1st Lt. John C. Kelley – Where It All Began

As my New Year’s resolution for 2018, I accepted a challenge of posting 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks in hopes to get my genealogy research out of piles on my dining room table (where no one will ever see it) and into “print” that I can share with others.  I have been researching my family history on and off for over 20 years now, yet have no real tangible evidence of what I have accumulated.  Sure, I have boxes and boxes of paperwork, books, files and keepsakes spread all across the house and in most closets, a fantastic tree on Ancestry backed up with desktop software and DNA research tools that would make most people’s head spin.  But in the unfortunate event something would happen to me, all of it would be lost.  My kids and husband wouldn’t have a clue what to do with any of it.  So, here we are… post #1 of my very own “52 Ancestors in 52 weeks”.

The prompt for this week was “Start”, so I am going back to where it all began.  How my love for genealogy was born.  I don’t remember the date, but I distinctly remember the feeling… the excitement… the mystery.

I was maybe eight or nine years old and I was playing at my grandparents house (in desk drawers that were most likely “off limits”) and ran across a coin and bill collection of sorts.  Maybe eight or ten old banknotes and a few coins tossed in drawer, long forgotten, and not touched in decades.  Some of the coins were smooth and dark with a patina that covered them so thickly they could hardly be read.  Others looked bright, shiny and clean. As I inspected the coins, I realized they were foreign currency, from several different countries. They were labeled with words I couldn’t pronounce. I was enthralled with this small collection. Questions flooded my mind.

How did these coins and bills end up in this desk?  Who in my family has been to all of these places?  I’ve never seen money like this. Why are these coins so smooth and dark?  Were they old… oooh wait, were they ancient? Are they worth a lot of money? I’ve got to go ask my grandmother…

“Hey Memaw Ruth, look what I found.  Where did these come from?  Can I take these out and look at them?   Can I play with them?  Really?  Are you sure?  Ok, I’ll be careful.  Who’s  are these, Memaw?  Uncle John?  Who’s that?  Oh, Daddy Bill’s brother?  Why did he have all of this weird money?”

And that is how it all began.

My grandmother explained that those coins and notes were special because Uncle John had gathered them from the countries he passed through while he was “in the service”.  Each one collected from a different country as a memento of the places he had been.  He had saved them as souvenirs and they had been given to his youngest brother Billy, my grandfather.  She also explained that they really weren’t serving any purpose stuck in the back of that old drawer and that if it was okay with Bill, (and I promised to take really good care of them and not lose them,) that she would let me keep them.  I still have them.  And just thinking about them, and that Uncle John once carried them in his pocket, brings tears to my eyes.


1st Lt. John Calvin Kelley, or simply “Uncle John” as we call him, was a bombardier in WWII.  His plane was shot down by the Japanese over Burma in November of 1943 and his family was notified by telegram that he was Missing In Action.  By protocol, one year and one day later, the United States Army declared 1st Lt. John C. Kelley dead.  It was then that our family held a funeral/memorial service for him (with an empty casket) at the local funeral parlor in Covington, Tennessee.  It wasn’t until WWII ended that the family learned his true fate, that he died as a Prisoner of War in Rangoon, Burma on 17 Dec 1943.

His family’s heartache wouldn’t end there.  In May of 1946, the bodies of the fallen Americans who had died in Rangoon Central Jail were exhumed by the American Graves Registration Services and placed on a C-47 (cargo plane) to be brought back to the U.S. for proper burial.  The C-47 disappeared in a storm and never made it to its destination.  John’s family mourned his loss for a second time.

After some time had passed, a fellow POW who had survived imprisonment, named John Boyd, visited the family and spoke to two of John’s brothers about his death.  It was a promise that Boyd had made to John before he died.  That conversation and the circumstances surrounding John’s service and death were very rarely, if ever, openly spoken about by his mother and siblings again.

For decades, the details of John’s service and death remained a mystery to most of the family.  Of course there were news clippings and letters from John that were treasured family keepsakes, but very little information was known about the missions he flew or the role he played in the war.  As John’s brothers and sisters began to pass away and his nieces and nephews grew older, curiosity about John’s service in WWII increased.

As the family prepared for a reunion in 2007, nieces Susan Krall, Theta Rone and great-niece Leslie Roane began gathering information about Uncle John’s service.  While a modest display about Uncle John was prepared for the reunion that year, Susan and Leslie quickly learned that the research wouldn’t stop there.  It became an obsession in-depth project for them that would last for the next 10 years. The countless hours of sleepless nights research would eventually uncover an amazing story of their family’s hero.  A story that could never be told in a single blog post.  Today’s post is only an attempt to hit the highlights with a promise that I will revisit Uncle John’s story in the future.

On November 14, 1943, 1st Lt. John C. Kelley of Garland, Tennessee climbed into the bombardier compartment of a B-24 headed out of Pandaveswar, India bound to bomb a target near Mandalay, in central Burma.  While the 25 year old Kelley had well over 300 hours of combat missions under his belt, this was only the third mission to fly with his newly assigned crew.

One month earlier on October 14th, Kelley’s original crew, piloted by Lt. Harold Goad, was shot down returning from a bombing mission over Rangoon, Burma.  Kelley could not fly with Goad’s crew that day; he was hospitalized with an illness, one of the many “fevers” running rampant through the boys overseas.  Kelley and the members of his original crew had grown to be like family, and the loss of his crew took a terrible toll on his morale.  A few days after Goad’s crash, Kelley wrote home saying “I have not flown a mission since the 4th of the month and I don’t care if I never fly another one.”  But Kelley trudged on through losing his comrades and soon fell into place with his newly assigned crew.

Goad's Crew HiRes
(Photo provided courtesy of USAFA Special Collections, MS 60)
Goad’s Crew with B-24 “Destiny’s Tot”
10th Air Force, 7th Bomb Group (Heavy), 493th Bomb Squadron
Back Row l to r: McCoy, Kelley, English, Goad
Front Row l to r: Austin, Sawyer, Whitte, Marshall, Chiarello

Photo taken in 1943

Kelley’s replacement crew was to be piloted by Major Wesley Werner who was the Commanding Officer of the 493rd Bomb Squadron stationed at Pandaveswar, about 100 miles north of Calcutta, India.  Werner, who was only 26 at the time, was considered “the ole man” on base.  He had already flown more than 50 combat missions and earned over 600 combat hours, well over enough to return to the States, but chose to give his leave to a member of his crew who had a new wife back at home.  Werner was a highly experienced combat pilot of the 7th Bomb Group; many say he was the best in the China-Burma-India Theater.  Kelley was in good hands with Werner as his pilot.

During the morning briefing on November 14th, 1943, the bomber crews were told that a new cracker-jack squadron of Japanese fighters had come up from Sumatra.  Because the new Japanese forces were supposedly in the area, the heavy bomber planes would be accompanied by faster and more agile P-51 fighter planes.  Since Maj. Werner was the squadron commander, his bomber group was placed out front.  When the group approached Mandalay, the target was covered in clouds.  So the group made a second pass at the target.  The target remained hidden by cloud cover.  However, as the rear group of B-24’s approached the original target, the clouds had cleared and they dropped their bombs and headed back to the base.

Not willing to risk a third attempt on the same target, Maj. Werner decided to turn and head the leading group of planes to the secondary target of Pakokku, Burma.  This bomber group had six planes, one on either side of Werner’s plane and three more in echelon behind Werner.  The formation reached the target, dropped their bombs without incident, and headed for “home”.  It was then that a significant number of Japanese fighter planes attacked.  The American pilots repeatedly gave the call signal for the P-51’s, but they were evidently out of range and never responded.  Perhaps the fighter planes returned to base with the second group of bombers.  No matter what the reason may have been, the six B-24’s were on their own.

After battling the Japanese fighter planes, most likely Oscars, for over an hour, the plane leading the second element lost an engine, then rolled over and dove straight into the ground exploding in flames.  No parachutes were seen.  The air combat continued and a second plane was hit by enemy fire.  It was apparent that this plane had lost one or possibly two engines and was attempting to make a crash landing when its wing tip nosed into the ground causing the plane to disintegrate and burst into flames.

Maj. Werner’s plane was the third plane to perish.  A gas tank was hit by Japanese ack-ack and one engine went out.  The situation escalated quickly.  An eyewitness account by a fellow pilot tells of Werner’s struggle to control the aircraft after losing three of the four engines, trying to manage a landing in a dry river bed.  Lt. Berlette reported, “Just above the ground, his left wing tip dropped, dragged the ground and nosed the plane in.  I was watching his plane, saw number one prop blades break off and scatter in every direction.  An instant later the plane exploded in a large sheet of flame which extended upwards higher than our plane.”

Page 10
1st Lt. Leland G. Berlette’s eyewitness account of Werner’s Crew crash.

During the crash, the side of the plane was ripped open and Werner was ejected from the wreckage.  Despite a bleeding head injury, Werner managed to make his way back to the plane and pull several of his men out of the burning wreckage.  There were ten men in the crew; eight survived the crash, all suffering serious injuries.  Seven of the survivors were severely burned on the majority of their bodies, including Kelley.  Werner was the only one who miraculously avoided the wrath of the flames, although he sustained a significant concussion and minor burns on his hands and legs.  The men were not able to salvage anything from the wreckage; no food, no medicine, no supplies, nothing.  Everything went up in flames.

Curious Burmese natives came out from the jungle and lead the airmen to a nearby village called Meiktila.  There the Burmese civilians pretended to befriend the Americans and even offered them tea.  They told the bomber crew that they would help them find their “friends” and then in turn, notified the Japanese who arrived to captured the U.S. airmen.  When the Japanese arrived, the Burmese searched the Americans, stealing the 100 rupees hidden in each of the flyer’s belts.  The Japanese also paid the Burmese a reward and then transported the crew to Rangoon Central Jail.  One of the eight Americans died before they reached the prison.

Rangoon Central Jail, a former British-operated civilian prison that had been condemned years before, was situated in the heart of Rangoon, Burma.  It was approximately one mile north of the Rangoon Harbor and roughly one mile south of the Shwedagon Pagoda.  The jail contained six long thin cell block buildings, which radiated from a central tower much like spokes on a wagon wheel.  There were tall cinder block walls that surrounded the prison with large imposing gates at the front entrance.  Ironically, in English, the entrance boasted the words “Rangoon Central Jail”.

Rangoon Central Jail

Kelley’s crew arrived at Rangoon Jail via the back of an old five ton truck only a day or two after the crash.  Under close watch of their Japanese captors, the seven heavily bandaged men hobbled into the solitary confinement blocks.  The clothes were practically burned off their bodies and some had to be carried into the prison.  The American airmen were placed in solitary confinement where they were given a scarce amount of food and very little medical care.  Several of the men were so severely burned about the face, neck and hands that they were unable to eat the small amount of rice provided.  Because their hands and faces were bandaged leaving only an opening for their mouths, some tried to lick the rice from a dish laid upon the dirty concrete floor, much like a wounded animal.  No comforts were provided to the Rangoon prisoners in solitary confinement, no fresh clothes, no blankets, and no beds.  These injured men were no exception.

When the airmen did receive rare medical treatment from their Japanese captors, it consisted of applying crude creosote solution to the burned areas with intent to prevent infection and infestation of maggots.  This treatment proved to be quite ineffective on both accounts.  Clean gauze was not supplied by the Japanese; therefore the same bandages were washed with bar soap, rinsed, laid in the sun to dry and then reapplied.  The dressings became a mess of sand and dirt as the men miserably crawled around, supporting themselves on their knees and elbows.

After five days of these dreadful conditions in solitary confinement, the Japanese Commandant allowed a British doctor, who was a fellow prisoner, to examine the six most desperate cases.  Upon examination, Col. Mackenzie made two requests.  First, Mackenzie asked for Maj. Ramsey, a fellow British doctor and prisoner, to be allowed to assist with the evaluations.  This request was fortunately granted without unnecessary delay.  Secondly, Mackenzie requested that these men be transferred to the Japanese hospital in Rangoon in order to provide them a chance of survival.  Within forty-five minutes, word was delivered that the camp commandant gave a point blank refusal to the second request.

One of the men was in a most deplorable state and it was evident that he did not have long to live.  Infection had spread throughout his body and he lay on the floor unresponsive.  Mackenzie realized that the most compassionate thing he could do was to leave him be.  He died later that night.

Mackenzie and Ramsey spent hours cleaning and dressing the wounds of each of the other men using what little supplies they could find.  Knowing that these men needed continual care, the two doctors put forward a third request.  If the Commandant would allow it, Col. Mackenzie wanted to transfer three of the men into his makeshift hospital in Cell Block No. 3, and move the remaining two men to Ramsey’s care in Cell Block No. 6.  About a half hour later, the messenger returned with good news.  It was a great relief to the two doctors to learn the request for transfer of these men out of solitary confinement was approved.  Kelley was one of the two men to be transferred to Ramsey’s care.

Typical Cell Block in Rangoon Central Jail

Upon arrival in the communal cell blocks the British doctors arranged for the injured men to receive fresh clothing, blankets and mosquito netting.  These items were supplied by other Allied prisoners relinquishing them, knowing that the injured men were in far greater need.  Under the doctors’ orders the prisoners took on the responsibility of making sure that the men were properly fed as well as could be managed with such meager rations as were provided.  The doctors also arranged for fellow prisoners to sit up with the men through the night.

Some of the prisoners were designated to assist the doctors with the necessary measures of wound care, although it was extremely difficult.  If the excruciating screams of the men were not hard enough to handle, then the smell of the burned, rotten flesh and infestation of maggots was sure to turn one’s stomach.  Even under these conditions, the doctors and their assistants pushed through many long hours with relentless determination to try to save the lives of these men.  With little to no medicine and the crudest of medical tools, there was little they could do to prevent the infection from spreading.  Requests for even the most basic antibiotics and supplies were never granted.

Despite the best efforts of the two British doctors and the fellow prisoners in Cell Blocks 3 and 6, four of the airmen died under their care.  Three of them died within the first week out of solitary confinement.  Kelley was the last of his crew to die in Rangoon, living almost three weeks longer than the rest.  He passed away on December 17, 1943.  Like the others who died in Rangoon Central Jail, Kelley’s body was placed in a rice sack and was buried by fellow prisoners in a makeshift cemetery about a mile from the prison.  It was called the Rangoon Cantonment Cemetery.

There were only two men from Kelley’s crew, Maj. Wesley Werner and Sgt. Francis Daly, to survive both the crash and the internment at Rangoon Jail.  They both returned to the U.S. after liberation in 1945 and went on to live long, productive lives.  Several of Kelley’s original crew were also prisoners at Rangoon, including long time crew mates Lt. Harold Goad and Sgt. Francis Sawyer.  While it is possible, it is highly unlikely that the men ever reunited before Kelley’s death.

Shortly after liberation and repatriation of the Rangoon POW’s to the United States, Sgt. John Boyd from Mayfield, Kentucky came to visit two of Kelley’s brothers in Garland.  Sgt. Boyd shared the details of Kelley’s death with his brothers, Albert and Billy, that day.  Boyd told of how he was in the cell block with Ramsey and sat up with Lt. Kelley the night he died.  It is mentioned in a book Boyd later wrote:  “The Japanese allowed no lights.  But during the daylight hours Don Ramsey, with the aid of Lt. Humphrey, would take the two crippled American fliers outside and remove the maggots from their sores.  At night we took turns sitting up with them.  I was with one of the men the night he died.  He had been the bombardier on Werner’s crew.  He wasn’t rational and talked about “a horrible sight” and “how terrible it was.” He finally breathed a last breath and was gone.”  It was apparent that infection from Kelley’s burns had spread throughout his body causing delirium and eventual death.  Boyd also shared that the British doctors, Mackenzie and Ramsey, had expressed that with basic antibiotics and proper medical care, that Kelley’s death could have been prevented.  This was heartbreaking news for the Kelley family.

In the spring of 1946, a post-war research and recovery team from the American Graves Registration Services was dispatched to Rangoon, Burma.  Their mission was to retrieve and return the remains of the American men who were buried at Rangoon Cantonment Cemetery and other cemeteries in the area.  On May 17, 1946, the exhumed remains were placed onboard a C-47 en route to Calcutta, India.  This was to be the first stop on its path back to the United States.  The C-47 never arrived.  The plane disappeared in bad weather and despite numerous search efforts, was never located.  It carried a total of fifty men; including a 3 man crew, 8 passengers and the remains of 39 fallen comrades recovered from the Burmese burial sites. The fate of this C-47 remains a mystery.  Some said it must have crashed into the Bay of Bengal, while others believed it crashed somewhere in the mountains of the Chittagong Hill district.

In November of 2009, it was thought that the crash site of the C-47 had been discovered by an American war-time aircraft recovery specialists on a visit to the the village of Birmani Kami in Tripura State, India, not far from the Bangladesh border.  In November of 2013 the U.S. Government deployed a recovery team from JPAC (Joint POW Accounting Command), now know as DPAA (Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency), to the crash site in hopes to recover the remains of the lost soldiers.  It was then discovered that the crash site actually belonged to a Pakistan Orient Airways Convair 240, and not the C-47 carrying our Uncle John.  Our family suffered through John’s loss a third time.

Wanting closure for our family and proper military honors for Uncle John, Susan and Leslie began the process of requesting a memorial service with full military honors for 1st Lt. John Calvin Kelley at Arlington National Cemetery.  On July 15, 2016, over seven decades after his death, our family paid tribute to our personal hero from America’s finest generation. It was truly an honor to have him memorialized on our nation’s most hallowed grounds. 1st Lt. John C. Kelley, you are “Forever our hero”.

Memorial headstone for 1st Lt. John Calvin Kelley at Arlington National Cemetery
Memorial Service for 1st Lt. John C. Kelley, 15 Jun 2016
Memorial Service for 1st Lt. John C. Kelley, 15 Jun 2016
Memorial Service for 1st Lt. John C. Kelley, 15 Jun 2016

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