Thursday, October 2, 2014




Here in the month of October I thought that I would reminisce a bit out loud about Peoria, Illinois during WWII. I will remind you of V-J Day, which to us here in Peoria began with a flash to our news rooms at 6:08 P.M. on August 14, 1945. In less than a moment of hearing the marvelous news that Japan had surrendered the streets downtown began to fill. All the people and folks living near downtown were in the streets long before ordinary folks like me and my friends in El Vista managed to get downtown. Throughout our history all major events were celebrated in Downtown Peoria, Illinois, I can tell you that for sure.

The celebration started with some horn honking, a few handshakes and hugs and then pandemonium broke out. The church bells began to ring and Peorians found themselves in a traffic jam to end all traffic jams. So…the drivers and passengers got out of their cars and joined in. In groups of fifteen hundred strong, folks held hands and circled the courthouse singing and yelling their fool heads off. Shots were fired into the air, firecrackers sounded across the city as the exuberance began to swell.

Soon high school bands were in the streets, followed by musicians that played loud and long. Patriotic songs were played with the vibrant drums stirring up the crowd. A few gals and soldiers opened up the hotel windows and began tearing up pillows allowing the feathers to fall over the folk’s heads on the streets. Once they began dumping water the police kindly asked those folks to cease and desist. I think the party got a little out of hand as alcohol began to make a difference in the crowd. Cars were shaken so hard that some of them were damaged, and police virtually helpless in the snarl of traffic, could only yell at the culprits.

We didn’t have a lot of tall buildings but some of them were ten and twelve stories high. Up on the roofs confetti rained down and added to the madness. As always there is an element that thinks pranks are more fun than good old celebration. The street cars were trying to hurry back to their barns, but some of the toonervilles were attacked damaging most of the windows. The rear electric connections were pulled and some of the motormen ran for their lives. Mayor Woodruff quickly ordered all the taverns and the downtown businesses to close and invited everyone to come on down and celebrate. Folks obeyed and the place was a scene of chaos and joyful madness.


Now it is 11:30 P.M. and although we were all of thirteen and fourteen years old we were still downtown. There was no way we could have caught a bus or even gotten to the two cars we parked down by the river, so we just stayed. Surely our parents would understand and probably my entire family was down there anyway. Even then you could see that the crowd had grown and between you and me it was getting a bit scary. We hung out close to the courthouse steps and saw what we could see. I did kiss my first woman that day and believe me there was a lot of kissing going on. The truth is about the only amusement for us was watching the crowds hurrying by. Now where were they going? The next block over I guess.

Of course booze was now all over the place and the older men were obviously drunk. We saw some guys openly carrying whiskey and beer, some in brown sacks but they were not fooling anyone. I heard a few bottles being broken and I was anxious to get the hell out of there and ‘go on home.’

I saw a lot of men in uniform and even some of the officers forgot their place, but they were all having fun. The war was over…it was actually over and now was the time to celebrate that very fact. The other guys in uniform got most of the kisses and as I mentioned we were just a bunch of teenagers trying to get home. At first we were scared with the sound of guns going off, especially from the National Guard troops, but some police officer told us that they were “Just shooting blanks.”

People crawled all over the buildings like the Alliance life Building and the Lehmann Building trying to get a better view high up there on the fire escapes. They were thwarted by the managers and the police but eventually we saw a lot of them up there, waving and screaming like idiots. Truth is we would have loved to have gone up there ourselves, but we stayed put.

Finally we made our move toward the river avoiding Main Street and on more than one occasion we feared getting run over by large groups of men in uniform, arm in arm coming down the street. To a kid it was exciting, but once it was obvious that we were not really part of the adult celebration it got a bit boring. We had to go east all the way to Woodruff High School and finally up to Prospect and finally got back to El Vista. It was going on one in the morning when we finally got home. It had been an exciting, sometime frightening adventure but we talked about that night for years. The next day the newspaper accounts put it all in prospective.

Actually according to what Police Chief Victor Klarich reported there had been only five injury cases reported. He put the entire police department into the downtown fray, and over all he was satisfied with the very few arrests his men had to make. They too celebrated, along with the war weary people of Peoria and the surrounding small towns.

We did see people heading for the churches and rallies at the Shrine and other buildings downtown to pray and thank God for World Peace. Tuesday and Wednesday every church in town, and there were over a hundred of them, held services of thankfulness.

At the moment of the great news 39 Peoria men were prisoners of war, and a lot of folks centered on them and the families that were hoping and praying to see their loved ones again. Downtown business remained closed and believe me the people that depend on the 72 restaurants that were in the downtown area were missed. Finally by early Wednesday good old Patriotic Peoria, Illinois was back in business but I can tell you there were a lot more smiling faces to look at for the first time since Pearl Harbor. It was quite some time when we learned that 662 men from this area never made it back home.

We were downtown Wednesday afternoon going to movies at the Columbia and the Apollo and the debris from that wild night was still blowing in the wind, followed by a small army of workers trying to catch up with it.

V-J Day, what a wonderful time was had. Guys my age, after seeing all our brothers disappear wondered if the war would last long enough for us to be part of all that ‘Glory.’ Sadly just five years later we all got our chance. For me it was 1951 and I ‘disappeared’ for four years. We never had a V-K day and except for the 52 Peorians killed in the Korean War, we too managed to survive. Will it ever end?
Editor’s Note: Norm is a true-crime, fiction writer and Peoria Historian. He welcomes your comments:

Wednesday, October 1, 2014


Anyone who knows my work knows that I do not write about people unless they were born in Peoria, Illinois or lived here for a time. This year I have made a special effort to seek those folks out and talk about them on radio and in some cases I did a feature article on that person. Peoria has a long list of people that went on to be famous, infamous or a major celebrity. I would like to tell you about a man that I am certain you never heard of unless you went to school with him. After that there was only one big story about him that made headlines here in Peoria.
His name was Larry Richard Keith and he was born here on June 21, 1935. He went to McKinley Grade School and graduated from Manual in 1953. He was no great scholar and as a matter of fact was not very interested in school. He even ran away a couple of times, but his life was to turn around and lead him to a place a lot of young men can only fantasize about and that was the ‘Great blue yonder.’
Larry grew up here with his parents and his two sisters Gloria and Sherry, down in the South End of Peoria. About the only job I can remember Larry having was with a company called ABC. As I mentioned Larry was not crazy about school and it amazes me that he went on to get his degree in Economics from the University of Tampa in 1970 and his Master of Science degree from Auburn University in 1972, a remarkable accomplishment, I must say. Once he joined the United States Air Force he continued his advanced education by graduating from the Air Command and Staff College in 1973, Armed Forces College in 1974 and the Naval War College in 1979. It hurts my brain just to think about all that from a shy young man from Peoria, Illinois. Larry entered the Air Force as an airman with the 169th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron out at our airport. I remember talking to him and he was a long way from flying airplanes when he told me that basically what he did was just “wash the airplanes.” Larry had bigger plans than that in his head, and it did not take him long to begin an odyssey that would end beyond even his wildest dreams.
Just a year later Keith entered the Aviation Cadet Program in Texas and earned his pilot’s wings in Arizona in 1956. He was on his way and the only place to look was up. While in Arizona he graduated from gunnery school and then returned to The Air National Guard in Peoria as a fighter pilot. Young Lieutenant Larry Keith was done washing airplanes. In October of 1961, Larry joined the regular Air force and remained out at the 169th for another year. He was then sent to MacDill Air Force base where he flew the F-84 Thunder Jet and the F-4 Phantom. I remember playing golf with him at MacDill and he kidded me about looking at every airplane that flew over. “Norm, you can’t beat me if your mind is up there.”
Larry was assigned to an air base in Okinawa where he commanded a squadron before being assigned to an air force base in Thailand. From that base major Larry Keith flew 108 Combat Missions over North Vietnam in his F-4 Fathom. It was at that time during 1966 when he was credited with downing an enemy Mig-17. That hit the headlines here in Peoria and after that we never heard another word about the brave young pilot from Peoria, Illinois. His fearless leadership and combat skills earned him the Legion of Merit with oak leaf clusters, Distinguished Flying Cross with oak leaf clusters, Meritorious Service Medal and Air Medal with 11 oak leaf clusters. Colonel Keith also earned other medals from foreign countries.
Colonel Keith was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General and was a vice-commander of an air base in Spain. In 1982 he was the group commander of a base located in Germany. He served as a general officer with the Air Force in the Pentagon and a commander of a base in Germany before he finally retired. General Larry R. Keith was a fighter pilot with just over 4,500 hours in the air serving his country and fulfilling his dream to be the best pilot and officer he could possibly be. My brother-in-law, and my wife’s brother, Larry Keith died of an inoperable brain cancer on June 21, 1999. He was a quiet, unassuming brave warrior without a boastful bone in his body. Editor’s Note: Norm is a Peoria historian, author and a monthly contributor to NEWS and VIEWS.