ZION, Ill. — It’s technically not Memorial Day yet, but nevertheless hundreds of military veterans and neighbors honored a war hero with a parade of his own Thursday as he celebrates his 103rd birthday.
While there likely won’t be any Memorial Day parades this year due to concerns about the coronavirus, his Lake County community was determined to give WWII Navy veteran Charles Kelley the celebration of the century.
Kelley sat in the front yard of his home in Zion Thursday as car after car rolled past. A seemingly never-ending parade of 300 vehicles and more than 700 people came by to thank him for his service.
“It’s quite a surprise, quite a surprise. I didn’t expect nothing like this, but I’m so happy and everybody else seems to be happy,” Kelley said.
Kelley’s turning 103 on Thursday is a remarkable feat in and of itself, but it’s even more striking when you realize he could have died 77 years ago while he was shipman at Pearl Harbor.
The then 26-year-old Kelley was in his bunk on December 7, 1941, as they sounded the alarm.
Somehow he survived both that attack and the Battle of Guadalcanal, where his ship was blown to pieces and he spent three days in the ocean before being rescued.
“I was lucky. Fortunately, when I started wondering what’s over there… I started hallucinating… the Navy picked me up and took to where the group was,” Kelley said.
He says he knew his mother prayed for him every night, and his faith sustained him.
“I had confidence in my heavenly father, my mother instilled that in us, and I think that’s what saved me — caused me to be here today,” Kelley said.
Kelley received gifts for his birthday during the parade, but in some ways the parade was his gift to the community.
“I think everybody just needs something positive and something they can all wrap their arms around,” said Julie Gonka, who came out for the parade. “He’s given so much to us today. This is for us. This is amazing.”
When asked what it feel like to turn 103, Kelley said it’s about the same as it felt to turn 100. He says his secret to a long and happy life is reflecting and saying his prayers every night.