This week’s Veterans Spotlight guest is special. He grew up in Charlestown and is the epitome of a great American story. Art Kelley served his country in the US Marine Corps in World War II from 1943 to 1946 and again during the Korean War.
“My neighborhood was all Irish…tough neighborhood…we always watched each others’ backs,” Mr. Kelley remembered. At 94, his hands are thick and still strong. “My dad was a boxer and I boxed in the service. I could always handle myself pretty well,” he said.
Mr. Kelley grew up in a close-knit family of six and was 17 when he enlisted in the Marines. His basic training was at the famed Parris Island. “I originally wanted to join the Navy but 11 of our gang wanted to go into the Marines. I was the only one that passed the test,” he said with a smile.
Sergeant Kelley was sent to the Pacific Theater and saw immediate, severe combat action. “We were the sweep-up guys…backup guys…we slept in our Jeeps most of the time ‘cause that’s all we had. When anybody ran into trouble, that’s when we went in and took care of business. The Japanese were savages. They decapitated soldiers, civilians…anybody,” he recalled. “We found a Filipino kid in the jungle…took care of him…brought him back to our camp…fed him…saved his life. If the Japanese had caught him he would have faced a terrible death.”
Sergeant Kelley had an extremely close relationship with his Marine buddies. He shared a couple of memories: “I had this buddy, Domenic was his name…a Jeep exploded and landed on him.…Went to see him in the hospital.…Doctor told me that his head was split wide open as he lay in his hospital bed and the only thing he said to the doc was, ‘What time is chow?’…tough kid…I’ll never forget that,” he said.
I asked Sergeant Kelley if he ever had any entertainment overseas and he replied with one word: “No! We were always on the go…on holidays, we knew you couldn’t do anything about it…took it with a grain of salt…wished your buddy happy holiday and that was it.”
I inquired as to whether he was ever afraid as a 17-year-old thrust into combat. I received a stare and he got quiet and replied, “I was scared…yeah, scared…you never knew what was going to happen. Anybody that says they never were was never in combat.”
He also shared a powerful story that still haunts him. “I never have bought anything from China. When I was there they used human fertilizer in everything, especially food. We ran into the fields where they would dump the excrement…those fields…worst smell…I’ll never forget that,” he recalled.
Sargent Kelley also remembered being lost on liberty and running into a missionary priest who invited him in for tea. The priest told him that if the Japanese caught anyone listening to the radio, it was instant execution. He also told of a night the Japanese raided his home and the Japanese colonel called him into the other room. He told the colonel he was Catholic, and his life was spared.
He also shared a humorous side of his service that likely kept him going. “My pal and I were lost in the hills and trying to get back to town. We came across a Chinese pilot and my pal slowly mouthed the words, ‘How….do…you…get…back…to…town?’ The pilot said in English, ‘I don’t know, I’m from Brooklyn’…true story,” he said with a chuckle.
“We were in Buckner Bay and when we arrived there were only three ships. The next morning when we awoke, there was 3,000. A priest was on the ship…11:30 in the morning…he says on the intercom, ‘God is with us…the second bomb worked.’…I’ll never forget that,” he remembered.
His thoughts on his service? “I was a wiseguy.…The Marines straightened me out.…Gave me positive discipline. If you believe in yourself, you’re going to be successful.” That is exactly what Sergeant Kelley did, working in construction most of his life. He continues to be remarkable for his age; mows his own lawn, takes care of his own pool, and last Halloween he and Ruth, his wife of 71 years, dressed up as Energizer Bunnies. He is immensely proud of his nine children and 41 grandchildren.
Sergeant Art Kelley, thank you for your service to our great country.
Contact Wayne Soares at firstname.lastname@example.org