James Kelly grew up admiring his brother, Ray. His admiration deepened when the Kelly boys served their country during World War II. In James’ eyes, Ray was the real hero having served on the battlefields of Europe.
In December of 1944, Ray rode in the first U.S. Sherman tank on Hitler’s territory in Germany. A German soldier threw a grenade into the tank, which was nicknamed Chick, killing all the men inside except Ray, who lived but lost an arm and a leg. The Battle of the Bulge started just a few days after the attack, on Dec. 16, James said.
In James’ mind, his was the lesser service to his country. He spent most of his career — 1942-1945 — in the U.S. Army and Army Air Corps stateside as a bombardier instructor in Carlsbad, New Mexico, and a number of other states.
Which is why the Gold Canyon man turned down the opportunity to participate in the Honor Flight Arizona program three times before finally accepting the offer to fly to Washington, D.C., March 17-19 with other World War II veterans. He felt the program, which pays homage to World War II veterans by flying them to the nation’s capital for a free three-day trip with other veterans, was better served by the men and women who lost a limb or were injured in combat, not those who served stateside, he said during an interview.
The reason he accepted the offer for March? His brother, Ray, was being honored as part of the program, and he wanted to attend to pay him tribute, he said during the interview.
But the experience — charged with emotions and relived memories — had a surprising result, James’ daughter, Rachel Duran, said during an interview. Her father was so warmly received and appreciated for his military service by strangers that he started to accept that his role as an instructor contributed to the war effort, the Apache Junction woman said.
James Kelly was born in 1921 and grew up in El Dorado Springs, Missouri. He picked up the nickname Trigger when he was 7 after he started shooting at rabbits.
He and another pilot “borrowed” an aircraft when he was about 18 years old and flew it for about a half hour, he said. That love of flight led him to fly and instruct others on how to fly B-29 bombers as a member of the Army Air Corps.
He can remember the names of his first three recruits — Barker, Barrett and Bann, he said. The names were among the flood of memories he recalled before departing for his Honor Flight adventure.
Ms. Duran was fortunate to be able to accompany her father on the trip — all the veterans are allowed to bring someone to assist them during the three-day journey. She said she is grateful for the opportunity to share the experience with her father, with whom she is close.
James Kelly wore his uniform, which still fits, during a trip to the military monuments in Washington, D.C., and it worked like a magnet to draw appreciative strangers to him, Ms. Duran said.
While seated in his wheelchair aside the World War II memorial, a Jewish woman approached him. She sat in his lap and hugged and kissed him, thanking him for his service. She told him her grandmother was a prisoner in Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp, and the American soldiers help free her.
“He needed to hear that,” Ms. Duran said.
A highlight of the trip for Mr. Kelly was reading letters from more than 40 friends, family members and even strangers that were presented to him during the “last mail call” on the flight home. But it was reading the letter written by Ms. Duran that moved him to tears, he said.
“That just blew me away, to read the nice things she had written,” he said.
The trip brought the father and daughter closer than ever, Ms. Duran said.
“He’s my hero,” Ms. Duran said. “From the day he put on that uniform, before my life began, knowing he would lay down his life for me and his country.”
Mr. Kelly said he is glad he finally took the Honor Flight trip.
“It was more than I expected,” he said. “It was a tremendous honor, especially when they made the speech about my brother.”
Reach staff writer Wendy Miller at email@example.com