Madison’s Legendary War Hero

Colin Kelly Jr. became a hero when America needed one the mostThe Story of Colin Kelly Jr.Madison’s World War II Hero Is the Stuff of Legend

By Jason Dehart

It was too big a target to pass up.

Madison native and U.S. Army Air Corps Capt. Colin P. Kelly Jr. looked down from 22,000 feet and spied the Japanese warships hammering the northern coast of Luzon, the largest island in the Philippines. In the middle of the heavily armed invasion flotilla sat a large turreted gunship – which looked like a nice, fat battleship.

It was Dec. 10, 1941. Just three days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the 29-year-old West Point graduate and B-17 bomber pilot was about to make history with the 19th Bomb Group, which had been stationed in the Philippines since September.

In the deadly action to follow, Kelly – one of the most respected B-17 pilots in his unit – would bomb that warship and sacrifice himself to save his crew. He became America’s first hero of World War II in the process – but history has a funny way of turning heroes into legends, thanks to the fog of war.


Just When America Needed a Hero . . . .

It was a dark day for America. The Japanese military was attacking everything within reach in the Pacific, eager to increase their nation’s dominance in the region.

Just hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese planes strafed Clark Field on the island of Luzon. Nineteen American B-17s – big, four-engine long-range bombers  – were stationed there, and another group was sequestered out of range at an airstrip on the southern island of Mindanao.

Prewar standing orders stated that in the event hostilities broke out between Japan and the United States, B-17s from the 19th Bomb Group were to immediately attack Japanese fighter bases on the island of Formosa (modern-day Taiwan).

But on Dec. 8, 1941, when news reached the Philippines of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the orders – for some reason – were not immediately carried out. One historical account says the bombers were assigned reconnaissance missions around Luzon. When the order finally came to attack Formosa, the planes returned to Clark Field, only to be strafed by 200 or more Japanese fighters. All but one B-17 was destroyed. The planes at Mindanao were beyond the range of the Japanese planes and were safe – for the time being.

According to aviation writer Larry W. Bledsoe, seven B-17Cs – an early version of the B-17 – flew up the next day to an airstrip near Clark Field. The day after that, they drove over to the airfield and were in the process of being armed when air-raid sirens started blaring again.

Only three 600-pound bombs were loaded on Kelly’s B-17C before he was forced to take off, Bledsoe wrote in 2004 for the General Aviation News. Two other bombers took off as well. All three went in different directions to tackle different targets.

“Kelly had orders to seek out and bomb a carrier believed to be operating off the north coast of Luzon,” Bledsoe wrote. “Actually there was no aircraft carrier. The Americans believed there was one because Japanese Navy Zeros had participated in the previous day’s raid.”

Other historians say Kelly’s mission was to carry out the previous standing orders – to hit Formosa. However, whatever order he was following went out the window when his lone bomber came across that Japanese fleet shelling the coastal town of Aparri on Luzon.

The Legend Begins

Kelly and his crew were all alone, without fighter cover or other bombers to back him up. He was deep within enemy territory, hovering over a large, ship-borne Japanese invasion force. He only had three bombs and a limited self-defense capability. Japanese Zeros, deadly little enemy fighters manned by professional pilots who already were war veterans, were prowling nearby.

Despite having the deck stacked against him and his crew, Kelly made the command decision to ignore his standing orders and attack the nearest target of opportunity, which happened to be the largest warship in the flotilla below.

Wartime legend holds that in Kelly’s next dramatic move, he rammed his plane into the smokestack of the massive Japanese battleship Haruna, becoming at one time the war’s first suicide attack and its first Medal of Honor recipient.

In the confusion of those dark early days, the rumor of Kelly’s suicide mission spread widely in an America longing for a hero to emerge – and thus the legend was born.

“In the confusion of the early days of the Pacific war, Kelly was credited with sinking a Japanese battleship and with (being awarded the) the Medal of Honor. Overnight he became a national hero,” wrote John L. Frisbee, contributing editor to Air Force Magazine Online.

One person enraptured by the exaggerated version of Kelly’s actions was none other than Florida Gov. Spessard Holland, who, when informed of Kelly’s death, sent a gushing condolence telegram to Kelly’s folks in Madison:

I have just learned with the deepest regret of the heroic death of your son, Captain Colin P. Kelly, Jr., in an engagement with enemy forces while serving with the United States Army Air Corps in the Philippines. As Governor of Florida, I beg to extend my deep sympathy which I am sure is equally shared by all the people of our state. America today salutes the extraordinary courage and exceptional feat of valor of your son in the sinking of the Japanese battleship Haruna and in the destruction of two enemy aircraft. Although your son made the supreme sacrifice in the splendidly successful execution of his mission, it may be of comfort to know that his exemplary bravery and achievement will serve as an inspiration to every patriotic American and especially to the men who now defend our shores in the fight for freedom. His deed will endure indelibly inscribed on the pages of America’s history.

A few days later, Holland sent another telegram, this time to the editor of the Tampa Tribune, in which he encouraged the paper to set up a college fund for Kelly’s young son, Colin “Corky” Kelly III:

In one of the first engagements of the Japanese War, Captain Colin P. Kelly, Jr., of Madison, Florida, serving with the United States Army Air Corps in the Philippines distinguished himself by an exceptional feat of courage and military daring. As the pilot of an army bombing plane he flew through a barrage of anti-aircraft fire to score three direct hits at close range on the enemy battleship Haruna, sending her to the bottom. His singular achievement will ever be remembered and stands as an inspiration to every patriotic American. The people of Florida are justifiably proud of the valiant action of one of their sons. In carrying out his mission, Capatin (sic) Kelly made the supreme sacrifice for his country.

Truth, the First Casualty of War

Gov. Holland’s version of Kelly’s sacrifice is a little different from what actually happened, according to Frisbee.

“It later was determined that Kelly and his crew did not sink a battleship, nor was he awarded the Medal of Honor, although some still believe both,” Frisbee wrote. “In fact, Colin Kelly was recommended for the Medal of Honor by Maj. Gen. Lewis H. Brereton, commander of the U.S. Far East Air Forces. The award he received was the Distinguished Service Cross, on the orders of Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s headquarters.”

Patriotic fervor may have played loose with the facts, but there is no doubt that Kelly died heroically that fateful day.

Here’s what really happened, based on wartime interviews with surviving crew members:

At 22,000 feet, Kelly circled the armada and singled out the largest warship he could find – which later turned out to be the heavy cruiser Ashigara and not the battleship Haruna, as was initially reported by authorities. Kelly’s bombardier carefully lined up the ship and at 20,000 feet dropped all three bombs. At least one of them hit the target, because explosions were seen on the deck.

While hit, the Ashigara wasn’t sunk. It went on to fight throughout most of the rest of the war before being sunk in June 1945.

“As best the crew could tell, two of the three bombs bracketed the ship with one direct hit,” Frisbee wrote. “Smoke prevented more accurate assessment. The B-17 then headed for Clark Field, its bomb bay empty.”

That’s when the real trouble started. Kelly’s plane started to draw lots of unwanted attention in the form of 10 Zeros that promptly gunned their engines and lined up behind the solitary American bomber.

Like a Sitting Duck

Unlike later versions of the famous B-17, Kelly’s “C” model didn’t have a tail gun – a fact the enemy was aware of and used to their advantage by attacking from behind. In their first attack, one crewman was killed and instrument panels were shot out, but the armored bomber kept flying until it finally caught fire.

“A second attack set the left wing ablaze. The fire spread rapidly into the fuselage, filling the flight deck with smoke,” Frisbee wrote.

It was time to bail. Kelly shouted the order,
and as he struggled with the controls, his crew jumped out one by one through various escape hatches. The fire now engulfed the nose. Just as Kelly’s co-pilot, 2nd Lt. Donald Robins, started to jump, the plane exploded, blowing Robins clear – but Kelly was killed. The wreckage tumbled from the sky, and Kelly’s body later was found inside, just five miles from Clark Field.

Over time, the real facts of the matter became legendary, too.

“The early report of his heroism, which inspired a nation in shock, is in no way diminished by the actual events of that December day in 1941,” wrote Frisbee. “Alone and far from friendly territory, he attacked and damaged a heavily armed ship, then sacrificed his own life to save his crew.”


Not surprisingly, Kelly’s actions have been memorialized in many ways.

In San Francisco, Japan Street was renamed in his honor. Closer to home, the “Four Freedoms” monument, located in downtown Madison, was dedicated to his memory in 1944. In 2000, an act of Congress renamed the Madison post office the “Capt. Colin P. Kelly, Jr. Post Office.” Kelly’s legend also lives on in aviation paintings, thanks to artists such as Stan Stokes, Robert Taylor and Gil Cohen. There even is a model airplane kit of his B-17C.

But perhaps the greatest memorial lives on today in Kelly’s son, Colin P. “Corky” Kelly III, who now is a rector at Trinity on the Hill Episcopal Church in Los Alamos, N.M.

Corky Kelly was only 3 years old when his father was killed – an event that would literally shape his life. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt learned of Colin Kelly’s death, he was so moved that he wrote a letter addressed to the future president of the United States and asked the future commander-in-chief to appoint Corky (who would then be 18) to West Point.

Fifteen years or so later, President Dwight D. Eisenhower would make good on his predecessor’s request. Colin P. Kelly III attended West Point, graduated, served the Army in Germany and Fort Riley, Kan., attended divinity school, returned to the Army, became an assistant chaplain at West Point, and retired to his current position in New Mexico. He has been there for about 20 years.

Today, Roosevelt’s letter to the future is in the Dwight D. Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kan.

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