Posted: 6/10/2002 9:11:23 PM EDT
Monday, June 10, 2002, 12:00 a.m. Pacific
Tiny town salutes its World War II hero
By Nicholas K. Geranios
The Associated Press
RALSTON, Adams County [Washington] — Sixty years after his heroic death, Medal of Honor winner Reinhardt John Keppler will be honored in his tiny hometown.
In an act of supreme sacrifice, Keppler bled to death as he helped save the USS San Francisco and many of his shipmates during one of World War II's most horrific sea battles.
"In retrospect, I realize that John Keppler was the finest man I've ever known," said shipmate Jack Bennett, a retired Navy captain in San Diego who recommended Keppler for the nation's highest honor.
More than 100 people are expected for a Friday ceremony in Ralston, in which a city park and a new flagpole will be dedicated to Keppler.
He is one of only 31 Washington residents to receive the Medal of Honor but is too little remembered in his home state.
"He faded into time, just like they all did," said Randy Roth, who is leading the effort to remember Keppler.
Roth, 51, is manager of the Lind Union Elevator. As a kid, he had seen Keppler's photograph in a local church but didn't know much about him. After researching the story, Roth believed the tale must be told.
Keppler was born in Ralston in 1918, the son of a German-born minister who served in the community until 1923. The family later moved to Wapato, Yakima County, where Keppler graduated from high school, then joined the Navy.
Keppler was a boatswains mate first class on the heavy cruiser USS San Francisco and served in an anti-aircraft gun battery.
According to his Medal of Honor citation, he was first recognized for extraordinary heroism on the afternoon of Nov. 12, 1942. A Japanese torpedo plane crashed into the San Francisco, creating a huge fire. Keppler hauled wounded men away from the flames and organized the rescue of others.
Shortly after midnight Nov. 13, the San Francisco led a small group of U.S. warships against a superior Japanese force trying to destroy the desperate Marines holding a key airfield on Guadalcanal.
"We recognized this as virtually a suicide mission," Bennett recalled. "But we knew it had to be done to save the Solomons and Australia."
In what has been called one of the most furious sea battles in history, the San Francisco was hit 45 times and set ablaze as it slugged it out with two much larger Japanese battleships and other vessels at point-blank range.
The ship's commanding admiral and captain were killed on the bridge. Steering and communication were lost. The noise and concussion from the big guns caused sailors in the turrets to bleed from the ears.
When smoke began pouring from the ship's aircraft hangar, Keppler — who had been directing automatic weapons fire — realized the area was filled with ammunition and gasoline.
He ran to the hangar's opening with a hose and aimed its spray inside. He remained even as he was struck by splinters of flying steel.
"He bravely led a hose into the starboard side of the stricken area and there, without assistance and despite frequent hits from terrific enemy bombardment, eventually brought the fire under control," the Medal of Honor citation reads.
"Later, although mortally wounded, he labored valiantly in the midst of bursting shells, persistently directing firefighting operations and administering to wounded personnel until he finally collapsed from loss of blood."
Keppler died two days later at 24. He was awarded the Medal of Honor, the Navy Cross and the Purple Heart.
Five U.S. ships and five Japanese ships were sunk during the battle. Keppler was among 77 sailors killed and 105 wounded of the 1,000 crew members on the San Francisco. Miraculously, the ship took no hits below the waterline and was able to return to the West Coast for repairs. It survived the war, earning 17 battle stars.
The San Francisco was sold for scrap in 1959.
[b]On Friday, the ship and its crew will be remembered in Ralston, a hamlet with about 20 residents 110 miles south of Ritzville.[/b]
There is a grain elevator, a church and a handful of buildings, surrounded by miles of wheat fields. Much of the social life revolves around the Grange hall, which is sponsoring the event.
In addition to Keppler, Friday's ceremony will honor deceased veterans Otto and Victor Lund, Robert Kent and Donald Schwerin, Roth said.
Roth said visitors are expected from the Pearl Harbor survivors association, from the USS San Francisco association and from the association for the USS Keppler, a Navy destroyer named after the hero.
About 15 members of Keppler's family are expected, including his brother, Seattle resident Herb Keppler, 86.
A 30-foot flagpole will be lighted, along with a plaque reading, "He gave his life to save his shipmates."
What a valiant man. Truly deserving of the title hero, as most every CMH winner is...
Looks like the simplest route is I-90 exit 221 (from either direction), take Bauman Road (aka "261") going south about nine miles.
Ralston is small enough that it's not even listed as a city in the online yellow pages.
Anyone know if I've got the location right??