“It is a tremendous honor, and I am truly humbled…”
The modest words are those of Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Captain (ret.) Thomas Gunning Kelley, a Dorchester native whose courage and devotion under fire in Vietnam have now earned him another well-deserved plaudit. In January, Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro announced that the guided-missile destroyer DDG-140 will be named for Captain Kelley.
Thomas Gunning Kelley was born on May 13, 1939, the son of Boston school teacher John Basil Kelley and Elizabeth Kelley, who had thirteen children and made their home in Codman Square before moving to West Roxbury a year or two after Thomas’s birth. He went on to graduate from Boston College High School, Class of 1956, and from the College of the Holy Cross, Class of 1960.
Shortly after Holy Cross, Kelley enlisted in the Navy in Boston, earned a lieutenant’s commission, and was eventually named commander of River Assault Division 152, part of the Mobile Riverine Force. On June 15, 1969, he was ordered to lead eight boats on a mission to remove an American infantry company from a bank of the Ong Muong Canal, in Kien Hoa Province, South Vietnam. Heavy fire from the Viet Cong raked the flotilla from the opposite bank, and when one of Kelley’s vessels could not raise its loading ramp to pull away, Kelley positioned his own craft between his command and the Viet Cong. Then, as he was ordering his other boats to form a defense line around the disabled vessel, a rocket slammed into his boat. Despite severe wounds from shrapnel in his face and on his head, Kelley, though unable to stand or speak clearly, issued orders to his command with the help of one of his men and remained in charge while the crippled craft was repaired and his boats churned away to safety, their mission achieved. He suffered the loss of an eye among his other wounds.
According to his Medal of Honor citation, “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.”
Despite his injuries, Kelley requested to stay on active duty and retired from the Navy in 1990 with the rank of captain. He continued his commitment to service from 2003 to 2011 as Secretary of the Massachusetts Department of Veterans’ Services. Now 83, he and his wife, Joan, reside in Somerville today. They travel often to visit his son, three daughters, two grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.
Recently, Capt. Kelley spoke with Boston Irish Magazine. Following are excerpts from that conversation:
Q. What was your reaction at the news that the Navy was naming a destroyer after you?
A. I was overwhelmed. It was a thrill for my family. I wasn’t sure it would happen. I was in the running three years ago, but things can change when a new administration and Secretary [of the Navy] come in.
Q. How would you describe your Boston upbringing?
A. We lived briefly in Dorchester, and my brother, John, who later became a long-time teacher at Boston Latin, and I were raised in West Roxbury. I went to Blessed Sacrament School in Jamaica Plain—there were no Catholic schools then in West Roxbury.
Q. What was the the impact of BC High and Holy Cross on you?
A. The Jesuit education definitely shaped me and so many of my classmates. All my life, I’ve strived to live the Jesuit mantra of serving others. The fathers sure ran a taut ship. They instilled discipline, loyalty, and so much more in us. I remember Father Charles McCoy, a tough ex-Marine and football coach. Once when a kid was mouthing off to someone, Father McCoy picked up an eraser and beaned the guy. “Sit down, Red,” Father McCoy said. The kid sat down. That was a different era.
At Holy Cross, I studied economics. It was a great education. I wanted to join ROTC there, but couldn’t get in because of my eyesight—I had worn glasses since I was four.
Q. With a major in economics, what compelled you to enlist in the Navy?
A. Well, when I graduated, I was lucky that I could pass the Navy’s surface warfare eyesight requirements, so I was accepted as an Officer Candidate.
I’d actually wanted to join the Navy since I was a kid, and it was because of my family’s annual summers in Maine, in Bar Harbor and Northeast Harbor. I still go there. When I was six, we saw the battleship U.S.S. Missouri there, and I was so impressed. I just knew that’s the career I wanted. We spent a lot of time sailing off Maine, and I just loved it.
My dad had a summertime job in Northeast Harbor as manager of a high-end hotel named the Kimball. It’s no longer there. I worked at the Kimball as a room-service waiter, and JFK came to the hotel while recovering from back surgery. I brought him breakfast every morning. I was in awe, as most Boston Irish were at that time. We had another Kennedy connection—in Dorchester: Rose Kennedy was my mom’s Confirmation sponsor.
Q. In 1998, after your retirement from the Navy, you took a position at the Massachusetts Department of Veterans’ Services. How did that come about?
A. Tom Hudner, a fellow Medal of Honor recipient and a Massachusetts guy, brought me in there when he was Secretary of the Department, and when he left in 2003, he persuaded [Gov.] Paul Cellucci to appoint me to the post. I served until my retirement in 2010.
Q. What were some of the challenges as Secretary?
A. After 9/11, we had a whole new cohort of vets, post-Vietnam, as well as Korea and even World War II. All of a sudden there were veterans dealing with back-to-back deployments, Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome, and so many other issues. We focused on them and their families. As the veteran suicide rate rose, we worked to address it. A young local Marine named James Crosby, who fought and was wounded in Iraq, founded the SAVE Program, a 24/7 operation that has been hugely effective in helping vets dealing with potential suicide, drugs, alcohol, and so many other issues. We also had to deal with the many more women veterans facing these problems.
Q. What about your Medal of Honor is most meaningful to you?
A. Sixty-four of us are living today. All of us wear it not for ourselves, but for everyone who was there and didn’t come back home.