Reinhardt J. Keppler receives the Medal of Honor posthumously on September 17, 1943.

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D.
  • Posted 4/28/2015
  • Essay 11062

On September 17, 1943, the Medal of Honor is awarded posthumously to Boatswain's Mate Reinhardt J. Keppler (1918-1942) for his heroism in the 1942 battle of Guadalcanal, in which he was killed. Vice Admiral John Greenslade (1880-1950) presents the medal to his widow Elizabeth Keppler in a ceremony at the San Francisco headquarters of the 12th Naval District. Reinhardt Keppler grew up in Ralston, Adams County, in Southeast Washington, and joined the navy in 1936. On November 12, 1942, during the battle for Guadalcanal in the South Pacific, the heavy cruiser USS San Francisco came under heavy attack by Japanese planes. Boatswain's Mate Keppler recovered wounded and dead from a gun platform that had taken a direct hit. When fires broke out Keppler fought them, exposing himself to continuing attacks while bring the fires under control. Keppler helped other wounded while disregarding his own serious wounds, and on the early morning of November 13 he died saving shipmates and his ship.

Raised in Ralston

Reinhardt Keppler was born in Ralston in Adams County, where his father, Gottlob Keppler (1894-1965), was a minister. Reinhardt, called "Reiny" by his friends, was the fourth of eight children in the family. He attended local schools and graduated from Wapato High School in 1935.

The following February, Keppler joined the navy and served on the battleship USS West Virginia for four years. In April 1940 he reenlisted, deciding on the navy as a career. He was transferred to the heavy cruiser USS San Francisco and on October 1, 1941, was promoted to Chief Petty Officer First Class. In May 1942, while on leave, Keppler married Elizabeth West (b. 1921) of San Francisco.

Saving Shipmates at Guadalcanal

The USS San Francisco took part in the defense of Pearl Harbor and in raids on Bougainville and New Guinea. The ship faced deadly combat in the naval Battle of Guadalcanal.

On November 12, 1942, Boatswain's Mate Keppler jumped into action when a Japanese torpedo bomber crashed into the after machine-gun platform. Keppler assisted in the removal of the dead and wounded. His quick action helped saved lives. As the battle continued that evening, another Japanese attack caused fires aboard the ship. Keppler grabbed a fire hose and fought the fires. As he was trying to put out the fires, Japanese forces continued to bomb and attack the ship. Despite the attacks he was able to bring the fires under control.

Keppler was seriously wounded but did not seek medical attention. The ship came under heavy bombardment from enemy ships shortly after midnight. It was the first naval engagement of the Guadalcanal campaign. Several hours after midnight, on November 13, Keppler finally collapsed from loss of blood. Boatswain's Mate Keppler had disregarded his wounds to save his ship and shipmates. He died from his wounds. The Medal of Honor recognized his heroism.

On September 17, 1943, at the San Francisco headquarters of the 12th Naval District, Vice Admiral John Greenslade made the posthumous award of the Medal of Honor to Reinhardt Keppler, presenting the medal to Elizabeth Keppler.

Remembering Reinhardt J. Keppler

Keppler was initially buried in the American Military Cemetery at Espiritu Santo on the island of Vanuata. After the war, temporary cemeteries like that were closed and the next of kin decided on final resting places. Elizabeth Keppler had her late husband's remains returned for burial in the Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Bruno, California. The burial took place in June 1948.

In 1944 a destroyer escort under construction was to be named for Keppler, but its construction was halted. A second ship to be named in his honor was also canceled. Finally, on May 23, 1947, the USS Keppler was commissioned. Keppler's widow, now Elizabeth Anglin, took part in the commissioning. The USS Keppler served in the Korean War and the Vietnam War. It was decommissioned on June 30, 1972, and provided to the Turkish Navy. The ship was renamed the TCG Tinaztepe and served until 1982, when it was scrapped.

A plaque honoring 30 Washington Medal of Honor recipients was placed at the Veterans Memorial in Seattle's Washelli Cemetery in 1956. Reinhardt Keppler was one of those honored on the plaque. A 10-story dormitory at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton was dedicated as Keppler Hall in 1984. The Naval and Historical Museum in Vallejo, California, has on display Keppler's Medal of Honor, one of the few on public display. A park in Ralston is named in his honor.

Sources: James Warren, The War Years: A Chronicle of Washington State in World War II (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000); Donald K. and Helen L. Ross, Washington State Men of Valor, 2nd ed. (Port Orchard: Rokalu Press, 1994); "S.F. Widow to Receive Today Husband's Medal of Honor," San Francisco Chronicle, September 17, 1943, p. 5; "Destroyer to Be Named for Captain Rooks," The Seattle Times, April 29, 1944, p. 4; "Plaque to Honor 30 Medal Winners," Ibid., May 25, 1956, p. 32; "Ralston's Hero a Reminder of Freedom's Cost," Spokane Spokesman-Review, May 26, 2002, B-3.

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