On January 11, 2023, the Department of the Navy announced that a new destroyer will be named after Medal of Honor recipient Thomas Gunning Kelley.
I wanted to learn more about Lieutenant Kelley, and found this excellent article in medalofhonorspeakout (1):
“Thomas Kelley was about to graduate from Holy Cross College in Massachusetts in 1960 when his roommates announced that they’d enlisted in the Navy and urged him to do the same. Kelley couldn’t think of any reasons not to, so he joined, too. His first assignment after Officer Candidate School was aboard an old World War II landing ship in the Caribbean during the Cuban missile crisis; he liked the duty so much that he decided to make the Navy a career.
He served in the fleet off the coast of Vietnam in 1966, but he wanted to get closer to the action and in 1968 volunteered for the Navy’s River Assault Division, part of the Mobile Riverine Force operating on the mazelike riverways of the Mekong Delta. It was a new kind of naval warfare. The boats used were modified World War II troop carriers refitted with guns and armor. The lighter ones were called tangos, and the more heavily armed ones were known as monitors because they resembled Civil War ironclads. Their job was to insert Army troops at freshwater beachheads throughout the delta, provide fire support during their operations, and extract them after their mission was completed. Because of their size and slowness, the boats were particularly vulnerable to enemy guns concealed in the jungle along the water’s edge.
On June 15, 1969, Lieutenant Kelley was in charge of a group of eight boats in Kien Hoa Province that had been moving Army forces around for several hours. Late in the day, after taking the soldiers back on board, one of the boats experienced a mechanical failure when it tried to retract its loading ramp. Unable to move, it was immediately targeted by rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns, and mortars from the Vietcong on the opposite side of the river. Kelley maneuvered his monitor between the disabled boat and the enemy and opened fire. When a Vietcong rocket hit a few feet away from him, penetrating the armor of the command area and spraying shrapnel in all directions, Kelley was thrown to the deck below, suffering serious head wounds. Another boat came up, and its corpsman courageously jumped onto the deck of the monitor to begin the first aid treatment that saved Kelley’s life. Unable to stand and struggling to remain conscious, Kelley continued to command the battle until the damaged troop carrier was repaired and the squadron was able to get out of harm’s way.
He was helicoptered to a field hospital, where he lay in a coma for several days. Having lost an eye and portions of his skull, he underwent reconstructive surgery for his head wounds and was fitted with a prosthetic eye. The Navy declared him unfit for duty and was about to release him when he appealed directly to Admiral Elmo Zumwalt to stay on active duty. His request was accepted.”
Kelley would continue his service as executive officer of USS Sample and commanding officer of USS Lang which deployed to the South China Sea in 1978 to rescue refugees from Vietnam.
Kelley retired in 1990 after 30 years of active service, but he continued serving as a civilian. He went on to become commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Veterans’ Services in April 1999 and was named Secretary of that department in August 2003. He instituted new programs to reach veterans’ needs, especially those involving the unseen wounds of war, such as traumatic brain injury and suicide prevention. He hired young, disabled veterans for better outreach to this new cadre. He also worked with the United States Department of Labor to enforce federal employment protections for returning service men and women.
Kelley’s Medal of Honor Citation reads as follows:
“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty in the afternoon while serving as commander of River Assault Division 152 during combat operations against enemy aggressor forces. Lt. Comdr. (then Lt.) Kelley was in charge of a column of 8 river assault craft which were extracting one company of U.S. Army infantry troops on the east bank of the Ong Muong Canal in Kien Hoa province, when one of the armored troop carriers reported a mechanical failure of a loading ramp. At approximately the same time, Viet Cong forces opened fire from the opposite bank of the canal. After issuing orders for the crippled troop carrier to raise its ramp manually, and for the remaining boats to form a protective cordon around the disabled craft, Lt. Comdr. Kelley realizing the extreme danger to his column and its inability to clear the ambush site until the crippled unit was repaired, boldly maneuvered the monitor in which he was embarked to the exposed side of the protective cordon in direct line with the enemy’s fire, and ordered the monitor to commence firing. Suddenly, an enemy rocket scored a direct hit on the coxswain’s flat, the shell penetrating the thick armor plate, and the explosion spraying shrapnel in all directions. Sustaining serious head wounds from the blast, which hurled him to the deck of the monitor, Lt. Cmdr. Kelley disregarded his severe injuries and attempted to continue directing the other boats. Although unable to move from the deck or to speak clearly into the radio, he succeeded in relaying his commands through one of his men until the enemy attack was silenced and the boats were able to move to an area of safety. 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 after he was medically evacuated by helicopter. His extraordinary courage under fire, and his selfless devotion to duty sustain and enhance the finest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.”
Photo Credit Jwillbur