A few weeks before Joseph P. Killen died at 90 of kidney failure at a West Babylon hospice Sunday, the Bronze Star recipient wrote of the alternating monotony and terror he experienced as an 18-year-old infantry soldier during the last months of World War II.
He wrote of the giddy euphoria of winning pocketfuls of cash in a marathon crap game during a five-day voyage that delivered him to the European shore. He wrote of the surreal image of a German soldier who had been killed in a foxhole, lying within arm’s reach of several hand grenades. And he wrote of the stunned sadness of seeing the life ebb from the body of a mortally wounded friend — George “Combat” Keller — as they shared a last cigarette while awaiting a medical evacuation.
“His stomach had been ripped open by the same shell that caused my injuries,” Killen said in a brief memoir he had started to type out on his computer, describing the aftermath of a “friendly fire” incident during which an American fighter plane had bombed their unit near Remagen, Germany, in March 1945.
“ ‘Combat’ asked if I had any cigarettes, and could he have one. I did have only one so I lit it and we shared, by passing it back and forth between puffs. About five minutes later, in the middle of our chat, ‘Combat’ just closed his eyes and died. His passing really shook me up. I had not expected that to happen,” the 35-page memoir said.
A son, James J. Killen, of West Islip, described his father as an affable man who rarely spoke of his life as a soldier. But he said his father was deeply influenced by his gritty World War II experience.
“He had that ‘greatest generation’ quality about him,” his son said. “He would say, ‘Don’t tell me what you’re going to do, tell me what you did.’ ”
Killen, the son of an Irish immigrant, grew up in Queens, and graduated from Brooklyn Technical High School in 1944. With the U.S. Army desperate for replacement soldiers, Killen was drafted almost immediately, and was already serving as an infantryman in Europe by that November.
A member of the 47th Infantry, 9th Infantry Division, he participated in the Battle of Remagen, during which American forces secured a last remaining bridge over the Rhine River, allowing Allied forces to sweep into Germany for the final assault on Berlin. His son said Killen received the Bronze Star for his role in that operation.
After his June 1946 honorable discharge as a private first class, he met Emma Lovito at the Mastic Beach bungalow community that both their families used as a summer retreat. They married in 1949, and moved to Valley Stream a year later. Killen worked as a draftsman with NYC Local 28 of the Sheet Metal Workers Union until he retired in 1988. His wife died in 2008.
He is survived by his son, and a daughter, Anne Monteleone, of West Babylon.
A wake is scheduled at the Boyd-Spencer Funeral Home, in Babylon, from 7 to 9:30 p.m Wednesday, and on Thursday from 2 to 4:30 p.m and 7 to 9:30 p.m. There will be a funeral Mass Friday at Holy Name of Mary Roman Catholic Church in Valley Stream at noon, followed by burial at 1:45 p.m. at Long Island National Cemetery.