The extraordinary life of James Arthur Kehoe, Kentucky’s 31st Adjutant General

James Arthur Kehoe, 1927 (courtesy photo)

History article by John Trowbridge, Kentucky National Guard

James Arthur Kehoe was the 31st Adjutant General of Kentucky, serving 1924-1927.

Born in Maysville (Mason County), Ky., Nov. 1, 1896, he was the son of Kentucky Congressman James Nicholas and Hannah Marie (Kane) Kehoe. His father, a congressman from the ninth district and president of the Bank of Maysville, was a long-time civic leader. His grandfather, James Kehoe, served in the 16th Kentucky Volunteer Infantry as a private in Company B during the Civil War.

James received an early education in Maysville’s public schools. He went on to attend Emerson Institute and Columbia Preparatory Academy, both located in Washington, D.C.

In 1912 and age 16, Kehoe believed he was destined to study law. On his way to Harvard University, he happened to visit his brother, William, who at the time was a Cadet at the U. S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. He became enamored with the Army and soon changed his vocation.

The announcement was made Oct. 14, 1914, that James Kehoe would be appointed to West Point the following year. Entering “The Point” on June 15, 1915, Cadet Kehoe passed the mental test but was underweight and failed the physical exam. He became a “turn-back” and repeated his first year.

In 1917, while training at West Point, James’ brother, William Harold Kehoe, was injured in a fall from a horse. He was dropped from the Academy but remained in the Army. While recuperating from the accident, William contracted tuberculous and was sent to Fort Bayard, N.M., for specialized recovery services. Located north of present-day Santa Clara in southwest New Mexico, this was the U.S. Army’s first tuberculosis sanitarium site.

Kentucky Representative William J. Fields headed an effort to have William Kehoe promoted due to his ill-fated injury and illness while on duty. William was placed on the retirement list as a second lieutenant on June 13, 1917. His promotion to first lieutenant came Jan. 11, 1918, at which time he also received an assignment to recruiting duty at Spokane, Wash. That November, he was reassigned once more to the students’ Army training unit at the College of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash.

William Kehoe never fully recovered. He died in 1920 at age 26.

On Nov. 1, 1918, after recycling one year, James Kehoe ranked 148 of 227 West Point graduates. He commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Infantry.

Ten days later, Germans signed the Armistice with the Allies, and World War I came to an end.

With the Great War over, Kehoe’s first assignment was student officer at the Infantry School of Arms (Combined Course Special War-Time Course), Camp Benning, Ga., from Dec. 2, 1918, to Feb. 22, 1919.

On March 10, 1919, the Army assigned him to the 63rd Infantry at Washington, D.C., just before the command was sent to Curtis Bay, Md., March 20.

On April 28, they reassigned him to the 15th Infantry and sent him overseas. Initially, he went to the Philippines, then Siberia, Russia, from May to June, and China from June to July.

They promoted Kehoe to first lieutenant on Oct. 30, 1919.

In July 1920, 1st Lt. Kehoe resigned from the Army. By Aug. 10, he made it to San Francisco, Calif., and awaited final orders. His resignation became effective on Oct. 4, 1920.

Returning to his civilian life in Maysville, February 1922, James became vice-president of the Home Warehouse Company, and then secretary-treasurer of the Eastern District Warehouse Corporation. These were subsidiaries of the Burley Tobacco Growers’ Co-operative Association. James also joined the local American Legion Post No. 13, named in honor of the county’s first casualty of the World War, Leslie H. Arthur. He would remain a member of the post until he died in 1983.

On March 19, 1924, newly elected Governor William J. “Honest Billy” Fields appointed James Kehoe, Adjutant General of the Kentucky National Guard. Two weeks later, at age 28, Kehoe took over the position and served until Dec. 13, 1927.

During his tenure as Adjutant General, Kehoe stayed busy. He was appointed as secretary of the Armory Commission, the Kentucky Air Board, and various other committees. Additionally, the Kentucky Guard would continue its routine of drills, encampments, and police duties of various types and was called out on State duty in response to several significant emergencies.

James Arthur Kehoe, 1927 (courtesy photo)

Kehoe received an early introduction to his duties as Adjutant General when labor troubles erupted in Kentucky’s coalfields. During his time in office, Kehoe was plagued by labor troubles, civil unrest, humanitarian operations, and natural disasters.

Early April 1924, in Pineville (Bell County), Ky., attempts were made to re-open coal mines using non-union miners. What was later referred to as a “Mine War” broke out when the union and the non-union miners began arguing and fighting, which escalated to a shooting match. On April 4, units of the Kentucky Guard were asked to support the disturbance. Kehoe joined his troops to assess the situation and advised the Governor. Later in the month came the word of impending coal strikes in Western Kentucky. Guard units were dispatched to maintain peace there, as well. By the first of May, disputes were temporarily settled, and troops had withdrawn.

During the first week of May, Kehoe attended the Adjutant General’s School at Washington, D.C.

The strikes in Webster and Hopkins Counties’ coal fields that July once again required the Guard to step in. Five Guard officers were sent to observe and report back to Kehoe at Frankfort. An Army airplane was on stand-by at Frankfort to take Kehoe to the conflict areas should the need arise.

On July 28, this Army airplane began aerial photograph of the entire state for use by the Guard in an emergency.

An uneasy peace existed in the western coalfields until October.

In August, the Kentucky Guard attended summer camp at Camp Knox with the 38th Infantry Division.

That same month, under Kehoe’s administration, the Kentucky National Guard instituted its first group insurance policy for Guardsmen. The plan covered total disability and death. Up to this time, Guardsmen had no coverage except during annual encampment. The payment was $2 per quarter with enlisted men authorized $2,000, non-commissioned officers $3,000, and officers $5,000.

The entire Kentucky Guard, along with other national emergency agencies, activated on Sept. 12, 1924, for a National Defense Test Day, which tested the country’s preparedness in the event of another war.

In October 1924, labor unrest near Princeton, in the coalfields of Webster County, required Guard support once again. Rioting, shootings, and dynamiting of homes were occurring around the area of the coalfields. The Guardsmen activated to that area would remain on duty through early 1925.

On Jan. 30, 1925, Kehoe and the Guard’s attention was drawn away temporarily from the coalfields. While working to enlarge the small passage in Sand Cave (Barren County), Ky., William Floyd Collins, a cave explorer, became trapped in a narrow crawlway 55 feet below ground. The rescue operation to save Collins became a national newspaper sensation and one of the first significant news stories reported using the new technology of broadcast radio. The rescue attempt grew to become the third-largest media event between the world wars. After four days of bringing food and water to Collins, a rock collapsed in the cave and closed the entrance passageway. The collapse stranded him deeper in the cave, with only voice contact. Collins died of thirst and hunger compounded by exposure through hypothermia after 14 days. Three days later, a rescue shaft reached his position, but it was too late. Ultimately, Collins’ body was unable to be recovered for another two months.

Although Collins was an unknown figure in his lifetime, the fame he gained from his death led to him being memorialized on his tombstone as the “Greatest Cave Explorer Ever Known.”

Throughout the entire rescue effort, units of the Kentucky Guard provided security and any assistance necessary. On Feb. 16, Kehoe collapsed in the rescue camp from the news of locating Collins’ body and the exhaustion of leading such an event. They rendered medical aid, but his condition was not serious.

On March 18, 1925, tornados hit Jefferson, Oldham, Marion, Washington, Mercer, Jessamine, Bourbon, and Fayette Counties in Kentucky. Jimtown (Fayette County), was destroyed and all 25 homes were razed.

Guardsmen rushed to the areas of devastation to aid in security and assist in clean-up.

James Kehoe married Alice Thrashley Williams of Frankfort, Ky., on June 2, 1925. Her ancestors included Major Thrashley of Revolutionary service and Judge Harry Innes, a man who initiated the Kentucky Judiciary. To this union was born one son, Richard M., and one daughter, Sue Ann. During their time at Frankfort, the Kehoes were actively involved in local society, entertaining and attending dances, tea and card parties, and dinners.

The Kehoes would have a short honeymoon. On June 26, Kentucky Guard units were asked to quell rioting by the State Reformatory inmates. Rioting began when inmates demanded reforms in the prison and the resignation of the warden and several guards. Order was restored following those resignations and the initiation of talks to improve conditions at the reformatory.

There was a sensational trial of John Henry Jones (alias Ed Harris) in Lexington for the assault and murder of the Bryant family members. Kehoe, with 1,000 Guardsmen, surrounded the Fayette County Courthouse by a triple-ring, backed by whippet tanks and bombing squads, sand-bagged windows. They provided security for the prisoner and allowed the court proceedings to go on without interference. The Guardsmen were ordered, “shoot to kill” if any trouble began. However, the crowds around the courthouse remained orderly. Harris pleaded guilty and was sentenced to hang on Mar. 5.

In early April 1927, 90 Guardsmen under General Kehoe’s command were activated at Madisonville (Hopkins County) to guard and deliver two death-row prisoners, Nathan Bard and Bunyan Fleming, from Eddyville penitentiary. However, on April 7, both men received a stay of execution from Governor Fields for one week. On Nov. 25, Guardsmen were back in Madisonville for guard duty during these two men’s execution.

In mid-April, the spring flooding in various counties across the state required Guard support. Units activated, provided tents, cots, blankets, transportation, and human resources. The experience gained from the flood operations would be valuable training for more disastrous flooding in the years to come.

General Kehoe graduated from the Cavalry School Advanced Course at Fort Riley, Kan., June 14, 1927. On Dec. 13, he resigned from his position as Adjutant General of the Kentucky National Guard to Governor-elect Flem D. Sampson.

In 1928, Kehoe was back home in Mason County. He oversaw his extensive land holdings and served as secretary-treasurer of Rogers-Rand Corporation, an advertising sign company. He then served as vice-president of the Mason County Telephone Company in Maysville, an independent company with Bell Telephone connections serving about 450 stations.

James Kehoe rejoined the Kentucky National Guard on May 28, 1934. He was re-commissioned as a first lieutenant in Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 149th Infantry Regiment. The following month, he organized a 50-man unit of the Active State Militia in Maysville, which would later become the Kentucky State Police. The Active State Militia was created by the General Assembly in 1934 to enforce traffic laws and stop law-breakers. Kehoe was appointed Captain of the county’s “army” of emergency peace officers.

In June 1935, Kehoe was one of the individuals to incorporate Best Broadcasting Company, Inc., of Frankfort. The purpose of the company was “to furnish the Capitol with radio transmission in order to aid, assist and help the Commonwealth and its citizens . . .”

World tensions erupted on Sept. 1, 1939, when Nazi Germany invaded Poland. The second World War had begun. The United States would remain neutral until the Japanese Imperial Navy attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941.

The 1940 census lists Kehoe as a farm owner living at Washington, Magisterial District 5, Mason County, Ky. Still a member of the Kentucky Guard on May 11, 1940, they appointed him Adjutant, 2nd Battalion, 149th Infantry Regiment. On Jan. 9, 1941, he was promoted to captain and assigned to the Anti-tank Company, 149th Infantry Regiment. On Jan. 22, he was appointed as assistant plans and training officer for the 149th Infantry Regiment (Rifle). From Aug. 20 to Nov. 14, 1941, Kehoe attended the Battalion Commander and Staff Officer Course at the Infantry School, Fort Benning, Ga.

When America entered the war, Captain Kehoe transferred to the Regular Army. According to Kehoe, in late Dec. 1941, he was transferred “without knowledge or consent” to the Air Corps and sent to India. For 18 months, he directed a radio network team that warned Americans of approaching Japanese aircraft.

Kehoe served overseas from March 17, 1942, until Sept. 21, 1944. Primarily, he served in the China-India-Burma theater of operations as Administrative Officer and Intelligence Staff Officer. He was assigned to British Intelligence at Karachi, India.

Brigadier Orde Wingate, of the British Forces in that theater, had organized and trained brigades of his Raiders (the Chindits, Long Range Penetration Groups). In the spring of 1942, he penetrated deep into Burma from India. The objective was to cut Japanese communications behind their lines and destroy their forces. Although partially successful, Wingate suffered severe casualties and withdrew. Kehoe, who at the time was operating in connection with British Intelligence, assisted in the withdrawal. Kehoe was recommended for an award by a senior British officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for aiding in the evacuation of Wingate’s Raiders and Doctor Gordon S. Seagrave’s nurses (the Katchins). Kehoe wrote of his involvement in the operations, “nothing heroic, but beyond the call of duty when they [the nurses] got jeep-sick down the back of my neck.”

In May 1943, an article appeared in Time Magazine entitled, “Kehoe of the Head-Hunters,” concerning Kehoe’s exploits in the jungles of Burma. The article begins by describing Kehoe as “a perky, pint-sized, hickory-tough U.S. Army officer, armed only with a stout Kentucky hunting knife.” His mission was to survey the jungle, dickering with the savage Naga head-hunters who inhabited the region and set up a series of vital military outposts in the trackless country.

Kehoe had volunteered for the job. British officials had advised against the mission; however, the intrepid Kehoe set out on foot through one of the world’s wildest jungles. His escort was a file of stocky, semi-civilized native bearers. He carried with him a sack of dollar pocket watches to trade with the Naga chieftains. Kehoe’s standard operation method was to locate a prospective site and begin negotiations with the local chief by dangling a dollar watch before the potentate’s eyes, exclaiming, “American hokum!” In Naga talk, “hokum” means magic.

Once the chief had his watch, Kehoe usually got several hundred workmen under a “doashie” (native foreman) to clear the site and set-up huts. Kehoe paid them off in silver rupees. In most cases, these posts had to be resupplied by aircraft due to the great distance from Assam.

Kehoe befriended many of the Naga people. If anyone asked about the Naga head-hunting practice as an old, forgotten custom, he would only grin. He later told of having attended two head-hunting trials, involving the harvesting of 13 heads.

Due to the challenging terrain and vast area to be covered, Kehoe hardened himself to do five miles each day. He hiked 500 miles before getting his first two outposts established. He came to realize the immense difficulties in reaching Burma Road and linking up with China. However, despite his exposure to hardships, betrayal, and disease, he survived the entire campaign.

Returning from the war zone due to illness, Kehoe was sent to Coral Gable, Fla., to recuperate. He was temporarily promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel, effective Jan. 8, 1946. While recovering from his illness, he decided to resign from the Army, and he was separated from the service on Feb. 18, 1946, at Patterson Field, Ohio. He returned to his home and civilian life to oversee his extensive property holdings in Mason County.

Kehoe was appointed to the Mason County Selective Service Board in 1948, initially serving as a member, then in 1950, he was appointed chairman. He resigned from the board on Aug. 7, 1952.

At a holiday gathering at Maysville, November 1953, Kehoe blasted the United Nations as a “gigantic swindle and a menace to American labor, education, and religion.” He asserted that the U.N. increased the threat of war and threatened to wreck the world and “our glorious country with it.”

In 1956, James Kehoe retired from all military service with the rank of Brigadier General.

In October 1962, Kehoe, who had been retired for several years, decided to go back to the law school he had initially pursued in his youth—becoming a first-year law student at the University of Kentucky. There is no indication that he ever completed the schooling.

On April 6, 1971, Alice Williams Kehoe died and was buried in the Maysville Cemetery.

At 11 a.m. on Nov. 29, 1983, James A. Kehoe’s lifeless body was found by firemen in a bed at his smoke-filled home. They found a .45 caliber automatic pistol next to his body. Investigators assumed the former General had taken his own life, though no note was found that could explain why he committed such an act.

The mystery behind his death remains unknown.

General Kehoe received full military honors at his funeral. Furnished by a contingent from Fort Knox in Maysville Cemetery, they buried him beside his wife, Alice.

Brigadier General James Arthur Kehoe led remarkable and extraordinary military and civilian careers.

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