This is the story of a Christmas present given in faith that it would be delivered fifteen years later.

 

Yeah, I’ve been rummaging through the dustbin of America’s cultural memory, again.  It’s surprising how much of our way of life and the freedoms we enjoy are owed to people who, at the time, were as well known as, say, Bill Gates or Oprah Winfrey are now.  But, somehow, they slipped through the cracks into oblivion.

 

Colin P. Kelly, Junior was one of these.  Most of you, I bet, never heard of him.  But one December, seventy-four years ago, his name was on everybody’s lips.  And as you are about to learn, rightfully so.

 

 

 

It’s safe to say that the Christmas season of 1941 was one of the most cheerless that Americans had ever known.  The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 07 December left 2,408 American servicemen dead.  2,408 families would spend their Christmas grieving over the empty chairs at their dinner tables.  And the misery was only beginning.  In the days following Pearl Harbor, Japan turned its military might on the South Pacific.  Japanese Zeroes steadily bombed the Philippines and Malaya and Formosa while Imperial soldiers waded ashore from troop-carriers.  With nearly all of America’s Pacific fleet lying underwater, it was up to the United States Army to hold off the invading forces.

 

The Zeroes swarmed the skies like angry gnats, shooting at anything that flew.  Particularly, if it had U.S. markings.  On the morning of 10 December, a group of B-17’s from the 14th Bomb Squadron was dispatched to Clark Air Field, located on Luzon Island, in the Philippines.  Only three of the bombers made it.  One of them was piloted by Captain Colin P. Kelly, Jr., U.S. Army-Air Forces, a graduate of West Point, Class of 1937.

 

At Clark, Captain Kelly received his orders.  He would fly his B-17 northward and attack enemy fortifications on the island of Formosa. 

 

However, the Japanese were bombing the field relentlessly.  Kelly had to take off at the first lull and get airborne in the few minutes before the Zeroes made their next pass.  There was no time for his ship to be completely re-armed or refueled.  That wasn’t the worst of it.  If you know anything about how bombers operated during World War II, from watching movies or television, then you know that our guys' fighter planes always accompanied the B-17's, to protect the big birds from their guys' fighter planes.  But, Kelly was told, there were no fighters available to provide cover.  He and his crew would be up in the air alone, with only his ship’s guns for defence.

 

Captain Kelly got his plane into the air, but it would never arrive at Formosa.  As he flew over the northern end of Luzon, Kelly and his crew spotted Japanese warships off shore, shelling the island, to cover a large landing party making for the beach.  Luzon was being invaded!  This information was swiftly radioed back to Clark Air Field, but no clear acknowledgement came back.  With no way to know if the base had received his warning, Captain Kelly decided to attack the invading forces.

 

With no fighter protection from any enemy Zeroes controlling the airspace, Kelly’s B-17 passed over the Japanese vessels, positioning for the optimum angle of attack.  Then the bomber dropped its entire payload---three 600-pound bombs.  The Imperial cruiser, Natori, heaved violently as two of the bombs detonated in the water on its flanks.  The third seemed to score a solid hit.  Natori did not sink, but she could no longer continue her operations against Luzon.

 

With its payload exhausted, the B-17 turned southward and made a bee-line for Clark Air Field.  But, suddenly, the skies darkened with Japanese Zeroes, mad as hornets.  Their bullets began to chew into the lone American bomber.

 

The B-17’s gunners returned fire as Kelly put the plane into a sharp climb.  The bomber had one advantage over the more agile fighters---its engines were designed to operate smoothly in the higher, thinner air.  As the B-17 gained altitude, the motors of the pursuing Zeroes began to sound like second-hand washing machines and the pilots had to run full throttle just to keep the American ship in sight.

 

Nevertheless, three enemy fighters managed to climb to the bomber’s level and approach it from behind.  Kelly’s B-17 was an early model that did not have a tail turret.  Desperately, Kelly fishtailed his plane, trying to put the three Zeroes inside the radius of the side gunners.

 

One of the Zeroes surged forward.  In the cockpit was Saburo Sakai, who would survive the war as Japan’s fourth-highest ace, with sixty-four kills.  Sakai was astounded that a lone American bomber had managed to penetrate the air screen and attack the Imperial warships.

 

He did not find out until after the war who was piloting the bomber.  In his autobiography Samurai! (E.P. Dutton, 1957), Sakai would later state:

 

We had never heard of unescorted bombers in battle, especially a single bomber in an area known to be patrolled by dozens of enemy fighters.  Unbelievable as it seemed, that B-17 had made a lone attack in the very teeth of all our planes.  [Captain Kelly] certainly did not lack courage.

 

Sakai sent a burst of gunfire into the B-17.  One of the rounds, an incendiary “tracer”, sliced through the ship’s fuel lines and oxygen system.  Hot gasoline spraying into the pure oxygen combusted into a fireball which consumed the plane’s left wing and swiftly spread along the entire fuselage.  Sakai eased back and let the accompanying Zeroes continue the attack.  But the damage was done.

 

The flaming bomber pitched nose down and plunged earthward in a sharp dive.  It broke through the clouds; Clark Air Field was in sight but Kelly knew the plane wasn’t going to make it.  In a calm voice, he ordered his six remaining crewmen to bail out.  The problem was, you can’t jump out of an aeroplane spinning around like a dervish.  So Kelly remained at the controls, fighting them until he had the ship steady enough to give his crew a chance to live.

 

At 7,000 feet, a half-dozen men bailed out of the stricken airship and a half-dozen parachutes blossomed.  Then, five miles away from Clark Air Field, the plane exploded in mid-air.

 

And that’s why you should remember Colin P. Kelly, Jr.

 

 

 

Americans of the day, still numbed by the attack at Pearl Harbor and fearful of a Japanese invasion on the West Coast, sure knew who he was.  His conspicuous bravery had made him the first American hero of World War II.  Part of that was because a few of the news services exaggerated a fact or two.  Some reports stated that the warship Kelly attacked was a Japanese carrier and that it sank.  Other accounts spread the word that Kelly had sunk the carrier by flying his crippled B-17 directly into it.

 

Gilding the lily wasn’t necessary.  The actual facts of Captain Kelly’s feat were heroic enough.  He was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Medal by General Douglas MacArthur.  In a telegram to Kelly’s family in Madison, Florida governor Spessard L. Holland noted, “His deed will endure indelibly inscribed on the pages of America’s history.”

 

In the South Bronx, four-year-old Colin Powell---yes, that Colin Powell---changed the pronunciation of his first name.  His Jamaican-born parents had named him “CAH-lin”.  Now the boy insisted on saying it as “COE-lin”, in the fashion of the late war hero.  He would continue to pronounce it that way long after gaining fame as an Army general and Secretary of State.

 

In time, there would be buildings, schools, streets, monuments, and a transport ship named after Kelly.

 

 

 

None of it, of course, did much to ease the grief of his widow, Marion, who lived in Madison, Florida, with their son, Colin P. Kelly III---“Corky”---only sixteen months old.  The Christmas tree in the corner of the living room, which was supposed to celebrate the holiest of births, became tainted with the tragic irrevocability of death. 

 

The war was not yet a week old and American families were only beginning to learn how to cope with their devastating losses.  But people did what they could.  The Tampa Morning Tribune started a fund to provide for young Corky’s college education.

 

Seven hundred miles away, in Washington, D.C., President Franklin D. Roosevelt had a better idea.  He knew that there was nothing he could do to restore the joy of this year’s Christmas to Mrs. Kelly and her son. But, perhaps, there was something he could do to brighten future ones and honour Captain Kelly’s sacrifice.

 

On 17 December, nine days before Christmas, F.D.R. wrote a letter, not long.  Only three brief paragraphs.  Then he sealed it inside an envelope and had it delivered to the National Archives.

 

 

 

This is the part where we jump ahead fifteen years. 

 

In February of 1956, Wayne C. Grover, the Archivist of the United States, hand-delivered a letter to President Dwight D. Eisenhower.  The sealed envelope was addressed simply “To the President of the United States in 1956”.

 

The handwritten letter inside read:

 

 

Ike might not have recognised the handwriting, but he certainly knew the signature.  It was that of the man who had made him a four-star general and appointed him as the supreme commander of allied forces during World War II.

 

Eisenhower, himself a graduate of West Point, Class of 1915, was proud to grant Roosevelt’s request.  First, though, there were some quiet enquiries to be made.  Mrs. Kelly had remarried and had relocated to a suburb in Pennsylvania, where her son attended a private Quaker school.  Corky was at the top of his class, both academically and on the playing fields.  He was an Eagle Scout, to boot. 

 

And most important, yes, he wanted to go West Point.

 

The only hitch was that Corky was only sixteen, and the minimum age to attend the academy was seventeen.  Still, that was a problem that time would take care of.  A year later, President Eisenhower was ready to deliver F.D.R.’s gift of an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy.

 

In case you aren’t sure exactly what that meant, admission to West Point, for regular applicants, is an intensely competitive process.  A prospective attendee must receive a nomination, either from the Vice President or a member of Congress.  If he falls under certain criteria available to the offspring of military veterans, then he may receive a service-related nomination.  Either route leads to stiff competitive examinations to determine the strongest candidates.

 

Each member of Congress and the Vice President is allowed to make ten nominations per vacancy.  But earning a nomination is no guarantee of selection.  Out of the ten nominees allowed to each official, only one is selected for appointment.

 

The academy chooses only the top contenders---less than ten percent of all eligible applicants---and the lucky selectees are tendered appointments, under the authority of the President of the United States.

 

That’s the way it is now; that’s the way it was then.

 

A direct appointment by the President meant skipping all of those competitive wickets and going straight to the top of the list.  It was a golden ticket.

 

And Colin P. Kelly III turned it down.

 

Instead, the young man insisted on undergoing the regular admissions process and taking the examinations for a service-related nomination, without any preferential treatment.

 

“I felt I should be able to get in on my own merit,” he would later say, in a 2008 interview, “or I didn’t belong there.”

 

As it turned out, after assessing the results of his exams and his high-school performance, West Point felt that he did, indeed, belong there.  In May of 1959, Corky was accepted to the Class of 1963.  Two months later, he was standing tall on the Plain as a newly minted plebe.

 

Following graduation, the shavetail Second Lieutenant Kelly was assigned to the Armor Branch.  After fulfilling his four-year obligation, which included a tour in Germany as a tank commander, he left active duty to attend divinity school.  But Corky was not done with military service, yet.  Two years after being ordained as an Episcopalian priest, he rejoined the Army as a chaplain, eventually returning to West Point to serve in its Office of Chaplains.

 

By the time he retired from the Army in 1983, few people recognised the name Colin Kelly.  By then, our heroes had become rock stars and pro wrestlers.

 

 

 

I chose this particular story to tell because, when I look around the world, I realise that something is as true now as it ever was.  George Wunder, the man who took over the Terry and the Pirates strip from Milton Caniff, said it much better than I could . . . .

 

 

As you sit down to dinner this afternoon, please take a moment to offer a thought and a prayer to the hundreds of men, and women, who are spending their Christmas standing lonely watches in distant places, far away from their families and loved ones, so that you may be with yours in freedom and in peace.

* * * * *

From Cheryl and myself, to all of you, our fondest wishes for a Merry Christmas, and many more of them!

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Merry Christmas, sir!

Merry Christmas to you and yours, Commander.

Merry Christmas, Happiness and Health Always!

Every time I read about anything from WWII, my brain freezes up. What an astonishing, awful, amazing, HUGE thing.

Thousands of tanks battling across a 1,500-mile-line front for three days at the Battle of Kursk. "Nuts!" said the commander of Bastogne to the suggestion of surrender, as his frozen, bleeding, exhausted men fought off the surrounding Nazis. The Bataan Death March. Auschwitz. The Warsaw Ghetto uprising. The Rape of Nanking. "Sink the Bismarck!" Stalingrad. Omaha Beach. Anzio. Yalta. Midway. "Where are our reserves?" "Sir, there are no reserves." Victory gardens and war bonds. Rationing and Fireside Chats. Hiroshima.

Growing up, my father and all of his contemporaries were WWII veterans. Every adult male I knew as a child was a vet. And none of them talked about it. That was an odd way to grow up, it appears. But it was my reality.

One time, late at night after a party, I sneaked into a crawlspace and listened to my dad and some of his friends talk. They traded some war stories that weren't anything like the movies I'd seen. But, of course, I was most interested in my dad's story. And it was a doozy.

My dad was Naval Air toward the end of the war. Maybe earlier, too, when he was serving on a destroyer in the Pacific, which was sunk. (Obviously, he lived.) After that (and maybe because of that) he went into the air. During World War II, both the Navy and the Army had air arms, because there was no air force yet (that would happen in 1947). During this story, my dad was serving with the part of the Navy air service that was re-inforcing Chiang Kia-Shek's efforts to repulse the Japanese in China.

If you know anything about the Pacific Theater in WWII, you know that the Japs invaded China and sank just about every Western Pacific navy between Japan and Australia in the 1930s. They sank or chased off the British, Dutch, French and Germans early on, and cemented their victory by sinking the U.S Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor in 1941.

So during the early 1940s, the only way for the Western Allies to re-inforce China was to fly supplies from British-owned India over "The Hump" -- the Himalayas -- to various fields in China. Which the Allies did. And which the Japanese knew they were doing, and tried to stop them from doing.

So, my dad said, they would fly over The Hump week after week, with no air cover, because the trip was too long for fighters. And in the early part of the trip there were no problems, for the same reason -- Japanese fighters didn't have the range to attack them during the southern end of the trip.

But once over The Hump, they were within Japanese fighter range. And, routinely, they were jumped by Zeros in Chinese skies. The Chinese had no air force to send up to protect them.

And then it was basically luck. The Zeros couldn't stick around long, due to fuel limitations. The transports had no gunners or other defense. Whatever transport the Japs selected to attack en masse went down, and everybody died. But the Japanese couldn't stay around for a second sweep, so it was quick and that was that.

So my dad went up, flight after flight. Guys next to him went down over and over. His number could come up any time, but didn't. Until ...

He was amidships when his transport was hit by Zeros. The transports had no armor, and he was caught flat-footed. Bullets spanged all around him. He was dead.

But, amazingly, he wasn't. Everybody around him was, but he wasn't. Just like in Pulp Fiction, he felt himself to see where the holes were. But there weren't any. And, behind him, the fuselage was full of holes. And, of course, everyone around him was dead.

But he was not. He went back home and married, and had four kids, one of which was me.

Merry Christmas.

Practically the entire history of World War II is written by events which required men to go into harm's way, in situations in which no skill-set could improve their chance for survival.  A man either made it or he didn't.  That kind of courage is nearly unfathomable.

There isn't enough thanks in the world for what your father and the millions of others like him did.

Merry Christmas, Commander. A powerful story, as usual.

No veterans in my family tree that I'm aware of, though my mother's family has told a couple of alarming stories about life in the Blitz.

My dad was in the British Fire Service in London during the Blitz. He stood on single remaining walls of tall buildings fighting the fires. He picked up severed heads. His oldest brother died in the first World War while a POW in France. His other brother served in WWII.

My mom was stationed in London in the Women's Royal Navy and started smoking in a tube station during a bombing raid. Her youngest brother was in the armored cavalry in North Africa, and cheated death a couple of times. Her other two brothers also served.

Commander Benson said:

Practically the entire history of World War II is written by events which required men to go into harm's way, in situations in which no skill-set could improve their chance for survival.  A man either made it or he didn't.  That kind of courage is nearly unfathomable.

There isn't enough thanks in the world for what your father and the millions of others like him did.

Unfortunately and alas, all that self-sacrifice and heroism often goes unappreciated these days.

Worse, in some circles (typically university/academia-types) the effort to defeat Germany and Japan is even scorned or denigrated (at least Down Under, where I come from).

...For my immediates , my paternal grandfathers were both in WWI , Army , maternal grandfather (I think/recall , as with all here , all referred to are deceased and they had the paperwork...) ~ I remember a childhood LP of modern-day recording of Great War songs such as " K-K-K-Katy : by a chorus ending up being given my my folks , though it was theirs first , over to him and Army in I and II for my paternal grandpa , after whom I am named .

  My father was in the Navy in WWII . (Post-discharge , he was still subject to possible recall for some years , and could've been during Korea , though he was not .) I guess he was a low-level office/Lt. - he was already on an ROTC-like service track , in his first?? year of college , in Georgia , on Pearl Harbor Day .

  When he eventually full-D shipped out , he was in Destroyer Escorts , in the Atlantic . By his own description (which I am quoting/channeling) " We were never shot at...

...that we knew about , we were on battle stations some times , dropped depth charges and either hit nothing or hit something and sunk it so deep nothing came up " . Years later , he liked the German " from-the-other-side " film DAS BOOT , although only the U.S. market featurisation , finding a later US-released full-length original?? German market miniseries version too long .

  His ship was scheduled to take a rather dangerous/likely-to-be-sunk part in the planned land invasion of Japan which was called off after Hiroshima and Nagasaki led to the Empire's surrender . He was patriotically/fatalistically rsigned to the danger , of course , but sure was relieved when it was called off !

  Unfortunately , all the family pix/memos I had are lost now (Some could be found/copied .) ~ including a side-by-side of him and his (Army , returned , remember , coming out a Colonel ~ I have seem Colonel jokingly referred to as " the rank you acheive if you're around long enough and no one knows what to do with ytou " !) father in their dress uniforms , and a from-a-distance of his ship coming in .

...I meant that my parents male chorus LP featuring " K-K-K-Katy " got " passed up " to my paternal grandfather , my penchant to have to post under time's sword led to (another ???) stumble there .

...I mistyped again ! It was my maternal grandfather who received the male chorus LP , my paternal g.f. was deceased by then .

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