Kenneth Volkert Riley, Jr.
First Lieutenant, United States Army
V. Riley, Jr.
Born May 17, 1929 - DOW February 9, 1953
Dead! The word has nothing of reality, no sunshine or mid-night stars, nothing tangible, no meaning - until its jaws sneak close to you and snap with a click of finality like the snapping of a steel trap. Then it has a meaning, awful, unknown, and frightful. You look, stunned, at the empty place and tremble and cannot look away, and grief flares like a lighted match from that lost spot inside you.
I know, I am Ken's friend, but I am a man, and must get up and act like a man and do a man's job when I want only to weep.
"But that is ridiculously maudlin," Ken would say, the chiding corner of his smile tucked down so you knew he was not really annoyed. "What are you trying to do, cheat me?" One eyebrow goes up in a question mark, the other drawn down in a half frown, the pose held, with hands half outstretched and spread for the answer. "Cheat you?" I am startled to attention. "Of course," he says, frowning impatiently. "Look, I wanted to be a soldier. Not just be in the army and wear a uniform, but I wanted to be a soldier." He emphasizes the last words with his characteristic pounding of the desk top and finishes with an expression of having made his point clear. Do you remember the poem about the storming of Ratisbon?"
The poem comes back slowly and I remember the fierce loyalty and courage of a boy who planted his unit's flag atop the heights at Ratisbon. I remember how the lad struggled back, "all but shot in two," to report a job done to his commander. I remember also the boy soldier's pride when his commander exclaimed "You're wounded!" The lad stood straight before him, and said, "Nay, Sire, I am killed," and fell dead at his feet.
"There was a soldier!" Ken says as the signs of recollection appear upon my face.
"Do you remember Thomas (Stonewall?) Jackson's campaign in the Shenandoah Valley?" I remember Jackson's audacity, his minutely planned advances and withdrawals, his tactical perfection, and his untiring energy. "There was a soldier!" Ken says his mildness contradicting his former manner. Then, intense again, "Do you remember the Ballad of the East and West?" and I recall the daring of two men, their sense of fair play and their recognition of man's values. And I know that Ken loved this poem as he says, "There were two MEN! They would have been good soldiers." "And Abou ben Adhem," Ken muses on and I think of Abou ben Adhem, whose name led the list of "All those who love the Lord" because ben Adhem loved his fellow man. "And the lost battle."
Ken does not even see me now, he is looking far away. The lost battle is the story of a commander who, when the battle was lost, gathered the beaten remnants of his men about him and said, "There is nothing more to be done. Then let us pray." I am beginning to see what Ken means by being a soldier. "But Ken, I don't see what this has to do with my cheating you," I puzzle. "For the love of little goons!"
Ken throws up his hands. "I wanted to be a soldier and I have tried to be a soldier, the way I think he should be. Can this bogey of yours rob me? My life, yes, but what I may have hoped for or done? Then let's not be gooey. Don't cry for me, YOU SHOULD KNOW I'M ALRIGHT."
And I know he is.
Ken's was no promise of greatness; he had no need of promising such a thing because the greatness was already within him and only waited for the opportunity to be demonstrated. Ken was that rarity among human beings, a truly good man, a man who fought verbally or physically for a set of ideals too high ever to be surpassed. He chose, rather than take an easier way, to compete on even terms with whomever he came in contact and scorned any advantage he might have gained through friends or influence. He gave himself unstintingly to the desires of is fellows, to their sports and academic problems, and gladly shared his material things with those who wanted.
So many times at night in barracks, after taps and lights out, we used to lie awake in our double-decker beds and in stillness and dark we talked. Far into the night we dreamed aloud and Ken's deep love of his fellow man, of duty and honor and country suffused his dreams and I was a better man for listening. Finally, we whispered silently in prayer, said goodnight, and fell asleep.
Ken's death will be called a tragedy, and it is, but not for Ken. It is a tragedy for those of us who must remain here without him. Ken's deeds remain, but his brilliance and wit, his driving energy and humor, his gentleness and his crooked smile are gone, and against his cautioning, "Don't cry for me," we who are left still weep and weep.... Men I have known who were fine men, men I have known who were said to be great, and men I have known whom I liked.
About Ken I say only, thank God I knew him. Kenneth Volkert Riley, Jr., Cullum 18057, died of wounds received in combat against the enemy with the 17th Infantry of 7th Division in Korea on February 9, 1953, doing what he loved and what he was trained to be, a soldier for his country. He was awarded the Purple Heart posthumously.
(By Everette Taylor, a roommate at West Point, for:
Despite peace often seeming so near, the bloody fighting continued into 1953. Army First Lieutenant KennethVolkert Riley had attended Mines, but graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point. While serving with the 5th Regimental Combat Team, 7th Infantry Division, Riley died of wounds received in combat on February 9, 1953.
Spencer Titley Geol E ’51 later found a tragic
side note to Riley’s death. "I understand his mother ran a wire-service
flower shop and received many telegrams in those days. She discovered the
telegram about Ken mixed in with a bunch of others."
First Lieutenant Riley was a member of the 17th Infantry Regiment, 7th Infantry Division. He was seriously wounded by an enemy missile in North Korea on February 8, 1953 and died of those wounds the following day.
RILEY, KENNETH VOLKERT JR