Wednesday, December 25, 2019

In Memoriam: Capt. William McKenna, 121st Infantry Regiment

By Major William Carraway
Historian, Georgia Army National Guard

William McKenna circa 1939. Georgia Guard Archives.

Early Life

William Andrew McKenna was born in Macon, in 1910 or 1913[1] to first generation Irish Americans William and Mary McKenna. The elder William worked as a bookkeeper in a jeweler’s store while Mary tended to seven children of which young William Andrew was the third.[2]

In May 1927, McKenna joined the local National Guard company, the famed Floyd Rifles, which had served in the 151st Machine Gun Battalion in World War I. Though still in high school McKenna took to Soldiering quickly and was promoted to private 1st class.
The 151st Machine Gun Battalion in France in 1917. Georgia Guard Archives.
 McKenna graduated from Lanier High School in 1930. Nicknamed Duck by his classmates, McKenna had played baseball, basketball and football. His high school quote was prophetic: “All great men are dying – I feel ill myself.”[3]

Preparing for War
First Lieutenant William McKenna in 1941. 
Georgia Guard Archives

McKenna rose through the enlisted ranks and by May 1939 was first sergeant of Company F. In November he was commissioned a second lieutenant. On September 16, 1940 he was accepted into federal service with Company F and the 121st Infantry and dispatched to Fort Jackson S.C. for sixteen weeks of initial training. On Dec. 26, 1940, McKenna married Ms. Cecile Cassidy during a ceremony at St. Joseph’s Church in Macon.

McKenna was promoted to 1st lieutenant March 14, 1941 and two months later, the 121st participated in the Tennessee Maneuvers followed by the Carolina Maneuvers. In the fall of 1941, the 121st was transferred to the 8th Infantry Division. 

McKenna participated in the grueling train up through the Second Army Maneuvers in Tennessee to the Desert Training Center in Yuma Arizona. He displayed impressive leadership qualities and was promoted to captain August 22, 1942. Finally, on November 25, 1943, McKenna, and the Soldiers of the 121st boarded a train bound for Camp Kilmer, N.J. before embarking from Brooklyn, N.Y. aboard the U.S.S. Beanville and Columbia. While at sea, McKenna confided that he had a suspicion that he would never return to the United States.[4]

After a ten-day voyage, the Gray Bonnets arrived in Belfast Harbor. Over the next six and a half months the 121st conducted field problems and combat training in anticipation for the Normandy Invasion.


On July 4, the first Soldiers of the Gray Bonnet Regiment splashed ashore on Utah Beach. Upon landing and consolidating, the 121st was dispatched south to La Haye du Puits where the U.S. VIII Corps was attempting to dislodge German forces and advance out of the swampy lowland terrain. Arriving on July 8, the 8th Division was assigned as the main effort of the attack which would strike a narrow front between Lessay and Perriers. 

The next morning, the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the 121st assaulted La Haye du Puits from the northeast moving out under cover of artillery. Having advanced perhaps 500 yards, the Gray Bonnets were checked by withering German machine gun fire. The 1st Battalion, in the vicinity of Hill 95 found itself in a particularly desperate situation with elements of Company A temporarily isolated. Though outnumbered, the German Infantry were well entrenched in strong hedgerow positions with interlocking fields of machine gun fire and mortar coverage. 

During the heavy fighting, McKenna led companies of the 2nd Battalion forward to reestablish contact with 3rd Battalion. Surveying the enemy line, McKenna perceived that hostile fire had ceased from a sector and moved forward to investigate. McKenna advanced to a hedgerow which concealed a considerable force of German troops. Calling loudly for their surrender, McKenna was rebuffed when the German commander ordered his Soldiers to open fire. Calmly, McKenna secured a string of hand grenades and continued to advance within a few yards of the enemy where he destroyed the German strong point with hand grenades. For his actions, McKenna was awarded the Purple Heart and Silver Star.[5]

Soldiers of the 121st Infantry move through the ruins of Hurtgen, Germany in December 1944. National Archives.
From France To Germany

McKenna fought with the 121st Infantry Regiment through Normandy and the successive Brittany Campaign. He endured savage fighting in the Hurtgen Forest and by December 1944 was leading Company B in the attack on Obermaubach, a German town that overlooked a dam on the Roer River.

On Christmas Day, 1944, McKenna was characteristically leading his men from the front, crawling ahead of the company and reporting the positions of machine gun positions for artillery. McKenna remained thus exposed until machine gun fire compelled him to return to Company B’s fighting positions just as his company was receiving a heavy artillery barrage. Ignoring the incoming fire that split fir trees and caused geysers of frozen earth to erupt around him, McKenna moved among his men’s fighting positions encouraging them to maintain their fire. When the enemy artillery fire slackened, McKenna once again moved to the front of his men to direct a counterattack. He was out in front of his company when he was killed by small arms fire. 

McKenna was posthumously awarded a second Silver Star in recognition of his bravery in the face of the enemy. He was buried in the Netherland American Cemetery with full military honors. 

On October 23, 1960, an armory was dedicated in honor of Capt. William McKenna in his hometown of Macon. 
Dedication ceremony of the William McKenna Armory October 23, 1960. McKenna’s widow Cecile participated in the unveiling ceremony as did
Lt. Col. Holden West, commander of the 3rd Medium Tank Battalion, 108th Armor Regiment. West would later serve as the first commander of the
48th Infantry Brigade and would ultimately command the Georgia Army National Guard.

[1] National Guard Registry, 1943, 784. McKenna is listed with birthdate in 1913 while 1930 US Census identifies him as 20 years old.
[2] 1920 U.S. Census
[3] The Lanierian, 1930.
[4] The Gray Bonnet: Combat History of the 121st Infantry. Baton Rouge, LA: Army & Navy Publishing Company, 1946, 43.
[5] Carraway, William. It Shall Be Done: The 121st Infantry Regiment Enters Fortress Europe.

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