Updated May 2023 with additional information.
Civilians can empathize and respect and honor, but because they haven’t lived it, they can’t fully understand what military veterans have been through. That’s one of the reasons why there exists a special bond between those who served in the armed forces.
But what everybody knows is that a dumpster is no place for a hero.
That’s where Charles Keyton’s story begins. It may not be your typical Memorial Day story, but it’s certainly one that demands to be told.
Keyton is a 62-year-old native of the area whose 26-year United States naval career relocated him to his current home in San Diego. While his patriotism is rooted locally, it blossomed in the military.
“People join the military for many reasons, but one of them is patriotism,” said Keyton. “We’re Americans and we’re serving our country. We give up some of our freedoms. It’s something that civilians don’t experience. It’s peace through strength. Then you have these guys with you, and you have each others’ backs. You spend some close times with those buddies.
“With everything that makes us successful, there’s a bond,” Keyton added. “Even if we’ve never met each other, we’ve had that bond. Even if we’ve never met, it’s like we’ve known each other our whole lives. Sometimes I’ll go to Home Depot, and people will see me, and they’ll see my [Navy] hat. And they’ll come up to me and we’ll talk, and there’s a connection. It’s like we’re brothers.”
It was the early 2000s when Keyton’s brother, Mt. Gretna’s Jim Keyton, stumbled across something interesting within the confines of a dumpster outside of a Hershey manufacturing facility. It was a poster-like print of 26 local men who had been employed at the Hershey Chocolate Company and had died in World War II entitled, “We Pause to Pay Tribute to Our Heroic Sons and Former Employees.”
Jim knew his brother would cherish the print, so after a little dumpster diving and recovery, he gave it to him. Now the framed poster hangs in Keyton’s home, and every Memorial Day, the Keytons verbally pay tribute to the local men who paid the ultimate price for their country.
“They were all guys who went to war, and they never came home, so they were awarded Gold Stars,” said Keyton. “They were all Mr. [Milton] Hershey’s employees. They were from Hershey, Palmyra, and Annville. Somebody was cleaning out some stuff and they said, ‘Get rid of these.’ Me and my family, we all worked there and my brother knew I would value it. It’s so unique.
“These guys went out and gave their freedom, and their lives,” added Keyton. “They changed the direction of our lives and the direction of the world. Every morning when I wake up I’ll walk past them and say, ‘Good morning, men.’ I’ve started researching them and their stories—some were classified, then declassified.”
Keyton later learned that three of the men had been on the Rohna, a hidden tragedy of WWII. 1,138 men were killed on November 26, 1943 when a British troopship, the HMT Rohna, was destroyed in an air raid on the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Algeria. The tragedy was not declassified until the 1990s and not widely known until it was reported by Charles Osgood, as well as the subject of a documentary.
One of the men who had been honored in Hershey’s “Hall of Heroes” is Robert Eckert, for whom the Campbelltown VFW was named. Eckert, who was from the Campbelltown-Palmyra area and worked in the paper box department at Hershey’s, was inducted in November of 1942, shipped to England from Fort Meade, Md. in April of 1944, and killed in action four months later during the Battle of Normandy.
“It’s a snapshot in time, of the American spirit,” said Keyton. “Some of it was ‘fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them here.’ In World War II, the world was losing and it wasn’t looking good for the home team. We owe a debt of gratitude to those individuals, especially those who paid the ultimate price.
“I don’t think our school system teaches like it taught us,” Keyton continued. “We have to question, ‘Why am I here today? Why is my life the way it is?’ There were many before us, who, during a dark time, stepped up. I don’t think [younger people] can really understand, to the point where they can appreciate the things we are given. Those stories can be lost. If we can reach those who come after us, maybe some of it won’t be lost.”
Upon his graduation from high school in the late 1970s, Keyton went to work at Hershey Foods. But he realized factory work wasn’t for him, so he enlisted in the Navy.
Keyton retired in 2004, following 26 years of service that saw him ascend to the rank of senior chief aviation electrician.
Keyton said this area was a great place to grow up, “but the military made me a man.”
“I was 18 and didn’t have a clue,” he said about where he was in life prior to entering the Navy. “When I came back to Hershey, I realized I had changed. My buddies hadn’t changed. I had seen parts of the world, and Hershey was too slow for me. There was good order in the Navy and discipline. There was camaraderie.
“It changed me, and I realized ‘Wow, it’s different now,’” Keyton added. “I learned to do the right thing because it’s the right thing. The military is very defined. We have a certain ‘get the mission done’ approach. They break you down, then build you back up. I took an oath.”
For Keyton and others who served, Memorial Day is one of the most important days of the year. It is a day to celebrate our freedom and remember how that freedom was earned.
“I’m very patriotic,” said Keyton. “My father was patriotic. The process of cooking out and being with family on Memorial Day, it should be remembered how being able to do those things were earned. Many of those guys died a horrible death, alone, in a foreign land. For many of those families, there was no closure. But I’d rather be thanked on Veteran’s Day than be remembered on Memorial Day.
“It’s that gift of freedom,” Keyton continued. “If you give up freedom and safety, you really have nothing. It is a solemn day. We celebrate Memorial Day as a country. They were in harm’s way. They did what they were supposed to do, and some didn’t come back. They were called upon and they rose to the occasion.”
Keyton’s son Charles Keyton III is currently carrying on the family tradition in the United States Marine Corps. Next month, his son will be deployed for a ten-month tour of duty.
“He wanted to do military service, but he didn’t want to do it exactly the same way as I did,” said Keyton. “I saw how basic training changed him. It made me proud. He kind of went into it not knowing what he wanted to do and what he wanted to be. It’s given him focus. He’s a cyber-warrior.
“At his graduation, I got to put that uniform back on again, and it was an exhilarating feeling,” continued Keyton. “It was a shot of adrenaline. My pride was off the scale.”
While civilians may not be able to share Keyton’s level of national pride, there’s no denying that the United States military has played a major role in shaping what this country has become.
“This country was an experiment,” said Keyton. “The founding fathers said, ‘We don’t want to be like England. The country is great because of the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. Even to this day, there’s nothing as relevant. It gives us the freedom of choice.
“That makes us different,” Keyton added. “It doesn’t make us better. It gives us the right to live a free life. The country is the people. Is she perfect? Nothing’s perfect. But I think it’s the best game in town. It all comes back to that picture on the wall.”
This Memorial Day, remember our fallen heroes, and remember that our freedom is not free.
Read more about Lebanon County veterans
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