Staff Sgt. George Dennis Keathley, Class of 1937
Medal of Honor recipient
Born Nov. 10, 1907
Killed in action Sept. 14, 1944
George Keathley was born in 1917 in Olney, about 44 miles south of Wichita Falls, and grew up on the family farm, according to Texas Aggie Medals of Honor by James R. Woodall. Keathley moved to Lawton, Okla. before graduating high school. He went to live with and work for his older brother, John, Class of 1925. John Keathley operated a meat market, hog farm and meat-packing plant in Lawton.
George Keathley continued his education in Lawton, graduating from high school and enrolling at Cameron State School of Agriculture and Junior College (now Cameron University). He graduated in May 1930 with an associate degree in agriculture, according to his Distinguished Alumni profile with the Association of Former Students.
After saving some money, Keathley enrolled at Texas A&M in the fall of 1933 to work his way toward a bachelor's degree in agriculture. Keathley left in the spring of 1935 for financial reasons. He would continue to attend summer school in 1936, 1939 and 1940, but never graduated. He worked for the Soil Conservation Service, eventually transferring to the office in Lamesa, which was focusing on soil-erosion projects.
“Family members [said] he had a long-held desire to do something about soil erosion and to improve farming methods,” according to Texas Aggies Medals of Honor.
While in Lamesa, he met Inez Edmundson. They married in April 1942. He became stepfather to Inez’s two daughters, Paula and Helen.
Keathley volunteered for the Army a month after he and Inez married and was assigned to the 338th Infantry Regiment, 85th Infantry Division (a.k.a. Custer Division). He completed infantry training at Camp Shelby in Mississippi, which involved conditioning the leg and back muscles to march long distances, according to The 85th Infantry Division in World War II by Paul L. Schultz. “The War Department required 25 miles to be covered in eight hours,” Schulz wrote.
The 85th received desert field training in Southern California during the summer of 1943. Training there involved preparing soldiers physically and mentally for battle conditions. Keathley rose to staff sergeant in 1943. The Custer Division was transported in October 1943 to Fort Dix in New Jersey, in preparation to be sent overseas.
The 338th Regiment was transported to Virginia ports in December 1943, and boarded ships bound for North Africa. Keathley's regiment arrived in Casablanca, French Morocco, in January. The regiment was on the move again days later, bound for a camp in Algeria to undergo training in mountainous terrain, according to The 85th Infantry Division in World War II.
In March, the troops were ready for battle, and the 85th boarded ships bound for Naples, Italy. The city had been all but destroyed by Allied and German bombings and residents were suffering from starvation, according to The 85th Infantry Division in World War II. Allied forces launched a major assault on the German defensive line, a.k.a. the Gustav line, in May. The 85th, while supporting the Fifth Army, pushed through the line, captured enemy strong points on the road to Rome and joined forces with other Allied units who had attacked the line from different positions.
On May 30, 1944, Keathley stepped into the command position when the platoon leader was wounded. He exposed himself to enemy fire numerous times while reorganizing the platoon, which was suffering from severe casualties. Keathley was awarded the Bronze Star with Valor Device, which is a “V”-shaped pin on the Bronze Star medal. The “V” denotes that the medal was awarded for an act of heroism during combat. It is the fourth-highest honor that can be awarded to a member of the armed forces.
Allied forces entered Rome on June 4, liberating the first of three Axis capitals from Nazi oppression and pushing the Gustav line farther north. Keathley and the 338th Infantry Regiment arrived in Rome on June 5, a day before the D-Day invasions of Normandy. Allied troop movement continued north, following the retreating Germans into central Europe. The 85th was then relieved from the front line, and set up camp south of Rome on the grounds of a hunting estate that belonged to the king of Italy. The division rested and trained soldiers who arrived to replace casualties. The 85th began moving again July 10, 1944, toward Florence to further push the German defensive line.
The 85th began making its way though the North Apennines mountain range, the natural barrier of the German Gothic line, in early September. The 338th and 339th Infantry Regiments were ordered to make the main campaign on Il Giogo Pass, between the fortified high peaks Monticelli and the higher Mount Altuzzo. The 85th attacked the German line at dawn on Sept. 13. The 338th, the regiment Keathley belonged to, took to the paths up Mount Altuzzo.
Keathley’s unit, Company B of the 338th, approached the western ridge of Mount Altuzzo while exposed to German counterattacks. Company B suffered heavy casualties. Fighting resumed the next day. Nearing midday on the 14th, losses kept mounting for Company B. The second and third platoons lost all its officers. Twenty soldiers remained of the combined platoons.
Keathley, the guide for 1st Platoon, assumed command of the combined 2nd and 3rd platoons, which were low on ammunition. While the company was fighting off counterattacks, Keathley collected ammunition from casualties and wounded. He returned to the firing position and distributed the ammunition to those in the makeshift platoon. The company continued fighting despite being pushed back by enemy counterattacks.
A German hand grenade exploded next to Keathley, mortally wounding him on his left side. “But he could not be silenced. He fought on, holding his entrails in with his left hand,” according to The 85th Infantry Division in World War II. “Finally, he rose to his feet. Taking his left hand away from his wound and using it to steady his rifle, he fired at and killed an enemy soldier.”
“His heroic and intrepid action so inspired his men that they fought with incomparable determination and viciousness,” Keathley’s Medal of Honor citation reads. He continued giving orders to his platoon and firing his rifle at the enemy for another 15 minutes, electing to stay with his platoon instead of seeking shelter. After reinforcements arrived, the enemy began to withdraw. Keathley died shortly after.
“Had it not been for his indomitable courage and incomparable heroism, the remnants of three rifle platoons of Company B might well have been annihilated by the overwhelming enemy attacking force,” according to the citation.
Before being sent overseas, Keathley had requested if he were killed in action, to be buried where he fought, according to Texas Aggie Medals of Honor. He is buried at the American Military Cemetery, south of Florence, Italy.
His wife, Inez, received Keathley's Medal of Honor in April 1945.
Honoring an Aggie
A ship was renamed the USNS Sergeant George D. Keathley in 1949. It was used to transport troops and cargo during the Korean War, according to the Naval Historical Center. The ship was converted to a survey vessel in 1966, then served in the Taiwan navy from 1972 to 1988, when it was returned to the United States.
Keathley has been honored at both of his alma maters. The military science department at Cameron University was named after Keathley in 2009. A coed dorm on the north side of the Texas A&M campus, built in 1964, is named after Keathley. It is adjoined to two other dorms, Fowler and Hughes, named after Medal of Honor recipients Thomas Fowler and Lloyd Hughes, both class of 1943.
Keathley's Medal of Honor is on display with other personal effects at the Sam Houston Sanders Corps of Cadets Center. He is recognized in the Hall of Honor at the Memorial Student Center. An artist's rendering of his military portrait is accompanied with his citation and a reproduction of an Army Medal of Honor.
-- Compiled by Claire Heathman