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Robert Kehoe, OSS member honored for valor in World War II, dies at 98

Robert Kehoe is seen in an undated photo during World War II.

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By ADAM BERNSTEIN | The Washington Post | Published: September 1, 2020

Robert Kehoe was 9 when his mother died of tuberculosis. During the Depression in central New Jersey, he helped his father pay her medical bills by working in strawberry fields for 15 cents per hour. He grew into a pensive youth whose interest in linguistics earned him the unusual yearbook distinction of being named most likely to become a lexicographer.

He was hapless, even hopeless, in sports and a flop as a lab assistant in a chemical plant and as a Remington typewriter salesman. He took science classes at Rutgers University in the vague hope of qualifying for medical school, but his grades plummeted and he dropped out at 19, shortly before the U.S. entered World War II.

The Army Air Corps, he recalled in an oral history, “was a big attraction, largely because most of us had barely seen an airplane before.” But he was too nearsighted to pilot a plane and wound up as an Army Signal Corps radio operator. At Camp Crowder, Mo., he proved adept at Morse code but spent much of his time in training, exactly the sort of drudgery he hoped he could escape by joining the military.

One day, he said, over the mess hall loudspeaker came a call for volunteers for an assignment that was overseas and hazardous: training for unconventional warfare with the Office of Strategic Services, the CIA’s wartime precursor.

Kehoe fulfilled the necessary requirements, including a willingness to jump from airplanes into enemy-held territory. “When you’re 19, 20,” he told an interviewer last year, “this sounded, and it was, very exciting.”

He received an OSS assignment as the wireless-radio operator for a three-man operational group that parachuted into Brittany, a peninsular region in northwestern France, on June 9, 1944, three days after the D-Day invasion just to the east in Normandy.

Kehoe’s team and dozens of others were tasked with arranging airdrops of supplies and weapons for the Allied commandos and French resistance fighters seeking to divert the Germans from the Normandy coastline. The Germans resorted to desperate measures, including the torture and killing of suspected spies and collaborators.

Kehoe, who died Aug. 28 at 98, received the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army’s second-highest award for valor, for helping organize, arm and direct the anti-German paramilitary resistance.

“Despite the grave personal danger to himself,” read his citation, “he maintained scheduled radio transmission with London headquarters and made possible the sending and effective use of resistance forces numbering more than 4,000. He actively participated in sabotage activities and in joint American-French actions … (that) contributed immeasurably to the success achieved by the French resistance forces in their support of the allied armies.”

Kehoe, who at the time held the rank of sergeant, was the youngest and least battle-tested member of his trio, which included a 26-year-old British major who had fought in raids along the Norwegian coast and a 32-year-old French lieutenant who had dodged bullets in France and North Africa.

Their initial parachute landing in rural Brittany went smoothly. Local farmers and members of the resistance met them with embraces and strong cider. But the Germans noticed their bonfires and, on June 11, sent soldiers to scout the area.

The French guerrilla teams, newly fortified with weapons and comprising young and eager fighters, grew “trigger-happy,” Kehoe said. When unsuspecting German soldiers stopped by a house simply to ask for directions, the French fighters turned the encounter into a bloodbath.

The commotion of gunfire and grenades sent hundreds of German reinforcements pouring into the area. Kehoe and his team settled into a cow pasture near the village of Peumerit-Quintin, miles from the nearest paved road, hiding in a ditch with a blanket for cover from the rain. Without formal shelter or even a tent, they avoided being spotted by German air reconnaissance.

Despite their remote location, Kehoe and his team managed to keep in touch with the partisans and to monitor wounded Allied commandos being cared for in a farmhouse.

“I remember only one occasion during this three-week period when, completely soaked, we broke down and retreated to the old farmhouse sheltering the wounded men,” he wrote in a remembrance. “After drying out and eating a warm meal, we spent a luxurious night in the adjacent barn, warmed by a year’s supply of hay and fermenting manure — a perfect cure for the cold I was developing.”

Kehoe and his unit arranged for the delivery of additional supplies — boots for the wet and rocky terrain were especially useful, the mistaken drop of women’s underwear less so — and helped train the resistance in demolition. Their success in damaging German facilities and taking out enemy convoys, Kehoe said, sustained morale among the French amid the subsequent and often-ruthless reprisals.

Author Colin Beavan, relying in part on an interview with Kehoe, wrote in his book “Operation Jedburgh: D-Day and America’s First Shadow War” that the Germans “caught a Resistance liaison girl, lashed one end of a rope under her armpits, the other end to the saddle of a horse, and dragged her to her death. Discovering a farm that had been (another OSS team’s) onetime hiding place, the Germans wrenched the live farmer’s head off his neck, and then stabbed his wife and children.”

At one point, Kehoe and his team moved into an abandoned building closer to a major crossroads to monitor German troop strength and supplies headed to Normandy. From there, he established a network of lookouts and transmitted valuable information back to operations planners in London.

But he said “overconfidence” occasionally set in, and his team was unprepared for a sudden attack by Germans who had discovered their location. Kehoe scrambled into the woods, without time to destroy their radio equipment and maps indicating drop zones. He hid for hours in a brier patch, clutching his .45-caliber pistol.

“I held it in my hand outstretched toward the trail a few feet away,” he recounted, recalling a German patrol that passed mere feet from him. “I was unable to prevent my hand from shaking constantly. Curiously, however, whenever a threat approached, the shaking stopped as my whole body became tense and alert. The body hormones apparently knew their job and did it well.”

After regrouping with his team after nightfall, he returned to the relative safety of ditches and fields. They sent word of their whereabouts to another three-man OSS team, which arranged for London to airdrop a new radio. Kehoe and his comrades were operating again within 10 days and maintained a steady flow of information and arms until the Allied tank columns arrived.

Robert Richard Kehoe, the son of Irish immigrants, was born in New Brunswick, N.J., on May 23, 1922. His father was an executive with Johnson & Johnson. The youngest of six, he was raised primarily by his siblings.

After serving in France, Kehoe finished his OSS service in China assisting the Nationalist army in its war against Japan. He completed his undergraduate degree at Rutgers in 1947, then received a master’s degree in political science from Columbia University in 1949 and a doctorate in East Asia studies from American University in 1970.

He worked at the CIA from 1949 to 1984, mainly training intelligence officials in subjects including Chinese Communist ideology, according to his family. He moved to Colorado from Great Falls, Va., in 1997 and died at a retirement home in Boulder of complications from spinal stenosis, said his son, Michael Kehoe.

Kehoe was married to Ann Heckman from 1954 until her death in 2010. In addition to his son, Michael, of Bozeman, Mont., survivors include two other children, John Kehoe of Centennial, Colo., and Marion Down of Boulder; and four grandchildren.

In an interview last year with the OSS Society, a group that seeks to preserve the spy agency’s legacy, he recalled the preparations he made as he set out for his mission in France. He said he was too preoccupied with the mundane — clothing, food and such — to be scared.

“The only time I really thought much about it,” he said, “was going up … toward the plane, I was saying to myself, ‘Oh my God, you got yourself into this. You can’t get out now.’ ”

Robert Kehoe prepares for a parachute jump in World War II.
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