward Saint-Lô. They faced geographic disadvantages such as having lower ground than the Germans. Herbert and Company I often created roadblocks of fire to keep German tanks from entering each new area they took near Saint-Lô. These days were brutal on the men both physically and mentally, but the 120th Infantry slowly made ground each day, even if only a hundred yards.
On July 11, 1944, Herbert’s infantry regiment, now about 10 miles north of Saint-Lô, prepared for a large attack. After the war, officers of the regiment recounted, “perhaps more than any other time, the [men] suffered that day” (“History of the 120th Infantry Regiment” 28). In anticipation of the attack, soldiers received little to no sleep the night before. Orders to prepare for the attack came at about 9 in the morning, and by 11, the attack was under way. Herbert, with his rifle, fought on the front lines with Company I. It did not take long for the casualty list to grow. The air became heavy with artillery shells and the Germans forcefully pushed ahead. Herbert’s regiment suffered many losses that day, from killed and wounded soldiers to broken radios and equipment. Men were described as experiencing hysteria, with officers describing one man who had “lost his senses and began to yell incoherently” (“History of the 120th Infantry Regiment” 28). The control center trailer had caught fire, and radio operators desperately tried to put it out while simultaneously attempting to keep contact with the companies. The battalion managed to advance a couple of hundred yards that day after the Germans mistakenly withdrew, despite having a significant advantage. Herbert survived the day but suffered an ankle injury caused by an artillery shell that exploded close to him.
A week after this horrific day, Herbert wrote home to his sister Flora and niece Shirley. He briefly informed them of his injury. However, his family never could have known about the horrors of that day from his letter:
Hello Shirley and Flo,
Just a few lines to let you know that I am all right and hope to hear the same from you. Well has Dick [Flora’s husband] gone in the army yet? I am resting up for a day or two because I hurt my ankle. The other day a shell hit so close that it picked up off the ground and knocked my helmet off my head. I was in the front line when it happened. I have not received any mail from you yet… Well I will say so long for now. Write soon.
From your Big Brother Herbert.
The fourth of five siblings, Herbert was very close with his family. He was especially close with his sister Flo, her husband, and their young daughter Shirley. Herbert also had a wife, Francis, but the couple never had children of their own. He was quite fond of Shirley and loved her as if she were his own child. Perhaps it was because he did not want his family to worry or because he knew young Shirley would be reading, but Herbert always remained sanguine in letters to his family.
During Herbert’s rest and recovery, the 120th Infantry faced heavy and consistent bombing. Major Reynold C. Erichson of the regiment described the following week, recalling “huge numbers of planes in seemingly endless numbers.” He continued, “Between the flights of bombers, there was sufficient time to get out of the holes, dig frantically for those who had been buried alive, put the wounded into ambulances, and then dive into cover again” (“History of the 120th Infantry Regiment” 36). These torturesome days would be the final push for the capture of Saint-Lô. On July 26, 1944, the companies received a radio message with a magic word: “Bobcat.” The message meant that the breakthrough to Saint-Lô was complete and the entire regiment was overcome with relief. But the war was far from over. On July 27, they received word that they were to continue to advance further south into France. It was on this same day that Herbert reportedly returned to duty from his injury in a “replacement pool.” It is unknown whether he returned to the 120th Infantry.
A little less than a month later, Herbert’s wife received a Western Union telegram. The flimsy telegram came folded in a small brown envelope and looked as though it had been typed hastily in a typewriter due to spelling, grammatical, and punctuation errors.
Mrs Francis E Kenyon Aug 20 1944
The Secatary of War desires me to express his deepest regret that your husband Pvt. Herbert W. Kenyon was killed in action 28th July in France. Further reports states he had returned to duty 27th July from previously reported wounds. Letter follows
Holding the telegram in my hands and reading the same message that Herbert’s wife, mother, siblings, and family read all those years ago made my heart drop. Over 400,000 American soldiers died during World War II, and for every one of those lives, there were dozens of friends and family members back in the states who were broken. I imagined the man typing the telegram, and this message could have been the hundredth one he had written that day. But two sentences were all the Kenyon family received, two sentences.
I found piles of letters of Francis’ requests for more information on how Herbert passed, and for months the responses offered no details. Finally, on November 7, 1944, information was passed on to Herbert’s brother that Herbert’s death was believed to be caused by enemy aircraft bombing.
As I continued to sort through piles of letters, something caught my eye. There were envelopes containing letters from Shirley and Flo, all written in the days and weeks leading to his death. The envelopes were covered in blue and black stamps with brusque messages including “deceased,” “missing,” and “return to sender.” Similarly to the brief and abrupt telegram, I was horrified by the handling of such a delicate situation. One of the returned envelopes had been originally sent by Herbert’s young niece, Shirley. He never got to read about her last week of school before summer vacation or her trips to the beach. It was even more heart-wrenching to imagine Shirley anxiously waiting for him to write back, only to find her letters returned, marred with stamps.
Private Herbert Kenyon was awarded the Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Cluster for his sacrifice in World War II. He is buried at the Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, France, alongside thousands of other brave young men who gave their lives in service to their country. The cemetery rests on a quiet green hill overlooking the sea. A white marble cross marks Hebert’s grave, where he will rest forever in peace.
Summer Creeden is a junior at East Greenwich High School.
“History of the 120th Infantry Regiment.” 1947. Bangor Public Library. World War Regimental Histories. https://digicom.bpl.lib.me.us/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1221&context=ww_reg_his