paper about the US military, an article stated that O’Kelley “displayed the greatest traits of courage and leadership during the assaults, on June 6 and 8 [at the] Battle of Bois de Bellau, France, against strong enemy machine gun positions. This brave soldier was killed in performance of his duty.” An online list of World War I casualties from Georgia included Sgt. Grover O’Kelley, and he was noted on a Marine Corps website as having been posthumously awarded
(around 1920) the Navy Cross, Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, and Croix de Guerre. With all of this information at hand, the question of whether or not O’Kelley survived World War I remained unanswered—as did the question
of how someone with his name appeared in a photo taken at Howard College after the war.
We could only find Georgia military enlistment records for O’Kelley, so we had no idea how he ended up in Alabama. Our first challenge in trying to verify that someone named O’Kelley was at Howard College to receive an award at some point in time revolved around confirming the date of the photo in the Birmingham Ledger. The clipping was not dated, but the Birmingham Ledger ceased publication in 1922. The caption under the photo listed the presenter of the award as Howard College president Charles Williams.
Research of college records proved that Williams left Howard College about 1921, so we concluded that the photo was taken around 1920–1921. The 1921 Howard College yearbook, Entre Nous, showed O’Kelley in a freshman class
photograph, identifying him as a military hero, class president, and pre-law major. But the college catalog listed him as from Blount County, Alabama, rather than from Georgia. Was this the same person the USMC librarian sought?
College registrar records lacked O’Kelley’s data, but in searching the surname, we found records matching a Ruth A. Davis O’Kelley, who was enrolled in 1917 but who left school and finally graduated in 1941. The next record was G. Davis O’Kelley, whose parents were listed as Grover C. O’Kelley and Ruth A. Davis O’Kelley. Exploring the possibility that Grover and Ruth were husband and wife, we found their marriage record of June 1926 and the entire family (including son Davis) in the 1940 census. Our next source, Birmingham city directories, placed the couple in Birmingham, with O’Kelley a practicing lawyer by 1927.
With this information, we searched alumni records and located his son, now Dr. G. Davis O’Kelley. In a telephone conversation, Dr. O’Kelley filled in many of the details and helped to solve the mystery about his father’s Georgia and Alabama origins. Grover O’Kelley was born and lived in Georgia until 1903, when his parents, Frank and Mary O’Kelley, died. He was sent to live with relatives in Blount County, Alabama. O’Kelley’s military enlistment records with Georgia as
birthplace were accurate. He probably enlisted in Georgia because his sister lived there, and he wanted to tell her goodbye. He did fight in the battle in France and was wounded, but he was saved by a soldier falling on top of him. After the battle, the Germans found O’Kelley and took him prisoner.
Davis explained that his father was discharged in July 1919. I reread his military service record: all of his service was noted and posthumous medals had been awarded. Also recorded was that O’Kelley’s “exit from service was July 1919.” Grover entered Howard College in September to study law. He left Howard College, completed his law degree at Birmingham School of Law, and began a law firm. He died on May 21, 1969, with the Birmingham News obituary published on May 22.
Davis explained that his father knew that he had been declared dead, but despite repeated attempts to correct the records with the Marine Corps, nothing was ever done to correct the error. Instead, Grover O’Kelley proudly hung the Distinguished Service Cross citation alongside an article noting his death and a photograph of the few men from his unit who survived the battle.
From the Editors: Looking for O’Kelley was a puzzle that had more gaps than pieces. If you are looking for members of the military, use all military records (enlistment, service, and other related records), but as with all records, read thoroughly for every fact. Other helpful resources for tracking down a subject include contacting an educational institution’s archives for enrollment or attendance records; schools may also have catalogs, yearbooks, or school newspapers. City directories assist in following people through the years with data about spouses, addresses, and professions. Also, make sure you recheck your sources after finding clues—what you found earlier may make more sense and add another piece to the puzzle.
About the Author
Elizabeth Crabtree Wells has been the processing archivist in the special collection and archives department of Samford University’s library since 2013, after serving as the department chair for thirty-eight years. She is a co-editor of this department with Yvonne Shelton Crumpler, who retired in 2008 from the Tutwiler Collection of Southern History and Literature, where she had worked as a research librarian in special collections for thirty-four years. Department sponsor, HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, is a global leader in DNA research.