By Joe Boyles
One of the last two surviving members of Colin Kelly’s crew has died. Bob Altman, a gunner and radio operator on the 8-man crew, died peacefully in nearby Lake City on September 8th. He was 91.
But 70 years ago as a 21 year old enlisted man, Bob Altman had a front row seat to history. On December 10th (the ninth in America), Colin Kelly’s B-17C Flying Fortress was flying out of Clark Field in The Philippines. They had just finished bombing the heavy Japanese cruiser Ashigara and were returning to base when their aircraft was attacked by enemy fighters.
The initial attack killed TSgt Delehanty and severely damaged the Fort. As the fighters continued to attack the crippled aircraft, Colin Kelly tossed his aircraft around the sky to foil their tracking solutions. After repeated attacks, Kelly saw that the situation was hopeless and ordered the remaining six crew members to bail out of the blazing B-17.
Someone had to fly the airplane to allow the crew to don their parachutes and make their way to either of two exits. This was in the age before ejection seats so the bailout had to be manually performed. If Kelly were to release the controls, then G forces would have prevented nearly everyone from successfully exiting the ship.
In so doing, did Colin Kelly understand that he would not be able to safely exit the crippled aircraft? Probably not; he was frankly too busy flying a dying ship to consider the implications of his action. If we could talk to Captain Kelly today, he would probably say something like this: ‘I was just doing my job. I gave the order because I was the aircraft commander. Someone had to fly the aircraft and that was my duty. I wish that I could have successfully jumped from the ship, but it didn’t work out.’
With his selfless actions, Colin P. Kelly, Jr. became the first hero of World War II according to the commander-in-chief Franklin D. Roosevelt. He put sleepy little Madison on the map. Schools were named in his honor; songs were written about his exploits; and little boys all across America dreamed of becoming the next Colin Kelly. Madison’s hero continued to serve his country long after his death.
The six surviving members of Kelly’s crew made it to the ground alive. One would die of his injuries and another would be lost later in the Pacific War. Four survived the war to return to their native land. They all credited Colin Kelly with saving their lives by his selfless sacrifice.
Bob Altman was the only one of crew to be captured by the enemy and made a prisoner of war. He survived more than three years of hellish prison as a slave laborer. That he survived the war and lived to the ripe old age of 91 is testament to his courage and will to live. In his own right, Bob Altman was a hero of the first order. I believe that the NFCC library has a video tape of an interview between Altman and the late Bernard Wilson conducted in 1994 during the 50th anniversary celebration of the Four Freedoms Monument.
I never had the opportunity to interview Bob Altman myself and I regret that because there was something I wanted to learn about and document. On the Friday before the Pearl Harbor attack, Kelly’s B-17 was launched on a reconnaissance mission to Formosa (Taiwan) which was Japanese held. Two days later, the Japanese launched the air attack from this island that essentially destroyed McArthur’s air force in The Philippines.
There was significant cloud cover over the island and Kelly was unable to see much. On the return trip to Clark Field, the clouds parted and the crew noticed a large Japanese convoy steaming south. This was no doubt the invasion force for Malaysia and Singapore. Kelly descended to low altitude to learn more about the Japanese intentions. At one point, he ordered his gunners including Bob Altman to fire warning shots with their machine guns to see if he could provoke a response. The fighting Irish spirit of Colin Kelly was evident.
When the B-17 landed at Clark and Kelly recounted what he had seen, he was roundly criticized by two 2-star generals, Sutherland (McArthur’s chief of staff) and Brereton (the air force commander). They accused him of trying to start a world war. That claim turned out to be prophetic because two days later, Japan launched World War II on their own initiative without any help from Colin Kelly.
As best I can tell, the results of that mission have never been documented and it is an important part of the story. Maybe it’s been lost to posterity, but I’m curious nonetheless.
In closing, I return to Bob Altman. He has earned a well deserved rest after a full life on earth. But maybe beyond the great divide, Colin Kelly has assembled his crew and once again, they’re ready to fire up those huge Wright Cyclone engines and sortie. God speed.