PEABODY — Peter Kelleher recalled for his student interviewer how, as an Army private with the Third Army during World War II in 1944, he had kept a bridge in Saint-Nicolas in northern France from being blown up.
The 94-year-old Peabody resident recounted the night of guard duty to high school junior Samar Kanaan, 16, during the seventh annual Veterans Breakfast at Peabody Veterans Memorial High on Friday morning.
Kelleher said it was a dark night when he saw sparks from a lit fuse attached to a brick-sized charge that had been placed on one of the bridge’s columns.
“I knew what it was right away,” Kelleher told Kanaan. “It was right under the bridge, so I grabbed it and I ran down the canal, stuck it on the ground, got up and ran back to the bridge.”
He knew not to “fiddle” with explosives, so he was careful not to toss it, while also considering what might happen to the people living in boats on the nearby canal if he threw it in the river.
“So I set it down, came back and got under the bridge and ka-boom ... it exploded,” he said.
He did not realize until the next day that the blast blew a large hole in the canal wall.
“But the bridge was still there, which was what our job was,” Kelleher said.
For his act of bravery, Kelleher was awarded the Silver Star with the orders awarding him the medal signed by the legendary Gen. George S. Patton.
Kelleher is also scheduled to speak at Veterans Day observances in Peabody on Monday, first at an 11 a.m. ceremony outside City Hall on Lowell Street, and again during a Veterans Town Hall hosted by Congressman Seth Moulton from 6 to 8 p.m.
“We were in the Third Army. It’s funny,” Kelleher said of seeing Patton. “He came close to us. He was always around, underfoot. But he presented the colors for our unit, for 188th Engineers, and then shortly after that I got the Silver Star.”
Kelleher served in the Army from 1944 to 1957. He became a commissioned officer and served as a 1st lieutenant in Korea.
“I can’t get over it, they are all awake,” joked Kelleher when asked what he thought about the students hosting breakfast, which attracted 97 veterans and their families.
During the event, the high school’s chorus sang the national anthem and performed several other songs. About 70 Junior ROTC cadets escorted veterans into the building and presented a color guard. Culinary arts students cooked the breakfast, and National Honor Society students served it, Principal Christopher Lord said.
“This is an honor to Peabody veterans,” Lord said. “It’s just an opportunity to recognize the wonderful contributions that our armed forces provide for the security and safety of our country. And anytime we have an opportunity to recognize the sacrifices of the veterans, we take advantage of it.”
Freshman Ajadis Abad, who said he was new to JROTC, said when asked what he thought about Veterans Day: “I’m proud of the people who served our country to save us ... I think it’s a very important day, because a lot of people served for us, died, so I pray for them.”
When asked if he considered going into the military, someday, Abad said he was not sure.
“I’ll think about it,” he said.
Social studies teacher Abbie Gore, who teaches World War II history, said the breakfast is a project of the high school’s Community Service Club, which started it in 2013, when it attracted just 25 veterans.
“So it’s building every year,” she said. The students in the Community Service Club interview and take down veterans’ stories. The club maintains a website that features these stories and service photos of veterans, who bring the photos to the breakfast to be paired with their stories, Gore said.
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at email@example.com or on Twitter at @TannerSalemNews.