Colin Purdie Kelly, Jr., of Madison County, Florida became one of America's first heroes of World War II. A 1937 graduate of West Point, the twenty-nine year old Kelly was a B-17 pilot in the Army Air Corps, stationed in the Philippines in December 1941 when the islands came under Japanese attack. On December 10, Kelly's plane was sent on bombing mission to attack Japanese ships off the coast of Luzon. The crew spotted a large ship they believed to be the battleship Haruna and from a height of 20,000 dropped three 600 pound bombs. Though smoke obscured the target, Kelly and his men believed that at least one bomb struck the ship, and that it was probably destroyed. In fact the Haruna was not in the vicinity and Kelly's plane had perhaps bombed a large transport or the light cruiser Ashigara, neither of which had sunk. On the return to its base at Clark Field, a Japanese fighter attacked and severely damaged the American bomber. Kelly ordered his crew to bail out, but he unable to exit the plane before it crashed. He was killed instantly.
Unfortunately, in the rush to publicize a rare American victory in the war's early days, the details of Kelly's sacrifice became garbled and exaggerated. Many Americans believed that he had "won the Medal of Honor by diving his plane into the smokestack of the Haruna, becoming the first suicide pilot of the war." In reality, Kelly received the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation's second highest award for heroism, both for the belief that he had damaged or destroyed the Haruna, but also because he "had sacrificed his life so that his crew could live."(1)
When Florida Governor Spessard Holland learned of Kelly's death, he immediately sent a condolence telegram to the pilot's parents in Madison. A copy of the telegram is reproduced here. In the aftermath of Kelly's death, the Tampa Tribune established a fund to benefit his young son Colin P. Kelly, III. Also reproduced is a press release by Governor Holland praising the establishment of the fund for Kelly's son, and a letter from Kelly's widow, Marion Wick Kelly, thanking R.W. Simpson of the Tampa Tribune for starting the fund.
Later in the war, a "Four Freedoms" monument honoring Kelly was dedicated in Madison. It was a fitting tribute to a valiant Floridian--one of the first from his state to sacrifice his life in World War II.
(1) John Toland, But Not in Shame: The Six Months After Pearl Harbor (New York: Random House, 1961), 86-88.
MR. AND MRS. COLIN P. KELLY TALLAHASSEE,
MADISON, FLORIDA DECEMBER 12, 1941
I HAVE JUST LEARNED WITH THE DEEPEST REGRET OF THE HEROIC DEATH OF YOUR SON, CAPTAIN COLIN P. KELLY, JR., IN AN ENGAGEMENT WITH ENEMY FORCES WHILE SERVING WITH THE UNITED STATES ARMY AIR CORPS IN THE PHILIPPINES. AS GOVERNOR OF FLORIDA, I BEG TO EXTEND MY DEEP SYMPATHY WHICH I AM SURE IS EQUALLY SHARED BY ALL OF THE PEOPLE OF OUR STATE. AMERCA TODAY SALUTES THE EXTRAAORDINARY COURAGE AND EXCEPTIONAL FEAT OF VALOR OF YOUR SON IN THE SINKING OF THE JAPANESE BATTLESHIP HARUNA AND IN THE DESTRUCTION OF TWO ENEMY AIRCRAFT. ALTHOUGH YOUR SON MADE THE SUPREME SACRIFICE IN THE SPLENDIDLY SUCCESSFUL EXECUTION OF HIS MISSION, IT MAY BE OF COMFORT TO KNOW THAT HIS EXEMPLARY BRAVERY AND ACHIEVEMENT WILL SERVE AS AN INSPIRATION TO EVERY PATRIOTIC AMERICAN AND ESPECIALLY TO THE MEN WHO NOW DEFEND OUR SHORES IN THE FIGHT FOR FREEDOM. HIS DEED WILL ENDURE INDELIBLY INSCRIBED ON THE PAGES OF AMERICA'S HISTORY.
SPESSARD L. HOLLAND