Herbert F. Keough, 94
Rank: Staff sergeant
War zone: Europe
Years of service: 1942-45
Most prominent honors: European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal
Specialty: Combat engineer
By Lou Michel
News Staff Reporter
Raised on a farm and handy, with lots of different skills, Herb Keough proved a good fit for a combat engineers unit in World War II.
After leaving the Southern Tier, he attended mechanical classes at Alfred State College and could repair just about anything.
“As combat engineers, we would say we could fix anything but a broken heart or the break of day,” the 94-year-old Keough says as he shares his story of Army service.
But he openly admitted he did not want to go into the service. He had just married and had established himself working in an auto and body repair shop, just outside Geneva.
“I was just getting started,” he says. “I was married, had a new car and a good job.”
Yet Keogh says that it never crossed his mind to refuse Uncle Sam’s call to duty, and he was soon in Africa serving as a member of the 2759th Combat Engineers Battalion. One memorable stop was in Algeria.
“We guarded an airfield in Oran,” he says, “but were doing other things. I remember one time this anti-aircraft company wanted more cases welded to the sides of their guns so that they could reload quicker by having more ammunition at hand. It was so hot that you didn’t dare lay your tools in the sand. You stuck them up straight in the sand. That way, they didn’t get so hot. If you laid them in the sand, you’d burn your hands.”
After leaving Algeria, it was on to Italy.
“We were always right behind the infantry,” he says.
But the job of building roads to supply the front lines sometimes proved impossible, especially during the Italian rainy season.
“The mud was so deep, we couldn’t move our bulldozers. Everything came to a standstill. Then, one day, I saw the infantry was using mules to cart ammunition to the front lines, and I thought to myself, ‘What a way to run a war.’ ”
Next stop for the 2759th was Corsica, in preparation for the invasion of southern France.
“When we got to France, of course, the infantry had taken over pretty well,” he recalls. “We started moving toward Germany, and the Germans still had some planes left and they were harassing us.”
The engineers pressed onward, building and repairing several bridges along the way to cross rivers.
“One time, when we were rebuilding a bridge that had been bombed, we were making our own concrete out in the woods,” he says. “We had other people cutting lumber for the deck, and we were welding steel I-beams on the bottom of the bridge. We’d get paddled out into the middle of the river in a little barge with an arc welder. The arc would shoot a flame up into sky that you could see for miles at night, and this single German plane would come out when I was working. I would listen for the direction it was coming in, and I would go behind the concrete support.”
It might seem an unnerving experience, but Keough says he found a way to cope as the enemy plane spat bullets at him.
“Whenever I went out on the barge, I brought a bottle of champagne with me to keep my spirits up,” he says. “When I hid behind the concrete abutment, I would take a swig.”
And how did he get the champagne?
“We had just pushed the Germans out of a town and they abandoned truckloads of champagne they’d stolen from the French,” he says. “I sent one of my 2½-ton trucks up and had it loaded with champagne. So we had lots of spirits.”
The only thing better than free booze, he says, was his return home when the war ended.
After a mere two-week break, Keough was back at work as an auto mechanic. Sadly, though, the time and distance caused by the war had turned his marriage into a casualty.
But in time, he found new love and married his boss’ daughter, the former Ruth Whitehead, and eventually came to own the business, which evolved into a Hudson automobile dealership.
“We raised a wonderful family,” Keough said of their three children.
But the endless work involved in running the Waterloo car dealership wore on Keough, and he sold the business. A few years later, he says, “the perfect job” presented itself in the form of an offer to serve as the Western New York regional director of the Vehicle Safety Division for the state Department of Motor Vehicles.
He moved around, first to Buffalo, then Holland, and eventually to Java, where he still lives on a 65-acre farm and manages to stay busier than men perhaps half his age.
“I used to cut my own trees out back and bring them to a sawmill in the yard and make lumber,” he says. “Four years ago, I cut enough lumber for hardwood flooring for my daughter’s home in Duluth, Minn. It was beautiful cherry wood. I drove it out to her home on a trailer with another one of my daughters.”
That’s not all.
“Over the years, I’ve cut lumber and helped neighbors build barns and two-car garages with it,” he says.
And while he has stopped selling lumber, Keough continues to cut his own firewood.
“I burn 20 cords of wood a winter,” he says, “but the whole neighborhood helps me cut it.”
As for World War II, Keough says he has succeeded in “blanking out the bad, bad stuff” and recalls only “the crazy things we did as young engineers who sometimes had too much time on their hands.”
Such as the time they built a camp for a company of nurses.
“We built an outhouse and put a speaker inside the hole and ran the wires and a microphone to a nearby woods,” he says, “and when someone went into the outhouse, we said, ‘Ma’am, would you mind moving over? We’re painting down here.’ ”
He still chuckles at the memory but is not without sympathy for those targeted by the practical joke.
After all, he’s in his mid-90s and regarded as a gentleman.