SALEM -- As a tank commander during World War II, Leonard Kieley survived a harrowing yearlong march through German-occupied Europe.
So when he was asked what it's going to be like to turn 100, which he does on Saturday, he shrugged his shoulders and said, "Never thought I'd make it."
"I saw a lot of action," Kieley said in an interview before a day-early birthday party Friday at the John Bertram House in Salem. "So I never thought I'd make the next day."
Residents and workers at the Bertram House, the assisted living home across from Salem Common where Kieley lives, marked his triple-digit milestone with a toast and birthday cake. Eighteen residents sat around a long table and sang happy birthday to their second-oldest resident (another turned 100 two months ago).
On Saturday, his family will host an open house in his honor from 2 to 4 p.m. at the VFW Post on Derby Street in Salem, which anyone is welcome to attend. Salem state Rep. Paul Tucker is scheduled to read a proclamation from Gov. Charlie Baker, and Kieley will also receive a letter from the White House, said his daughter, Kathleen Draper of Beverly.
Kieley, who grew up in Bedford, is one of the dwindling number of remaining World War II veterans. He was a student attending Syracuse University on an athletic scholarship for hockey and track when he was drafted into the Army in 1940.
Kieley graduated from officer candidate school and became a commander of a tank company serving in Gen. George S. Patton's famous 4th Armored Division. He also served under Brig. Gen. Albin Irzyk, a Salem native who has a park in Salem named in his honor.
Kieley was awarded two silver stars, one bronze star, and five additional bronze stars for participating in every major European campaign on the march through France, Belgium, Czechoslovakia and Germany. He said he was shot out of five different tanks. From July through September, he and his fellow soldiers lived in their tanks (five to a tank) and "off the land" for their food, he said.
Asked about facing combat, he said, "There's no way you can describe a Stuka (a German plane) diving down on you, or beautiful artillery waking you up every morning. Each of my decorations reminds me of a particular battle."
Kieley said he met Patton twice. "I sincerely believe that he believed he was the reincarnation of one of the great Greek generals," he said. "He's the reason we went so far so fast."
After the war, Kieley returned to Syracuse to earn his degree. He went back to the Bedford area and started a home fuel delivery business with his own hose and a rented truck, eventually building the business to 13 trucks. He and his wife raised four children, and he became involved in the community as a member of the town's finance and planning boards.
Draper, his daughter, said her father's experience during World War II defined him as man.
"When you're 20 years old, it really just impacted him in a way that nothing in the rest of his life could do and it shaped the kind of guy he was," Draper said.
Kieley is in relatively good health. Only three years ago he threw out the first pitch at a Red Sox game. He said he is happy to be celebrating his 100th birthday. But he added that the milestone is not so much about him as about what he represents.
"All that I've taken in combat, now being 100 . . . God has done a pretty damn good job," he said.
This article is written by Paul Leighton from The Salem News and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.