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World War II Navy Enlistment Produced Colorful Lifelong Career

Thomas Kelley never regretted his choice to enlist in the U.S. Navy and serve in World War II. – Photo by Alexe van Beuren

World War II Navy Enlistment Produced Colorful Lifelong Career

by Alexe van Beuren

If you ask Thomas Dudley Kelley, he spent the best years of his life in the Navy. Even though being in the Navy during World War II and Korea meant that he was on a ship that was bombed and sank– twice.

Born in Oxford in 1920, Kelly spent his childhood shuttled between relatives after his parents died when he was three. Eventually, he came to Water Valley to live with his sister and her husband, a Norwegian craftsman who was the railroad superintendent of the roundhouse. When his sister died of tuberculosis in 1933, Kelley was taken in by the Blackmurs.

Kelley finished high school in 1936 and then went on to one year at Holmes Junior College with other Water Vallains such as Barron Caulfield. After Mr. Blackmur’s mother died, Mr. Blackmur (age sixty) became engaged to a woman from Marshall, Texas. To give the newlyweds some privacy, Kelley went down to New Orleans and enlisted in the Navy.

“I figured the draft was going to get me sooner or later anyway,” Kelley said.

He never regretted his choice.

On September 15, 1942, Kelley was near Guadacanal, an island in the South Pacific, as the head of maintenance on the U.S.S. Wasp, a carrier ship that traveled with a cruiser and five destroyers. The Japanese bombed the carrier, and Kelley found himself floating in the water.

“I had just bought two pairs of new shoes,” he said. “I never saw those again.”

1,800 people died in that bombing, as carrier ships held up to six thousand people. Kelley and other survivors were picked up by the rest of the fleet.

Towards the end of World War II, the same thing happened. When the Japanese bombed his carrier ship, Kelley pulled the string on his vest to inflate it with carbon dioxide and then bobbed in the South Pacific (north of Guam) until other ships picked him up.

After World War II, Kelley began his lengthy association with the Blue Angels. Formed in 1946 to boost interest in naval aviation, the Blue Angels were a team of crack pilots who performed low-flying and intensely choreographed stunts in their now-famous diamond formation. Kelley became their maintenance officer, in charge of corrosion control, life support, and general maintenance.

In 1950, America entered the Korean War and the Blue Angels were disbanded and ordered to combat duty. The Navy deployed Kelly to Japan as the head of an overhaul department that did contract work for the Navy, Air Force, and Army in Osaka, four hundred miles from the Navy’s headquarters. Along with working alongside the Japanese, Kelley rented a Japanese house that had tatumi grass mats for flooring and learned to take his shoes off at the door.

I asked Kelley if he held resentment towards the Japanese from his experiences in the last war, and he shook his head emphatically.

“The people themselves are very good people; the people that bombed us– those were the powers that be.”   

Before the Korean War ended in 1953, the Blue Angels reconvened in Corpus Christi. By the time Kelley returned from Japan, the Blue Angels had moved to Pensacola, and a good friend had asked that he be made maintenance officer again. During Kelley’s second tenure, the Blue Angels began flying the swept-wing Grumnman F9F-8 Cougar, and their fame continued to grow.

In 1960, Kelley was made an officer, and moved to San Francisco to the U.S.S. Oriskany, a carrier that departed to the Far East and visited Japan, Okinawa, Hong Kong, and the Philippines before coming back to the United States for a five-month installation of the Naval Tactical Data System (NTDS), an extremely compact electronic computing system. NTDS collects, stores, sorts and evaluates technical data from the ship’s radar and communications systems in electronic computers.        

Oriskany was the first ship to employ this sophisticated system, which is still the most modern and capable of anti-warfare control systems. In 1963, after President Kennedy had toured the ship to see NTDS in action, the Oriskany was named the “best large general mess” afloat.

Of this time, Kelley said that he continued to love the Navy, even after two wars, because “you’re on the go all the time. I’ve been just about everywhere in the world.” When asked his favorite places in the world, Kelley replied promptly, “Japan and Australia. I like the food and the people.”

After becoming Commander in 1968, Kelley retired in November of 1969 after thirty-two years and five months in the Navy.

“I wanted to stay longer,” he said, but the Navy mandates retirement after thirty years, and Kelley had already received one extension.

He joined up with a firm in Dallas that maintains helicopters and returned to Japan. After a short time, the firm put an unqualified baker in charge, and Kelley called it quits. “I told them to just give me a ticket home,” he said, and so he returned to Water Valley in 1971.

Mr. Blackmur willed him his mother’s 1915 Ford, a car that she had only driven once, and Kelley keeps this car at the Museum of Automobiles in Arkansas and attends many of their events. For a time, he owned part of a lumberyard. He is part of a Navy group that meets once a year in various locations, and some of his friends from Japan have visited Water Valley in recent years.

“I made them tempura,” he said, and smiled.

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