Captain Colin P. Kelly, Jr., MMI ’33, was the first American hero of World War II. He was also the first West Point graduate (Class of 1937) to die in the war. Kelly posthumously received the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second highest award for heroism, the Distinguished Flying Cross, and the Purple Heart. (Credit: Painting by Deane Keller, Air Power Gallery, National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, Dayton, Ohio)
On December 10, 1941, three days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Captain Kelly and his crew aboard their B-17 Flying Fortress bombed the Japanese cruiser Ashigara (then mistakenly thought to be the battleship Haruna). On their return flight, Japanese Zeros attacked the B-17 badly damaging it. Kelly stayed at the controls so that his surviving crew could bail out. After the last crew member exited the plane, the B-17 exploded killing Kelly.
Early reports - like this announcement from West Point - had Kelly and his crew attacking the Haruna with Kelly, sans his crew, finally crashing his plane into the smokestack of the Haruna, sinking it. It was reported that for his heroic action and personal sacrifice in saving his crew, Captain Kelly was awarded the Medal of Honor. While this was untrue, the real facts in the case certainly support similar heroic actions on the part of Captain Kelly, making him the first publicly-recognized American hero of World War II.
Captain Kelly’s father, Colin P. Kelly, Sr., was an honor graduate of the MMI Class of 1902. Captain Kelly’s grandfather had been a Confederate war hero. (Credit: 1902 MMI Assembly)
Kelly, Sr., had been a top cadet at MMI serving as a cadet captain and as adjutant of the Corps of Cadets. (Credit: 1902 MMI Assembly)
Captain Kelly’s son, Colin P. Kelly, III, would also graduate from West Point (Class of 1963). Kelly III would later become an Episcopal priest who served as the Assistant Chaplain at West Point.