Friday, June 15, 2012

TFH 6/15: Lieutenant Thomas G. Kelley, USN

Thomas Gunning Kelley was born in Boston, Massachusetts on May 13, 1939. After graduating from the College of the Holy Cross in 1960, he joined the United States Navy and received an officer's commission as an Ensign. He had served during the Cuban Missile Crisis and off the shore of Vietnam during 1966. Kelley decided to make the Navy his career, and volunteered in 1968 to join the Mobile Riverine Force supporting the 2nd Brigade of the Army's 9th Infantry Division in South Vietnam's Mekong Delta.

On June 15, 1969, then Lieutenant Kelley was commanding River Assault Division 152 and its eight assault craft. As they were evacuating 9th Infantry Division soldiers, the boats came under fire from the Viet Cong. Kelley ordered his boat to stand between the enemy and a crippled craft, and when his own was struck by a rocket and he sustained serious head wounds, he continued in command. On May 14, 1970, Kelley was decorated with the Medal of Honor for his actions.

From Medal of Honor Citations for the Vietnam War (A-L):


Rank and organization: Lieutenant Commander, U.S. Navy, River Assault Division 152. place and date: Ong Muong Canal, Kien Hoa province, Republic of Vietnam, 15 June 1969. Entered service at: Boston, Mass. Born: 13 May 1939, Boston, Mass. Citation: For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty in the afternoon while serving as commander of River Assault Division 152 during combat operations against enemy aggressor forces. Lt. Comdr. (then Lt.) Kelley was in charge of a column of 8 river assault craft which were extracting 1 company of U.S. Army infantry troops on the east bank of the Ong Muong Canal in Kien Hoa province, when 1 of the armored troop carriers reported a mechanical failure of a loading ramp. At approximately the same time, Viet Cong forces opened fire from the opposite bank of the canal. After issuing orders for the crippled troop carrier to raise its ramp manually, and for the remaining boats to form a protective cordon around the disabled craft, Lt. Comdr. Kelley realizing the extreme danger to his column and its inability to clear the ambush site until the crippled unit was repaired, boldly maneuvered the monitor in which he was embarked to the exposed side of the protective cordon in direct line with the enemy's fire, and ordered the monitor to commence firing. Suddenly, an enemy rocket scored a direct hit on the coxswain's flat, the shell penetrating the thick armor plate, and the explosion spraying shrapnel in all directions. Sustaining serious head wounds from the blast, which hurled him to the deck of the monitor, Lt. Cmdr. Kelley disregarded his severe injuries and attempted to continue directing the other boats. Although unable to move from the deck or to speak clearly into the radio, he succeeded in relaying his commands through 1 of his men until the enemy attack was silenced and the boats were able to move to an area of safety. Lt. Comdr. Kelley's brilliant leadership, bold initiative, and resolute determination served to inspire his men and provide the impetus needed to carry out the mission after he was medically evacuated by helicopter. His extraordinary courage under fire, and his selfless devotion to duty sustain and enhance the finest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.

Kelley lost an eye and part of his skull and was deemed unfit for further naval service. He petitioned to stay in the Navy and retired as a Captain in 1990. In addition to post-uniform civilian Department of Defense service,  he was the Secretary of the Massachusetts Department of Veterans Affairs from 2003 to 2010. Captain Kelley is still living.

I encourage you to listen to Kelley's story in his own words, courtesy of the Pritzker Military Library.

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