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Bellmawr War Veteran Remembers WW II

By Chris Concannon

NEWS Correspondent

Each year on Memorial Day, America stops to honor its bravest of heroes who have given their lives in defense of the freedoms “we as private citizens enjoy.”

Bellmawr resident Charles Koehler, 87, defended those freedoms in the greatest of all wars, in the most tragic of circumstances.

After graduating from High School in Philadelphia (PA), Koehler enlisted in the U.S. Navy, completing his Basic Training in Newport, R.I., on October 2, 1940.

Following a brief sea tour, he arrived in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in late November 1941.

A member of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, Koehler then recalled some of his memories from the fateful day of December 7, 1941.

“We held maneuvers prior to our arrival in Pearl”, Koehler said, adding, “The Japanese had a hunch the American Navy was there.”

According to Koehler, and numerous firsthand accounts, the entire Pacific Fleet was in port.

He remembered his USS Pelias shipmate, Lloyd Neppler, also had a sense of the possibility of an attack.

Around 8:00 a.m. on the morning of December 7, “We had just finished breakfast,” he said. “Then, all hell broke loose.”

Koehler was approximately a mile away from the doomed USS Arizona when she was sunk, and recalled a crewmember known only as “Dale” from another foundering ship, the USS Oklahoma, jumping and swimming over to the Pelias, as the Oklahoma capsized.

He, along with the crew of the USS Pelias, spent another four to five months in the area, and then shipped out to Australia.

Before his discharge from the Navy in 1946, Charles, better known as “Charlie,” married his wife, Vivian, in 1945, eventually settling on Union Avenue in 1951.

A native of the “Swamp Poodle” section of North Philadelphia, the Koehlers joined Annunciation Parish in Bellmawr, and raised their six children: Chuck, Judy, Frank, John, Mike and Gary.

After 64 years of marriage, Charlie and Vivian are enjoying their golden years, as well as their 12 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

One of Koehler’s grandsons is a member of the U.S. Air Force, and recently deployed for his seventh tour of Afghanistan, a war Charlie feels very strongly about.

“We should never have been sent over there,” the outspoken Koehler stated emphatically, adding he feels sorry for all of the injured troops being sent home without their limbs.

In contrast to current Government estimates, he thinks American forces will be in that area for another 10 to 20 years.

A member of VFW Post #9563 (Crescent Park) for more than 45 years, Charlie’s son, Gary, is president of their recently formed Men’s Auxiliary, augmenting the ever-shrinking elder VFW membership and assisting with certain day-to-day operations.

He joined the Bellmawr Little League in the mid-1950s, because he had always liked baseball, and felt it was a great opportunity for kids.

After more than 50 years of service, the league, now known as Bellmawr Baseball, honored Koehler on April 11 of this year by naming the Major Field on Essex Avenue in his honor, now known as “Charles Koehler Field.”

“I initially didn’t feel the fanfare was necessary, but it was a great honor,” he admitted, humbly.

Even though he was a frequent visitor to the field, Koehler admitted he was a little suspicious that his presence on April 11 was practically demanded.

“Frank Ryder insisted on my being there”. He said, admitting further he felt something was up when he saw people that otherwise would not have been there, such as a host of family and friends.

Yet, another heroes honor for Charlie Koehler-World War II Veteran and Pearl Harbor survivor, and a hero to so many children in his 50 plus years of service to youth sports in Bellmawr.

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