Military & Veterans Life

Member Stories: Thomas G. Kelley, Medal of Honor Recipient and Author

Thomas G. Kelley, Medal of Honor recipient

Veterans Advantage would like to highlight retired U.S. Navy Capt. Thomas Kelley, one of the many heroes gathering at the Medal of Honor Convention this September. However, Kelley would most likely prefer to not be recognized as a hero. Despite an illustrious, 30-year career in the U.S. Navy and a demonstration of heroism that earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor, Kelley's most prominent attribute is his humility.

It was June 15, 1969, when Kelley, then a lieutenant serving with the Navy's River Assault Division 152, led a column of eight assault craft up the Ong Muong Canal in Kien Hoa province, Vietnam. His mission: to extract a company of U.S. Army infantry troops. When one of the boats experienced a mechanical failure of its loading ramp, enemy forces opened fire on the opposite bank approximately 50 meters away.

Ordering the disabled unit to raise its loading ramp manually, Kelley then commanded the remaining boats to circle and protect it before maneuvering his own craft into the direct line of enemy fire. Shortly thereafter, an enemy rocket struck close to where Kelley commanded the defense and the resulting explosion knocked him down, causing serious head wounds.

Disregarding his injuries, Kelley continued directing the boats under his command, relaying orders through one of his men until the enemy attack ceased and his column could vacate the area. His Medal of Honor Citation goes on to read:

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... His extraordinary courage under fire, and his selfless devotion to duty, sustain and enhance the finest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.

If you were to sit down today and ask Kelley what he remembers most about that day, he'll immediately recall the heroic actions of others.

"I know that my life was saved by second-class corpsman Richard Nelson who, under fire, brought his medical aid boat alongside and jumped aboard my boat and saved me," said Kelley, who also praised the actions of his entire team that continued fighting and prevailed.

Kelley was presented the Medal of Honor during a ceremony at the White House on May, 13, 1970 – his birthday. Recovering from wounds that resulted in the loss of an eye, Kelley requested to remain on active duty and said he had little time to think of what the award truly meant. The label of "hero" never really sat well with him, though, as Kelley saw the virtue in so many people other than himself.

"Ordinary people, like we are, don't have to be wearing a uniform to do heroic things. A grade-school boy or girl can do the same thing when faced with a tough decision; stepping in when they see something wrong. That's heroism, that really is," Kelley said.

Since his retirement and return home to Massachusetts, Kelley said the meaning of his award has finally started to sink in. He now takes the opportunity to speak with others about the events that occurred in 1969 and his "lifetime of highlights" that followed. Kelley is also actively involved with the Congressional Medal of Honor Society and the Medal of Honor Convention that is taking place in his home state on September 15, in Boston.

This is the third year the convention has been hosted by Boston and Kelley, who served as a commissioner, then secretary of the Massachusetts Department of Veterans' Services until 2010, has helped welcome his fellow Medal of Honor recipients each time.

Boston first hosted the convention in 2001. Originally scheduled on September 12, plans were postponed after the terrorist attacks on September 11 and flights across the country were grounded. Kelley said they were determined to not cancel plans and six weeks later greeted guests at the first convention hosted in Boston since 9-11.

The annual gathering provides an opportunity for Kelley to surround himself with the now-familiar faces of his fellow Medal of Honor recipients. Five days of private and public events will include receptions with Governor Charlie Baker and Mayor Martin Walsh, an autograph session with the public, an awards gala and memorial services. It might be the most "heroic" gathering of the year, but once again, Kelley's humility won't let him call it such.

"None of us consider ourselves heroes. We're soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who happened to be at the right place at the right time, or the wrong place at the wrong time, however you want to look at it," Kelley said, noting that those wearing the medal just happened to get recognized for their actions while many others did not.

"We wear this medal for those who we served with and the 16 million men and women that have served over the years; [people] we feel, that if faced with the same situation, would be standing right here with us," added Kelley.

Whichever way you look at it, a crowd of exceptional yet humble individuals will be warmly greeted by the city of Boston in September. Meanwhile, Kelley will greet all guests, medals or not, as heroes.

"We can all base our life on patriotism and loyalty and service to others, and that's really the hallmark of the Medal of Honor," he said.

Editors Note: Since the publication of this article, Thomas G. Kelley and his wife, Joan, have published an inspiring book called The Sirens Song and Second Chances, about their unlikely love story and Thomas's time in the military. Read More

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