Memorial Day reminds us that to appreciate the everyday freedoms we so often take for granted we ought reflect upon the sacrifices of the brave men and women who have honorably served their country throughout the course of American history. Their sacrifices have been enormous and the sheer numbers are staggering and often difficult to comprehend.
Since the Revolutionary War, military operations and battles have claimed the lives of well over a million Americans. Some of the bloodiest days in history occurred during the American Civil War, a conflict that killed nearly 2 percent of the nation’s population.
Within the Civil War, there were many days of exceptional loss. On Sept. 17, 1862, the Battle of Antietam would mark the single bloodiest day in American history with casualties nearing 23,000. Twelve hours of fighting, over such hallowed and iconic grounds as the Cornfield and Bloody Lane, saw an average of one casualty every two seconds.
Reminders of American sacrifice and heroism can be found everywhere. Thousands of monuments, sprinkled throughout cities and towns across the United States, inspire reflection and reverence. One such reminder caught my attention years ago in San Francisco as I passed by a small street sign commemorating World War II pilot Colin Kelly.
Capt. Colin Kelly. Photo Credit: Aces of World War II.
Kelly’s story is one of honor and sacrifice, demonstrative of the American spirit, yet largely unknown to most Americans.
It took place in the wake of the attacks on Pearl Harbor. The events of Dec. 7, 1941 saw the United States thrust into the heart of a global conflagration, mobilizing millions of Americans in support of the cause of freedom over fascism.
Capt. Colin P. Kelly, Jr., a graduate of West Point and pilot attached to the 19th Bomb Group of the 14th Bomb Squadron, was flying out of Clark Air Field, located on Luzon Island in the Philippines, on the morning of Dec. 10, 1941.
The Pacific was filled with chaos as Japanese Zeros had been bombing the surrounding area in the days following Pearl Harbor. Capt. Kelly, ordered to respond to Clark and prepare for a bombing run, had arrived early that morning, one of only three B-17’s able to land at Clark Field.
With orders to attack targets on Formosa (known now as Taiwan), Kelly was forced to hastily take off due to incoming fire from the Japanese. Bomb loading and refueling not yet completed, Capt. Kelly commanded his aircraft and crew with only three 600-pound bombs on board and no fighter escort.
In this file image provided by the U.S. Navy, crewmen of the USS Nevada still fight flames on the battleship, battered in the Japanese aerial attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. It was hit with at least six Japanese bombs and a torpedo that opened a 45-by-35 foot gash in the side of the ship. It was intentionally run aground, but its crew continued to fight and was the first to shoot down a Japanese aircraft. At the end of the battle, 50 Nevada crew members died and 140 were wounded. (AP Photo/U.S. Navy, file)
As he flew north toward Formosa, Kelly and his crew noticed a large Japanese landing party, and accompanying destroyers, off the northern coast of Luzon. As Luzon was being shelled by the Japanese, Kelly radioed for permission to engage the enemy. Although Kelly received no clarifying response from base, he ordered the initiation of an attack on the Japanese fleet.
After a few passes over their intended target, Kelly ordered his bombardier to release the B-17’s arsenal. Reports indicate that at least one bomb directly struck a Japanese ship while two others impacted the flank. Having exhausted his plane’s payload, Kelly turned around and proceeded to fly to Clark Air Field.
While enroute to Clark, Capt. Kelly’s B-17 came under heavy fire from Japanese fighters. The B-17 took several hits, killing a member of Kelly’s crew and igniting a fire on the plane’s left wing. The assault left Kelly’s plane gravely disabled and forced Kelly to order his remaining crew to abandon the plane.
As crew members moved toward the rear of the plane, readying their parachutes for an emergency evacuation, Kelly remained at the controls, steadying the plane as best he could. One by one, Kelly’s crew jumped from the plane.
Now with large portions of the plane consumed by flames, Kelly ordered his remaining crew member, co-pilot 2nd Lt. Donal Robins, to escape. Seconds after Robins cleared the plane, Kelly’s B-17 exploded, crashing five miles from Clark Air Field.
A World War II-era B-17 Bomber, like the one Capt. Kelly flew on his last mission. Photo Credit: Aces of World War II.
Capt. Colin Kelly perished along with his B-17, having sacrificed his own life to allow his crew to safely escape. For his heroism, Gen. Douglas MacArthur awarded Kelly the Distinguished Service Cross, the United States Army’s second highest medal of distinction.
In a telegram to Kelly’s parents, Florida Gov. Spessard Holland noted that, “His deed will endure indelibly inscribed on the pages of America’s history.”
Indeed, Kelly’s final act of bravery, and the countless other stories of heroism that mark our nation’s history, continues to imbue the spirit of American exceptionalism. Memorial Day is a time to reflect upon those stories, to remind us from where we’ve come and to inspire the next generation of American heroes.
Scott G. Erickson is a graduate of the University of Cincinnati and is a conservative writer and law enforcement professional from California. He can be found at www.scottgerickson.com or @SGErickson
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