Missing in battle: The disappearance of General Charles "Bull" Keerans

By Sean Chase, The Daily Observer

Aheavy mist of cloud and ash rises from the repetition of artillery barrages and machine gun fire.

All is quiet on the battlefield. Combatants on both sides lie either dead or dying. If they are lucky, the survivors are rushed to aid stations and live to see their families one day. The dead are either buried where they lay or escorted with honours to a cemetery.

Then there are others who cannot be found -they may have been killed or captured. Anxious families are left to speculate on their fates, sometime for decades. Sometimes forever. They are called MIA's - Missing in Action.

One of the more curious MIA's was Brigadier General Charles "Bull" Keerans. He remains the highest ranked officer among the 74,000 American missing from the Second World War. Initally believed to have died when his troop transport spiraled into the Mediterranean Sea, did the general survive only to disappear, along with thousands of allied soldiers, into the Soviet Gulag archipelago?

A native of Charlotte, North Carolina, Charles Leslie Keerans graduated from West Point in 1919. He was then commissioned into the infantry. He had a reputation for being a bit of a daredevil who relished in risky motorcycle racing. His quick rise in the ranks culminated with command appointments at Fort Bragg and Fort Benning. When the U.S. joined the war in 1941, the "Bull," as his troops called him, was appointed the Chief of Staff of the 101st Airborne Division. In 1942, he was promoted brigadier general and assigned to the 82nd Airborne as its assistant divisional commander. He then shipped out to North Africa.

After midnight on July 9, 1943, the allies launched their invasion of Axis-occupied Sicily. Attacking from the east was the British 8th Army, led by General Montgomery, which included the 1st Canadian Infantry Division. General Patton led the 7th U.S. Army, which would land forces in the west. From the outset, "Operation Husky" was not without its difficulties.

The U.S. 505th Parachute Regiment, commanded by Colonel James Gavin and part of the 82nd, were dropped behind the enemy's coastal defenses. Their intended DZ, or drop zone, was east of Ponte Olivo, eight kilometres inland from Gela which would serve as the American bridgehead for the coming invasion. A combination of strong winds, enemy fire and C-47 pilots not acquainted with the region resulted in the unit's 3,406 men being scattered over a 60-mile area.

"Bull" Keerans was waiting in Tunisia for the codeword to launch the second wave of airborne troops. On the morning of July 11, he received the message: "Mackall tonight. Wear white pajamas." He ordered the 504th to prepare to drop that evening on an airfield at Farello and reinforce the seaborne landings.

Although he was instructed to remain in Tunisia to supervise the movement of the division and subsequent resupply, Keerans could not resist the opportunity to join in the battle. At the last minute, he decided to accompany a C-47 flown by lieutenants Ray Bousch and John Gibson. As the flight was scheduled to return after the drop, he figured he would be back in Tunisia before dawn.

That night, the regiment flew north towards the island. As they approached the Sicilian coast, the lead planes were peppered with tracer fire from below. The anti-aircraft fire was coming from the allied naval force which had just been bombed by German Junkers. Keerans and the regiment were now flying into a hailstorm of "friendly fire."

Planes sustaining direct hits exploded in the air. In the most horrifying scene to observers below, panicked paratroopers leapt from the C-47s without hooking their static lines and plunged to their deaths. Those who deployed their chutes ended up being shot in midair by American ground troops mistaking them for German or Italian paratroopers.

In total, 23 planes had been downed by the barrage of friendly fire that night. Eightyone paratroopers were killed, 132 were wounded, while another 60 died in the troop carriers.

The next day, divisional headquarters heard that the plane carrying Brigadier General Keerans had gone down with no survivors. Although his body was never recovered, he was officially listed as killed in action. It wasn't until weeks later that survivors of Keerans' C-47 emerged to provide eyewitness accounts that changed the general's status to missing in action.

On that terrible night, shells ripped through the floor of Keerans' C-47, killing most of the passengers -made up of divisional staff. Sgt. Fielding Armstrong came to his senses and yelled to the pilots that the port engine was on fire. Wrestling with the controls, John Gibson managed to pull the aircraft out of a spiral and belly landed on the water, some 400 yards from shore. Armstrong scrambled out of the partially submerged rear door. He knew there were only a scant few to make it out of the dying plane. He paddled through a sea thick with gasoline and oil.

As the sun rose, Armstrong staggered onto shore searching for other survivors. He was elated when he ran into a familiar face -Bull Keerans. He appeared dishevelled but unharmed. The general recounted his escape from the ditched craft and informed Armstrong he had spoken to other soldiers on the beach. The sergeant replied that he was going to hook up with his unit.

Keerans answered that he was heading inland and walked away. That was the last anyone saw of Brig.-Gen. Charles Keerans.

Once divisional headquarters heard of accounts that Keerans had survived, headquarters across the island were notified to keep a lookout for the missing one-star general. Commanders were puzzled when they received no sightings of the "Bull." He had simply vanished.

When POW camps were liberated across Europe in 1945, military officials sought out Brigadier General Keerans but there was no evidence he was ever imprisoned by the Germans. One possibility is that he may have been imprisoned in a German stalag later liberated by the Soviet Red Army. It's possible that the Soviets saw in Keerans a valuable source of intelligence, as he was an assistant divisional commander. While there is no direct evidence in his case, it has become widely accepted that hundreds, possibly thousands of allied POWs ended up in Soviet prisons after the war.

In 1991, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee produced a report claiming thousands of Commonwealth soldiers, including British, Canadian, Australian and South African, had been transferred from their previous German stalags to Soviet custody in the spring of 1945. As recently as 2001, the U.S. Russian Joint Commission, formed to investigate unconfirmed reports of Americans being held in the former Soviet Gulag prison system, estimated 500 American prisoners had been kept after the war. Soviet leader Josef Stalin anticipated using them as bargaining chips in the ensuing cold war with the western allies.

The fate of Charles "Bull" Keerans has never been resolved. He left behind a wife, Margaret Johnson, and one son. When Margaret died in 1962, she was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. On the tombstone, his name appeared above hers.

Sean Chase is a Daily Observer multimedia journalist

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