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60 Years Ago: Colin Kelly, America’s first World War II hero

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Edward T. O’Donnell

Sixty years ago this week, on Dec. 10, 1941, Capt. Colin P. Kelly Jr. took to the sky in his B-17 bomber. His mission to bomb Japanese positions in Taiwan was one of the first American responses to the attack on Pearl Harbor just three days earlier. The mission cost Kelly his life, but in death he was celebrated by a grateful nation desperate for a hero.

Kelly was born in 1915 in Monticello, Fla., and graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1937. He went on to become an aviator specializing in flying B-17 bombers. His skills eventually earned him a job as a flight instructor. Soon after World War II broke out in Europe, Kelly was stationed in the Philippines. He knew, as did every soldier and sailor in the Pacific, that if war with Japan came, they would be among the first to know.

Notification came on Sunday morning, Dec. 7, 1941, with the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. The next day Japanese zeros attacked American bases in Manila, destroying hundreds of planes on the ground. Stationed nearby in Luzon, Kelly and the 14th Bomb Squadron, 19th Bomb Group, to which he belonged, emerged unscathed.

Two days later, Kelly and his crew took off from Clark Field in Manila with orders to bomb Japanese positions in Taiwan. With so many planes destroyed in recent days, his huge bomber would go it alone, without the customary escort of fighter planes. By all accounts it promised to be a perilous 1,000-mile round trip.

Soon after takeoff, however, Kelly spotted a group of Japanese ships landing a large force at Luzon. Immediately he radioed Clark Field — did he have permission to bomb vessels? Left hanging without an answer as critical minutes ticked away, Kelly decided to attack. His target: the largest Japanese ship supporting the landing.

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Twice Kelly passed over the ship to give his bombardier a chance to home in on the target. On the third pass, they let fly three 600-pound bombs. One hit the ship dead on, while the other two exploded nearby causing additional damage. Gazing at the huge billows of smoke below, Kelly and his crew were convinced they’d sunk a Japanese battleship.

But there was no time to savor the moment, for Japanese fighters were on them in seconds. With no fighter support, the lumbering B-17 was a sitting duck. A fellow Irishman aboard Kelly’s plane — Sgt. William Delahanty — was killed in the first strike. A second assault set the bomber ablaze. While Kelly struggled to control the plane, he ordered his crew to bail out. Moments after the last man climbed out the escape hatch, the plane exploded. Kelly — likely killed in the explosion — and the wreckage hurtled to the earth.

One member of the Japanese fighter squadron later recalled Kelly’s bravery in these final moments. “Out of ammunition, I flew alongside the B-17 and saw the pilot trying to save the burning aircraft after allowing his crew to escape,” he remembered. “I have tremendous respect for him.”

America, still reeling from the attack on Pearl Harbor, had its first hero. From coast to coast, newspapers carried front-page stories of how Kelly had boldly sunk a Japanese battleship and selflessly gave his life that his crew might live. Soon word came that the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific had nominated Kelly for the nation’s highest military tribute — the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Over time, the details of Kelly’s mission became clearer. An official report in 1942 determined that the Japanese ship Kelly hit was actually a light cruiser — not a battleship. And despite being nominated for the Medal of Honor, Kelly eventually received the Distinguished Service Cross.

By then, of course, such details mattered little. Kelly’s exploits — heroic by any standard — had provided a much-needed morale boost to his nation. His was an inspiring story that helped stiffen American resolve in the face of an uncertain future.

HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK

Dec. 6, 1921: Anglo-Irish treaty signed, ending the War of Independence and establishing the Irish Free State as a self-governing dominion within the British Commonwealth.

Dec, 6, 1933: A federal judge lifts the ban on James Joyce’s novel “Ulysses”. Published in 1922, it had been banned in the U.S. and Britain as obscene.

Dec. 7, 1972: The Dail removes from the Irish Constitution the clause granting the Catholic Church a “special position” within Irish society.

HIBERNIAN BIRTHDATES

Dec. 7, 521: St. Colum Cille, Irish saint, is born in Gartan, Co. Donegal.

Dec. 8, 1966: Sinead O’Connor, singer and activist, is born in Dublin.

Dec. 9, 1898: Emmett Kelly, circus clown Weary Willie, is born in Sedan, Kan.

Readers may contact Edward T. O’Donnell at >[email protected]

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