A veteran of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, Command Sergeant Major (CSM) (Retired) John E. Kessling began his service career by joining the Merchant Marine in 1944 at the age of 16. After completing training at Sheepshead Bay, New York, he became a crewman on two oil tankers, USS Gulf Port and USS Black Jack as well as the USS Santa Barbara, a Liberty Ship that returned some of the early WWII POWs from Le Havre, France. Having served at ports of call in Augusta, Sicily, Napoli, and Toranto, Italy, Antwerp, Belgium, Down, England, Le Havre, France, and Casablanca, Africa, he returned home to Newtown, Ohio in 1945.
Enlisting in the U.S. Army at Fort Jackson, South Carolina in August 1946, CSM Kessling volunteered for parachute duty. Completing jump school and glider training on 12 March 1947, he was assigned to the weapons platoon of Headquarters and Headquarters Company 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR), 82nd Airborne Division as a 57mm recoilless rifle gunner. Remaining in the 82nd, CSM Kessling progressed through the positions of weapons platoon squad leader and section sergeant until June 1951 when he was promoted to Master Sergeant (E-7) and became the platoon sergeant of the weapons platoon. In July 1951, he was assigned as First Sergeant, Company F, 504th PIR and participated in Operation TIMBER-SNAPPER, an atomic bomb test in Yucca Flat, Nevada. Returning to Fort Bragg as a 24 year old First Sergeant, CSM Kessling applied for and was accepted into Special Forces training in October 1952.
Assigned to the 18th Special Forces Operations Detachment, District B of the 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne), CSM Kessling completed Army Training Program requirements and was awarded his SF qualification designator of prefix ‘3’ on 25 February 1953. Responding to a Department of the Army levy requirement, he was one of 22 enlisted men to be selected for newly created Special Operations units in Korea. As a member of the second shipment of Special Forces qualified personnel, CSM Kessling arrived in Korea in April 1953. There he was assigned to the 8240th Army Unit, 6th Partisan Infantry Regiment (PIR), Tactical Liaison Office (TLO) located with the 31st and 32nd Infantry Regiments of the 7th Infantry Division (ID), the 40th and 2nd IDs and the Ethiopian Regiment. During his eleven months in Korea, CSM Kessling’s TLO team sent 119 agents across the lines to gather information that was later processed as intelligence to be used against Chinese Communist and North Korean People’s Army units.
Returning to the United States, CSM Kessling was once again assigned to Company F, 504th PIR as a platoon sergeant. Remaining there for just a brief time, he was then selected for special duty as the 504th Regimental NCO Academy Senior NCO. This was followed by positions as instructor for airborne qualification training of incoming 82nd infantry and artillery replacements, and as Senior NCO manager of the 82nd NCO Open Mess Club on Yadkin Road at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Reassigned to the 2nd Airborne Battle Group (Reinforced) 503rd Infantry, CSM Kessling, along with the other members of the unit were forward deployed to Okinawa in June 1960. Realizing that advancement in 503rd was going to be difficult at best, CSM Kessling requested transfer back to Special Forces and reported to the 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne) on 23 October 1962.
Back in Special Forced, CSM Kessling was assigned first to Company A, 1st SFG (A) where he served as an Intelligence Sergeant on ODA-112. While on ODA-112, he completed the first of his three six-month temporary duty tours in South Vietnam at Dak To in the II Corps area of operation from January to July 1963. Returning to Okinawa, CSM Kessling transferred to Company C, and became the Team Sergeant for ODA-314. Deploying for the second time from January to July 1964, ODA-314 was assigned to To Chau in the IV Corps where they completed a light aircraft runway for helicopters and L-20 aircraft to conduct resupply, mail, medevac, and aerial reconnaissance missions. On his third and final tour with ODA-322 at Kham Duc in I Corps, CSM Kessling was seriously wounded by small arms fire on 4 March 1965 and was returned to Walter Reed Army Medical Center for treatment and rehabilitation until August 1965.
Returning to duty in December 1965, CSM Kessling became the Operations Sergeant Major for the U.S. Army Special Warfare Center where he served until returning to Vietnam as the 5th SFG (A) Operations Sergeant Major from December 1969 through December 1970. After a tour in the JFK Center for Special Warfare Inspector General’s office, CSM Kessling became the Chief Instructor in the Field Training Division at Camp Mackall, North Carolina until 1973 when he resumed the duties of Operations Sergeant Major at the JFK Center. As a result of complications from his wounds, CSM Kessling retired in December 1976 with thirty years, one month, and one day’s service. Seventeen of those years were spent in U.S. Army Special Forces units and assignments.
Since his retirement, CSM Kessling had become a successful mentor and staunch advocate, assisting more than 14 individual veterans in filing claims for disabilities they incurred during their years of service. His efforts were not just confined to soldiers, but also to their widows. As if these activities were not enough, CSM Kessling remained active in the Regiment as a member of numerous boards that have identified and exposed individuals falsely claiming to be SF qualified and as a member of the Teller Committee to select the most qualified candidates to serve as officers and represent the Special Forces Association.
CSM Kessling’s awards and decorations include:
From the U.S. Department of Transportation Maritime Administration: THE MERCHANT MARINE COMBAT BAR, THE VICTORY MEDAL, THE ATLANTIC WAR ZONE BAR, AND THE MEDITERRANEAN MIDDLE EAST WAR ZONE BAR.
From the U.S. Army: THE LEGION OF MERIT (1ST OLC); BRONZE STAR WITH ‘V’ DEVICE (3RD OLC); PURPLE HEART; AIR MEDAL, ARCOM; VIETNAMESE CROSS OF GALLANTRY (W/ SILVER STAR); GOOD CONDUCT MEDAL (10TH AWARD); NDSM (1ST OLC); EXPEDITIONARY MEDAL (3 CAMPAIGN STARS); KOREA SERVICE MEDAL (2 CAMPAIGN STARS); KOREA MEDAL 50TH ANNIVERSARY MEDAL; KOREAN WAR VETERAN MEDAL; VIETNAM CAMPAIGN MEDAL (1 CAMPAIGN STAR); UNITED NATIONS KOREAN SERVICE MEDAL; VIETNAMESE CAMPAIGN MEDAL (W/ 60 DEVICE); THE FRENCH LEGION OF HONOR CHEVALIER (KNIGHT); COMBAT INFANTRYMAN’S BADGE (2ND AWARD); MASTER PARACHUTIST BADGE, GLIDER BADGE; VIETNAMESE MASTER PARACHUTIST BADGE; KOREA UNIT CITATION; VIETNAMESE CROSS OF GALLANTRY W/ PALM; PRESIDENTIAL UNIT CITATION; VIETNAM CIVIL ACTION MEDAL 1ST CLASS.
A Graveside Service will be held at 9:30 AM Saturday, September 26, 2020 at LaFayette Memorial Park.
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