By Joe Boyles
A nasty head cold kept me from attending the recent Kiwanis meeting where Senator Bill Nelson and his friend Tommy Tart spoke about Colin Kelly. I’m sorry I missed it, but I sure didn’t want to pass my germs on to anyone.
I was aware that Senator Nelson was making another appeal to the Department of the Army to upgrade Kelly’s Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) to the Medal of Honor. Apparently that appeal was unsuccessful. I’m not surprised. I came to that conclusion about ten years ago when I came into possession of the Kelly File.
At that time, the appeal was driven by former Congressman Allen Boyd. When Boyd looked into the matter, many thought that the Kelly File had been destroyed in the 1973 fire at the St. Louis National Records Center, but this file was in a fireproof VIP vault that was not affected by the blaze. When Boyd was finished with the file, his assistant Bobby Pickles gave the file to me. Several years later, I copied it for the NFCC Library.
The file consists of about four hundred documents: letters; newspaper articles; special orders; flight records; messages; and the like. After Kelly’s death in early December 1941, the War Department scoured their files for anything related to Kelly. The file was added to over the next few years as the name of Colin Kelly passed from history into legend. Anyone doing serious study on Madison’s greatest hero should look at all of these documents carefully – they are a treasure trove of information.
For example, in his flight records you find that his first pilot training instructor in 1937 at Randolph Field, TX was Bob Scott who would later find fame as a Flying Tiger in China and author of the famous book turned movie, “God is my Co-Pilot.”
The issue of whether or not Colin Kelly deserved the Congressional Medal of Honor (CMOH) has come up repeatedly, most recently by Senator Nelson. In my mind, the issue was put to bed shortly after his death. In mid-December 1941, several prominent people called for his decoration of the CMOH and bills were introduced in both houses of Congress to that affect.
The Kelly File contains an exchange of cables between Army Chief of Staff George Marshall and Army Far East Commander Douglas MacArthur on December 21 and 22, each asking whether or not Kelly’s award of the DSC should be upgraded to the CMOH. This is at exactly the same time that Manila is falling to the Japanese and MacArthur is moving his command to the island of Corregidor. This likely added to the confusion.
By February 26, 1942, the issue is settled. In letters to both the House and Senate Military Affairs committee chairmen, Secretary of War Henry Stimson says that a thorough review of the facts indicates that the award of the Distinguished Service Cross is appropriate for Captain Kelly’s act and sacrifice.
Everything else from that point on was moot – the commanders at the time had made a determination. No subsequent commanders are going to reverse the decision made at the time by the competent authority unless new information is gleaned which wasn’t available at the time.
When I reviewed the file for the first time, I felt the only opportunity to reverse this decision was by bringing new information to light. I felt that if the December 5th reconnaissance mission over Formosa was properly documented and the entire body of work over six days (December 5-10) was included in a new recommendation — that might succeed. Since that Friday mission report has never been discovered to my knowledge and all the events documented, we simply don’t have the information that might result in new and further consideration.
I think there was another factor working against Kelly – the details of his heroic action on the December 10th final mission were so grossly misreported. Some reports indicated that he attacked an aircraft carrier – there were no carriers used by the Japanese in The Philippines operation. Other reports said that he sank the battleship Haruna; even rammed his aircraft into the ship – not true. He did attack and put out of commission the heavy cruiser Ashigara, but that wasn’t discovered until years later. Things were very confusing in those early days of the war, and the media botched the reporting.
None of this in any way diminishes the heroism displayed by Captain Kelly. He was one of the first to strike a decisive blow at the enemy and lost his life to save his crew. He was and still is an inspiration to anyone who is familiar with the facts. I invite anyone who is interested to review the Kelly File and discuss this remarkable man and his legacy.