Home > About > History > Historical Vignettes > Military Construction Combat > 079 - Oldest Officer

Historical Vignette 079 - The Oldest U.S. Army Officer to Serve in World War II Was an Engineer

The Oldest U.S. Army Officer to Serve in World War II Was an Engineer 

In 1923 Charles Keller retired from the U.S. Army after 33 years of outstanding service. His career began at the U.S. Military Academy, where he graduated second in his class in 1890 and was commissioned into the Corps of Engineers. Keller’s early duties included supervision of river and harbor improvements in Alabama and Florida. In 1897 he married Frances Rosenfield; the couple had two sons, Ira C. and Charles Jr.

During the Spanish-American War, Keller planted defensive mines in the harbors of Charleston and Port Royal, South Carolina. Early in the twentieth century he commanded a company of engineers in the Philippine-American War. Back in the U.S. he took charge of the U.S. Lake Survey in 1905 and was a member of several engineer boards. As a member of the Niagara Falls Committee he was instrumental in bringing about more efficient production of hydroelectric power. Next came duty as district engineer at Rock Island, Illinois, and inspector of the 13th Lighthouse District.

Brig. Gen. Charles Keller decorated with "Officier de Legion d'Honneur" by General Requichot, Commanding the 6th French Military Region, in le Palais de Justice, May 1919.

In World War I Keller went to France as deputy chief engineer of the American Expeditionary Forces. Brigadier General Keller's performance earned him a Distinguished Service Medal, and the French government made him an officer in the Legion of Honor.

The next phase of Keller’s career was truly remarkable. As the United States was preparing for the possibility of entry into World War II, the need for experienced military leaders led the Army to recall several officers out of retirement, Keller among them. In 1940 he returned to duty as district engineer of the Corps of Engineers’ Chicago District. In this capacity he directed the construction of military posts, airfields, and ordnance and aircraft plants within the district, as well as river and harbor work and flood control projects.


Final assembly bay at the Chicago
Aircraft Assembly Plant 


On the occasion of Keller’s 75th birthday, Chief of Staff of the Army General George C. Marshall sent a letter of appreciation on February 10, 1943, noting that reports of Keller’s performance in directing many large and costly projects were “inspirational.” “Certainly,” wrote Marshall, “the remarkable energy and efficiency which you have displayed . . . have put a new connotation on the saying, ‘This is a young man’s war.’”

At the time of his second retirement from the Army in 1943, he was 75 years of age, the oldest Army officer to serve on active duty during the war. In recognition of the achievements of his service in his fourth war, the Army awarded him with the Legion of Merit.

Gen. Charles Keller, a splendid example of the rich, varied, and productive career of an Army Engineer, died 16 September 1949 at the age of 81 in Coronado, California.

Maj. Gen. McCoach confers Legion of Merit
decoration on Keller, retiring as Chicago
District  Engineer. Mrs. Keller looks on.

* * *
January 2004