History: December 10, 1941: Colin Kelly, First B-17 Pilot Hero

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A Brief History

On December 10, 1941, Colin Purdie Kelly, Jr. became the first in a long line of American heroes that flew the great Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, a pairing of the greatest bomber of World War II and the greatest bomber pilots.

Digging Deeper

Only 3 days after the catastrophic raid on Pearl Harbor thrust the US into the War, the Philippines were next on the Japanese list of American targets, and Kelly with his bomber and crew were there to face the threat.  On a mission to attack Japanese naval forces, Kelly bombed the Japanese cruiser Natori, inflicting light damage on the ship.  On the return trip to their home airfield at Clark Airfield, the big bomber was beset by numerous Japanese A6M Zero fighter planes.

Battling numerous fighters proved to be problematic for the bomber, but the gunners managed to repel the determined Zeros, though the Fortress took heavy damage itself.  As the bomber approached Clark Airbase, a fire broke out and it was clear the bomber could not safely land.  Kelly ordered his crew to bail out while he stayed at the helm, piloting the plane until his 9 men safely bailed out.  The bomber then exploded, killing Kelly, and making him an instant hero at a time when America was starved for heroic stories.

The Japanese fighter pilots had to turn away before seeing the bomber crash, and thus only claimed a “probable” kill.  Confused reports of the bombing mission misidentified the Natori as the battleship Haruna, and reports circulated that the battleship had been sunk.  On top of that, it was wrongly reported that Kelly sacrificed himself by flying his crippled bomber into the Haruna, striking the big ship in the smokestack and sinking the vessel.  Other bungled reports had the bomber sinking the Natori, or another cruiser that was in the area, or sinking the Haruna with bombs.  The “Fog of War” is a profound confusion typical of most battles through the ages, and in this case even the date was confused in early reports, with the date of battle given as December 9 instead of December 10.  Even the so called 20/20 hindsight provided by the passage of time does not always help clarify things, as some modern accounts of the incident still claim Kelly had sunk one ship or the other and had done so suicide style.  Kelly’s surviving crew reported the Natori heavily damaged, when the real damage was slight.

Still, even with the confusion about the details of the battle, Kelly stands out as a hero and rightfully was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross to go with his previously awarded Distinguished Flying Cross.  A Liberty ship was later named in Kelly’s honor.  Streets and schools have been named in Kelly’s honor, and his son was given an appointment to West Point where he graduated in 1963.  Colin Kelly was only the first of many heroic fliers that took the B-17 into combat, one of the greatest legacies in the history of aerial warfare.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.