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Defenders of Freedom

John Keene: A patriot who loved serving in the Army

John Keene loved being in the military.

The 86-year-old Williamsport resident served in the Army during the Korean War.

He didn’t see any combat action but was stationed for most of his enlistment, which stretched from 1949 to 1952, in Germany.

“It was fine. I was a section leader. That was a great job,” he said.

Stationed at Taylor Barracks near Manheim with the 7th Army, 1st Class Sgt. John Keene spent much of his time supervising two squads of men.

He and his men were involved in anti-aircraft protection, training to hit air targets.

Germany was still recovering from World War II and the Soviet Union had emerged as the new enemy in the early days of the Cold War.

Keene and his men would set up in often remote spots in the war-torn nation, living in tents.

“We were there to shoot anything down. They were worried about the Russians,” he said.

The days were filled with simulated exercises and training and shooting at targets.

For a time, they even trained with remote control airplanes, he said.

“They were hard to hit,” he said. “We spent a lot of time out there in the field.”

Keene loved it all, describing himself as “gung ho.”

“I used to tell these guys that whined (about the Army). Make the most of it,” he recalled.

Born in Goshin, N.Y., Keene moved with his family to Williamsport when he was 10.

The family of five children experienced hard times, losing one home to a flood in 1946 and another home to a fire in 1948.

He remembered it as a time of struggle, and Keene ended up dropping out of school in eleventh grade and joining the Army.

He was sent for basic training to Fort Dix, New Jersey, and later to Camp Hood, Texas, for training.

“I started out as a cannoneer, then a gunner,” he said.

He hoped to go to Korea after the United States became involved in fighting there in 1950, but instead was sent to Germany.

“I wanted to go (to Korea),” he said. “Like I said, I was gung ho.”

On reflection, he wasn’t sorry he missed out on the Korean Conflict.

Among the men he met and befriended was Floyd Cohick.

Like Keene, Cohick was a Williamsport resident. Unlike Keene, Cohick was sent to Korea.

“He got captured,” Keene said sadly. “They never got his body back.”

Keene became friends also with Jerry Cillo, another Williamsport resident whom he met at Camp Hood.

“We were best buddies,” he said. “We did a lot of crazy stuff together.”

What kind of crazy stuff? Keene would not say.

Keene contemplated staying in the military when his enlistment was coming to an end.

“I almost reenlisted in the Air Force,” he said. “(But) they would have had to take one of my stripes away.”

Keene returned home to Williamsport and worked a number of jobs he found not to his satisfaction. For a short time, he worked in Buffalo, N.Y.

Eventually, he took a job back in Williamsport at Freeman Optical, later to become Winchester Optical.

He started out grinding optical lenses and eventually worked his way up to an inspector position.

All told, he worked there for 41 years.

He married in 1955 and raised two children with his wife Violet.

Keene feels every young man who is able should join the military.

“You learn discipline,” he said.

He said he’s a proud member of the Korean War veterans honor guard, performing at parades, funerals and other events.

The organization also reaches out to veterans in need of help.

Otherwise, he keeps active bowling two nights a week and going to casinos with friends.

Other than high blood pressure, his health is excellent.

Looking back on his military years, he said, “It’s a great life. It depends on how you approach it.”