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Old Chester, PA: Biographical Sketches
Captain Colin Kelly
(A biographical sketch from These Men Shall Never Die by Lowell Thomas, Copyright 1943, The John C. Winston Company, pages 24-27, courtesy of Barbara Usavage Montello.)
The first mightily acclaimed hero of the war was Captain Colin Kelly who bombed and destroyed a Japanese battleship only three days after Pearl Harbor and gave his life. His exploit excited widespread enthusiasm. Big headlines blazoned the news. The daily papers and the radios talked about it for days. The nation hailed Colin Kelly who had struck the first great air blow for America and who, in doing so, had met a hero's end.
The stories were flashed from the Philippines, and apparently the first accounts were excited rumors. They told how Colin Kelly had plunged with a swift dive into the Japanese battleship Haruna and had perished in the explosion of his own bombs. This version was soon found to be inaccurate. Colin Kelly was flying a giant four-motored bomber with a crew of seven, and suicide dive bombing was most unlikely.
So what was the real story of Colin Kelly? The Army command in the Philippines made an authoritative report to Washington, a report based on an investigation that gathered all the ascertainable facts. Some angles remained in doubt, could never be known. The story, based on the official findings, was as follows:
The Japanese were making landings on the north coast of the island of Luzon, landings covered by a powerful force of warships. One of the warships was an aircraft carrier. Colin Kelly's mission was to seek out this aircraft carrier, and attack it. In his big army bomber he flew north to the coast, and spotted transports, destroyers, cruisers, and a big battleship but no carrier. He scouted the sea for half an hour, was not able to find the carrier, and decided to attack the battleship.
In heavy antiaircraft fire he made his bombing run, dropping three high explosive missiles. Of these one fell wide. Another hit just alongside the battleship, scoring a near miss. The third struck squarely on the deck. The sides of the battleship seemed to open, and black smoke shot upward. Masses of oil poured out into the sea. When last seen the Japanese battleship was belching fire and smoke.
Thus Colin Kelly struck our first great air blow against the Far Eastern enemy. In the bomber there was magnificent jubilation, the crew shouting and cheering. But misfortune awaited. On its way back toward its base, the plane was attacked by Japanese fighters. The assault was overwhelming, a storm of fire. Shells riddled the bomber. The first one smashed the cockpit. Another killed the rear left gunner. Oxygen tanks in the radio compartment exploded. The empty bomb bay was set afire. Smoke poured from the bomb bay into the pilot's compartment. The heat became unbearable. The burning plane was doomed.
Colin Kelly gave the order to jump, and one after another men bailed out of the flaming bomber, taking to their parachutes. Of the crew of seven, one had been killed by enemy fire, and five reached earth safely - but not Colin Kelly. The bomber was plunging earthward, when at seven thousand feet it exploded, disintegrating in a blast of flame - with Colin Kelly apparently still in it.
Searchers found his body near the wreckage on the ground, his parachute unopened. What had happened to America's first acclaimed war hero? The official Army report states: "It is not known exactly how Captain Kelly met his death. He may have been rendered unconscious by enemy action. He may have been killed as a result of the explosion. Or he may have been struck by some part of the plane as he attempted to jump."
The acclaim that greeted Colin Kelly was the mere beginning of a long page of glory, the first of a blazing series of bombing exploits against enemy warships. We then scarcely surmised the immense wealth of valor that lay waiting in the masses of picked American youth mustered into our air forces. That first blow struck by the Flying Fortress off the north coast of Luzon occurred when we had not yet become accustomed to flashing revelations of American prowess in the air. In our first year of war any number of deeds were done that deserved applause as enthusiastic as that showered on Colin Kelly. It's good to review them, and refresh our minds with recollections of the dazzling sweep of the nation's youth across the battlefields of land and sea and sky. Or have we, perhaps, become a bit blasť from a surfeit of valor? Surely not.
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© 2007 John A. Bullock III.
This page last updated 04/22/07