George Francis Kerchner, Army Ranger who fought on D-Day

George Francis Kerchner, a highly decorated Army Ranger who on D-Day successfully led an attack on enemy gun positions that earned him the Distinguished Service Cross, died Friday at his home in Midlothian, Va., of complications from a fall.

He was 93.

The son of a drug company manager and a homemaker, he was born in Baltimore and raised on North Lyndhurst Avenue.

He attended Polytechnic Institute until the 11th grade, when he left school to help support his family. He worked as a soda jerk for Arundel Ice Cream Co., which had been established by an uncle, and later as a security guard for the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Mr. Kerchner enlisted in the Army in 1942, and after completing infantry training at Camp Wheeler, Ga., he received his commission at Fort Benning, Ga., in 1943.

He was sent to Europe as a replacement officer and volunteered in November 1943 for the elite Army Rangers.

The next month, he joined the 2nd Ranger Battalion and began training in England for the D-Day invasion. On the morning of June 6, 1944, Mr. Kerchner and his fellow Rangers of D Company were to land at Pointe-du-Hoc.

Mr. Kerchner told Douglas Brinkley, author of "The Boys of Pointe-du-Hoc," that as the invasion hour approached, he attended Mass. He recalled some last-minute advice offered by the Rev. Joe Lacy.

"He said, 'When you land on the beach and you get in there, I don't want to see anybody kneeling down and praying. If I do, I'm gonna come up and boot you in the tail. You leave the praying to me, and you do the fighting.'"

As the landing craft stopped on the beach, Mr. Kerchner, eager to be first off, stepped into a crater and water swirled over his head, which caused him to lose his rifle.

He recalled the chaos and deafening sound of the barrage that roared from offshore naval vessels as they bombarded the beach.

"I remember wondering, 'How could anybody really live on the beaches with all of this fire that was landing there?'" he told Mr. Brinkley.

Mr. Kerchner became angry when two of his men were hit by German machine-gun fire.

"I figured he was shooting at me, and I had nothing but a pistol," he told Stephen E. Ambrose, author of "D-Day, June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II."

"My first impulse was to go after this machine gun up there, but I immediately realized this was rather stupid, as our mission was to get to the top of that cliff and get on with destroying those guns," he told Mr. Ambrose.

After all of his fellow officers were killed on the beach, Mr. Kerchner assumed command of D Company.

After scaling 100-foot chalk cliffs on ropes attached to grapnels, their objective was to knock out the six 155 mm German guns that were firing down on Utah and Omaha beaches, as Allied soldiers attempted to scurry off the beach and to safety.

In the ensuing fighting, D Company sustained heavy losses.

Mr. Kerchner and 15 of his men were cut off from the main body of troops and for 21/2 days tenaciously fought and held their position until they were relieved by Allied forces.

One of Mr. Kerchner's sons, Gregory P. Kerchner of Ellicott City, recalled a comrade of his father's telling him 50 years later that he had started to cry during the stress of battle.

"He said, 'When we were surrounded for so long, I had started to cry and would have kept it up if it wasn't for your dad jumping in my foxhole and holding me like a baby,'" said his son.

For his efforts and heroism, Mr. Kerchner was presented the Distinguished Service Cross in a battlefield ceremony.

"By his determined leadership and outstanding heroism, he led his company in the successful assault upon and captured 155 mm enemy gun positions," read the citation. "He tenaciously and courageously held his position until relieved and was a constant inspiration and source of encouragement to his troops."

In a wartime diary, Mr. Kerchner wrote on June 11, 1944: "Went to Mass. Thanked God. First chance to count noses. 'D' Co. has eight dead, 13 wounded, 32 missing, 15 present. … Ate good. Shaved at last. Make out report."

In July 1944, Mr. Kerchner was notified that R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. had announced on the Garry Moore-Jimmy Durante radio show that in his honor, "the makers of Camel cigarettes are sending to our fighters overseas 400,000 Camel cigarettes."

Mr. Kerchner was later wounded in the arm during the battle for St. Lo, and after convalescing in England, he was sent back to the U.S., where he was an infantry instructor. He was discharged with the rank of captain.

Other decorations included the Combat Infantryman's Badge and Distinguished Unit Citation.

Mr. Kerchner later served as executive officer with Headquarters 2nd Battalion, 175th Infantry, of the Maryland National Guard and retired in 1962 with the rank of lieutenant colonel.

After the war, he earned his General Educational Development certificant and returned to Arundel Ice Cream Co., where he eventually became company president and general manager.

In 1959, after the company's store in the Northwood Shopping Center had been picketed by African-American students from what is now Morgan State University, Mr. Kerchner told them they were welcome.

"I want you to know that you will have as much right to come in here as anyone else," Mr. Kerchner told the Afro-American newspaper.

After selling the company in 1970 to Fairlanes Co., Mr. Kerchner moved to Ocean City, where he owned and operated the Chalet Apartments on 10th Street.

The one-time Edmondson Village resident later settled in Ocean Pines. For the last seven years, he had been living in Midlothian.

He was an avid boater and fisherman.

His wife of 50 years, the former Violet Irene Schuneman, died in 1989.

A Mass will be offered at 10 a.m. Friday at St. Gabriel Roman Catholic Church, 8901 Winterpock Road, Chesterfield, Va.

Surviving are his wife of 20 years, the former Kathryn "Kay" Fairchild; two other sons, John F. Kerchner of Denton and Thomas J. Kerchner of Princess Anne; a daughter, Mary Lou Kerchner of Hebron; four grandsons; and four great-grandchildren.

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad