Remembering Kirtley and his D-Day experience


On June 5, 1944, a young Crawfordsville physician boarded a boat docked along the coast of England knowing he was headed to Normandy, France as part of the Allied Force’s invasion into Nazi-occupied territory.

Dr. James Marion Kirtley swallowed some pills to combat sea sickness and crawled into a makeshift bed attached to the bumper of his Jeep. He slept the entire journey across the English Channel, waking only upon hearing the roar of naval guns.

When he awoke, Kirtley was witnessing one of the most famous days in World War II — the D-Day invasion. 

On the 80th anniversary of that fateful day, the Journal Review is recognizing and remembering Kirtley’s life and wartime experience.

Kirtley graduated from Wabash College and Indiana University School of Medicine in 1937 and had become a commissioned officer by participating in the Civilian Military Training Corp while at I.U. By the time Kirtley was shipped to England to start preparing for the invasion, he had been promoted to Captain in the 22nd Regiment of the 4th Infantry Motorized Division.

Kirtley continued his training as a reserve officer while maintaining his private medical practice on the third floor of the Ben Hur Building in downtown Crawfordsville. He closed his medical office when he was called to serve as the country entered World War II.

“I told my friends that the news from Pearl Harbor meant I was going to be enlisted longer than one year. I was going to be in the war until it was over,” Kirtley stated in a recorded video interview from 1990. It can be viewed online at www.cdpl.lib.in.us/lh/video/kirtley.html/.

Kirtley knew once Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, his service to his country would be extended, and he was right.

After marrying his wife, Leolia, on Valentine’s Day in 1943, Kirtley was shipped across the Atlantic to Liverpool, England. For the next eight months he endured more training in preparation for D-Day.

The 4th Division was part of the forces that landed on Utah Beach. The fighting was not as severe as the Allied troops were facing 10 miles away on Omaha Beach.

“We actually landed about one-quarter mile away from where we were supposed to land because of the water’s current and thank goodness we did,” Kirtley said. “The Germans did not have their guns trained on our area and we had a concrete seawall that protected us.”

Kirtley recalled in the interview how his regiment had 180 casualties June 6, 1994. He said wounded soldiers were treated on the beach.

“We had our supplies with us right there on the beach and treated casualties right there until we could ship them back to the medical ships,” Kirtley said. “We heard the guns and had light weapons shot toward us but we kept taking care of the wounded.”

The days to come for Kirtley saw his unit on the march to Germany. The 4th Divisional medical group followed the troops all the way to the Rhine River. Kirtley endured many battles, including one at Bastogne, Belgium. He served in five battles across Belgium, France and Germany.

On July 4, 1945, the captain who had witnessed the horrors of war, boarded a luxury liner bound for the United States and his home in Crawfordsville.

One of Kirtley’s three sons, retired Montgomery County Judge Ray Kirtley, said his father never spoke much about his war experiences. His father remained in the U.S. Army Reserve Guards until retiring as a colonel of the 337th General Hospital Reserve unit in 1970.

“With Dad in the Reserves we heard some of what he went through from time to time, but he never talked a lot about it,” Ray said. “Just like all those guys who came home, they did their duty and came home and made a life.”

Kirtley received the Presidential Unit Citation and the Fouragere de Guerre, Belgium’s highest honor.

Upon his return from Normandy, Kirtley reopened his medical practice. He affectionately was called “Doc” Kirtley and delivered more than 5,000 babies in Montgomery County. His service to citizens continued as a politician, leader at First Christian Church in Crawfordsville and many civic organizations.

Kirtley died Aug. 29, 2000, at the age of 90.