During 2019, Freedoms Foundation and the Friends of the Medal of Honor Grove are paying tribute to the living recipients of the Medal of Honor on the anniversary of the actions for which they earned the nation’s highest award for valor. The series continues with Navy Lt. Thomas Kelley, whose group of boats in Kien Hoa Province, South Vietnam, came under attack on June 15, 1969.
Thomas G. Kelley’s Medal of Honor citation reads:
“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 eight 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.”
In Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty, Peter Collier picks up Kelley’s story after he was medically evacuated:
“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.
“President Richard Nixon awarded Thomas Kelley the Medal of Honor on May 14, 1970. During some small talk after the ceremony, the president, nothing that Kelley was from Boston, asked if this meant he ate baked beans every night. Kelley was momentarily taken aback by the question. ‘No, sir,’ he finally replied, ‘only on Saturdays.’ Kelley retired as a captain in 1990.”
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