By Errol Castens
AMORY – Lawrence E. “Rabbit” Kennedy shared a frozen foxhole with a dead soldier for days on end during World War II’s Battle of the Bulge.
He parachuted out of airplanes 506 times, and his chute worked as expected on all but jump No. 368, when a reserve chute stopped his freefall.
He carried a flag ashore in Vietnam, met John Wayne and Bob Hope, and led his men in too many patrols and combats to remember.
He earned the rank of Command Sergeant Major and more medals than uniforms are designed to hold, including four Legions of Merit.
He saved lives, took lives and – over and over – nearly lost his life.
And those are just the start of Rabbit Kennedy’s recollections of his 35-year career in the U.S. Army, which he shared in an interview last week in advance of today’s observation of Veterans Day.
Even the beginning of his Army career is a story in itself. He’d been labeled “Rabbit” in school – partly for his family’s Rabbit Ridge homeplace, partly for their dependence on cottontails for meat and partly for his skinny build.
“Oct. 9, 1940, I walked from Smithville – me and my cousin – to Tupelo. It took us two days to get there, and we joined the Army,” he said.
Kennedy went to Reed’s Department Store to buy a jacket and a pair of shoes. He had exactly one dollar, but the bill was $1.03. He promised to pay the difference when he could, and Jack Reed Sr. agreed. (It was after Kennedy retired that he finally returned to the store, asked to see Reed and counted the three pennies into his hand, giving both men a laugh and a warm recollection of Reed’s early kindness.)
The two cousins showed up at the recruitment stand next to the depot. His cousin was almost immediately sent on his way to boot camp.
Rabbit, though, didn’t meet the Army’s minimum weight requirement until he had, at the enlistment officer’s bidding, eaten a dozen bananas and drunk a bellyful of water.
An early assignment was in an artillery outfit that still used mules to pull howitzers – quite a letdown for the farm boy who thought he’d followed his last mule.
Well into the USA’s involvement in WWII, Kennedy found himself with millions of other Americans in Britain, where they assembled for the daring entry into the European mainland.
“Six days after D-Day, my outfit moved ashore. Dead bodies were still floating in the water, still lying by the road,” he said.
A few months later, Kennedy’s unit became part of the 41-day “Battle of the Bulge.”
“I was in a foxhole with a soldier that was gut-shot,” Kennedy said. “He couldn’t get medical attention and died in that hole. It was temperatures in the zeroes and snowing, and that’s when I said to myself, ‘God bless America.’”
After Germany surrendered, an invasion of Japan was expected next, but Kennedy didn’t make it past the Panama Canal before atomic bombs ended the war.
Kennedy didn’t miss getting to see Asia, though. After becoming a sergeant major – the disciplinarian who turns recruits and inexperienced soldiers into hard-fighting combat experts – he fought in Korea and later in Vietnam.
“We fought, man – and fought and fought,” he said. “The only thing that saved us was those helicopters.”
In telling of the horrific, heart-warming and occasionally humorous events of his 35-year Army career, Kennedy often transitions from one story to another with a most elementary – but most remarkable – summary: “I survived all that.”
His accomplishments are such that his photos, medals and mementos have their own room in the Amory Regional Museum, but it was the men under his command – and some beyond – that provide Kennedy’s fondest memories.
Once in Vietnam, he had the chance to intervene for a combat soldier who’d been sick in the jungle for weeks and get him hospitalized. Checking up later on the young man’s recovery, Kennedy discovered he was from Bigbee – just a few miles from his own family’s home – and made him his personal assistant.
Kennedy even testified before Congress about Army policies he said treated enlisted men unfairly.
In Vietnam, his Sunday routine was to accompany his commanding general to visit hospitalized soldiers. Between their physical wounds and the emotional drama that accompanied them, the heartbreaking exercise often compelled him to weep.
“One Sunday a soldier asked me, ‘Sergeant Major, would you call my wife and tell her that I love her?’ I said I would,” Kennedy recalled. “I walked off to the side and had a little cry. I told the general, ‘I must be weak, because I keep crying.’ The general put his arm around my neck and said, ‘Sergeant Major, I wouldn’t let my daughter marry a man who didn’t cry.’ So I knew I was all right.”
Kennedy said the Army life was good to him, his wife, their son and their daughter. He’s often matter-of-fact about his presence in desperate situations, but he thinks often of the sacrifices he’s seen others make, time and time again.
As a command sergeant major, he said, his job was to instill in his men the discipline that would give them the best chance of surviving to go home and to run interference for them when bureaucracy got in the way of human needs.
“The little guys,” he said. “That’s who I was there for.”