In the space of two hours on December 7, 1941, 353 Japanese fighters, bombers and torpedo planes sank four U.S. battleships, three cruisers and three destroyers, destroyed 161 American aircraft, and killed 2,117 Army, Navy and Marine Corps personnel and 57 civilians.
One day after the assault on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, President Franklin Roosevelt made an impassioned seven-minute speech before a joint session of Congress. An hour after he uttered the phrase, “a date which will live in infamy,” and with the wreckage at Pearl still smoldering, Congress declared war against Japan.
Three days after the attack, the United States had its first World War II hero.
The arena for Army Air Forces Captain Colin Kelly’s act of valor was Clark Field, 40 miles northwest of Manila, on the Philippine island of Luzon. The air base, a former Army fort in American possession since 1903, was used as a landing field for medium bombers in the 1930s. By the summer and fall of 1941, it had become especially strategic in light of an expected war with an increasingly belligerent Japan.
At daybreak on December 10, 1941, three B-17s of the U.S. 14th Bomb Squadron, 19th Bomb Group, landed at Clark Field in a driving rain. Their squadron commander, Major Emmett “Rosy” O’Donnell Jr., briefed the crews. After Pearl Harbor, the Japanese struck Clark and other American installations near Manila. The three newly arrived B-17s were to proceed at once to Formosa—now known as Taiwan—500 miles north, and attack airfields there. They were to fly to Formosa without refueling or completing their bomb loading and without a fighter escort.
Of the three pilots, Captain Colin Purdie Kelly, Jr., 26, a 1937 West Point graduate from Madison, Florida, was the most experienced in the B-17. Kelly was the first Army officer to fly the Boeing “Flying Fortress” in the Far East. He was a handsome, cheery, devoted airman from the time he caught a ride with an itinerant barnstormer. He also was married and father of a six-month-old son.
Off the north coast of Luzon on the morning of December 10, the Americans spotted a Japanese invasion force headed south. Kelly’s B-17, with only three 600-pound bombs aboard, got the bombardier’s signal and released the bombs in sequence on the biggest of the enemy ships—variously described as a transport or light cruiser—and watched a huge blaze blossom on its deck.
There was no time to celebrate, however, for, as the B-17 turned back toward Clark Field, it was attacked by a swarm of fighters led by Japan’s great ace, Sub-Lieutenant Saburo Sakai, who was credited with destroying 64 planes—mostly American—in combat.
The big bomber was hit again and again, killing the waist gunner and severely wounding another man. With the instrument panel hopelessly damaged, the left wing ablaze and fire spreading into the flight deck, Kelly ordered the other six crew members to don their parachutes while he remained at the controls, trying to steady the plane. As Kelly’s co-pilot, 2nd Lieutenant Donald Robins, moved to the upper escape hatch, the bomber exploded in a ball of flame and debris, ejecting Robins—badly burned but alive—clear of the aircraft.
Colin Kelly’s body was found at the crash site, a short distance from the Clark Field runway, with his parachute unopened.
General Douglas MacArthur awarded him a posthumous Distinguished Service Cross, the Army and Army Air Forces’ second highest award for valor.
After the war, his remains were buried with military honors in his hometown of Madison, Florida.
Before he passed in 1945, Roosevelt wrote a letter addressed to “the President of the United States in 1956” asking that Kelly’s son be given an appointment to his father’s alma mater. The request was fulfilled and Colin P. Kelly III, graduated from the U.S. Military Academy and served in the Army as a chaplain.
By March 1942, with patriotic fervor sweeping the country, Colin Kelly’s name and deeds were endlessly recounted in newspaper stories, often coupling his heroism to the biblical (John 15:13) precept that, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
In addition, a song released that year, written by Paul Roberts and Shelby Darnell, and vocalized by Arkansas musician Elton Britt, sold more than a million copies and linked Kelly’s name to some of America’s greatest heroes:
There’s a Star-Spangled Banner waving somewhere
In a distant land so many miles away.
Only Uncle Sam’s great heroes get to go there
Where I wish that I could also live some day.
I’d see Lincoln, Custer, Washington and Perry,
And Nathan Hale and Colin Kelly, too.
There’s a Star-Spangled Banner waving somewhere,
Waving o’er the land of heroes brave and true.
Dale L. Walker of El Paso, Texas, is a past-president of Western Writers of America, Inc., and author of many historical books and biographies.