USS Laffey & the American Flag

Bill Kelly keeps a photograph in his room at the Claremont Center nursing home where he lives. The picture is of him in a football uniform on Thanksgiving Day, 1942 at Manasquan High School where he was an outstanding football. He says that the very day after the picture was taken, he went to New York and enlisted in the Navy at the age of 17.

A few years later, Kelly was photographed holding the tattered remnants of a flag. The flag is the US flag that flew over the USS Laffey during the Battle of Okinawa. It is tattered because of the damage received from the kamikaze attacks, some of the worst in history, that took place on April 16, 1945.

Kelly says that the Japanese “knocked the hell out of it,” but the ship stayed afloat.

Now 94-years-old, Kelly sits in a wheelchair, but his mind is still sharp. While some details of that fateful day have faded from his memory, his bravery has been chronicled by historians. Last month, he received a flag that had flown over the US Capitol from US Representative Chris Smith.

Kelly with Rep. Smith.

“Bill Kelly’s brave, selfless and outstanding service to this nation aboard the U.S.S. Laffey stands as a shining example of the best our country has to offer,” Smith stated

Kelly worked as a signalman, with expertise in Morse code, on the starboard side of the ship.

Ship historian Sonny Walker said that a Japanese plane flew into the mast and knocked down the American flag. Kelly went out and retrieved the flag from the main deck and headed back to the signal room with it.

On the way back, he found a sailor with his leg missing. It turned out to be Kelly’s good friend, Fred Burgess. He was leaning against a gun mount on his good leg with blood pouring out his missing leg. He cried for Kelly to help him, so Kelly and some other men rushed Burgess to the sick bay.

Once there, Burgess asked Kelly for the flag and Kelly gave it to him. He died, still clutching the flag, before a doctor had a chance to see him.

The Laffey was attacked by 22 Japanese planes that day. She was struck by six planes and four 400-pound bombs. Kelly narrowly missed being crushed by a falling 2-ton antenna. Another blast tossed him fifteen feet in the air.

A shipmate hung a new flag on the deck – “so the Japanese knew who they were fighting,” Kelly remembered, 32 men were killed on the Laffey that day and 71 were wounded. Kelly is amazed that anyone was able to walk away from that attack.

After the war, Kelly worked as a milkman and started a cleaning service while raising five children. He never spoke of the war. His daughter, Margie Moore, only learned of his bravery five or six years ago.

Today, there are just four surviving crewmen from the Laffey. The ship, known as “the ship that would not die,” is a floating museum off the coast of South Carolina.

Kelly was just 20 years old when the attack occurred but he remembers it like yesterday. His room holds mementos of that day: the tattered second flag raised by the shipmate, a photo of the Laffey badly damaged after the attack, his medals which include the Purple Heart.

Laffey after the attacks.

And now the folded congressional flag. When asked about what this flag meant to him, he was humble. “I take this for my shipmates, not me,” he said.

The USS Laffey was present at the D-Day invasions of Normandy where she fired on shore defense locations with her two five-inch gun turrets. She was then moved to the Pacific to help with the attacks on the Japanese where she provided support for the US troops in the Battle of Okinawa, which is when the kamikaze attacks took place.

Patriot’s Point, Laffey and Yorktown

After the war, the ship was repaired and went on to serve in the Korean War and the Cold War before being turned into a museum. It rests at Patriot’s Point, South Carolina next to the aircraft carrier Yorktown and the submarine Clamagore.

Click on images to enlarge.

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Military Humor – 

“ALL RIGHT, SAILOR! LET’S GET THAT HAT SQUARED AWAY!!”

 

 

 

 

 

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Farewell Salutes – 

Clifford Black Sr. – Commerce, GA; US Army, WWII, Korea, Bronze Star

Kern Lum Chew – Courtland, CA; US Army, WWII, PTO, Bronze Star, Purple Heart

William Donnellan – Massapequa, NY; US Army, WWII, PTO, Bronze Star

Tony Duva – Lake Worth, FL; US Army, WWII

William Harth Jr. – Columbia, SC; US Army Air Corps, WWII, ETO, 2nd Lt., 329th Bomber Squadron/93rd Bombardment Group, KIA

Fred “Dipper 19” Kovaleski – NYC, NY; Cold War, CIA

Randall Mosher – Bolivar, MO; US Army, Vietnam

Jimmy Simoneaux – LA; US Navy, WWII, USS Spearfish & Snook

Ray Smith – RI; US Navy, WWII & Korea

Arthur Wells – Paw Paw, IL; US Army, Vietnam, Col. (Ret.), 1st Armored Div., 11th Airborne Div., 24th Div.,& 1st Div. District Adviser, West Point grad, Bronze Star, Purple Heart

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About GP Cox

Everett Smith served with the Headquarters Company, 187th Regiment, 11th A/B Division during WWII. This site is in tribute to my father, "Smitty." GPCox is a member of the 11th Airborne Association. Member # 4511 and extremely proud of that fact!

Posted on May 31, 2018, in First-hand Accounts, Uncategorized, WWII and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 106 Comments.

  1. Poor Burgess! And this is what we do to one another.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I must say…I am so delighted to see your posts. This one just made me proud. I’m sure the old veteran Bill Kelly is pleased as punch!💖

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Excellent post gp, great story, these are the type of story’s that really bring heroic deeds of Wartime to life.
    Kelly was certainly a great heroic warrior.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think stories such as this “bring it home” to some people as to what each person involved in war go through. It might explain why their dad was tough on them or why grandpa cried at a movie one day… you know what I mean? I’m sure you do. I’m trying to get others to ‘get a grip’ on reality.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This is so moving: “A shipmate hung a new flag on the deck – “so the Japanese knew who they were fighting.” He certainly is quite a man, and to have survived to such an age must amaze him a bit, too. I have a dear friend in South Carolina who’s a bit of a history buff. I forwarded this on to her. Perhaps she knows of the ship, but if not, I know this will stir her interest.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s always great to hear that there’s another history buff out there. If she hasn’t heard of the Laffey, hopefully she’ll get to see it one day! Thanks, Linda.

      Like

  5. Beyond outstanding.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. A great post GP, thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. A moving story. How greatly this nation has been blessed by the sacrifices of those who went before us.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Another great story! It always impresses me how these units felt like a team or even family. They really cared about the welfare of the other members of their company.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is how the soldiers survive, plus when you go through the rigors of basic, then whatever specialty you’re assigned to (MOS), the bonds get stronger and stronger. By the time they hit combat – they were family. Thank you for another wonderful comment, Bev.

      Like

  9. How awful it must have been to see his friend mortally wounded like that and suffering. So sad. I am glad he survived to tell the tale.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Inspiring. I think it is rather a pity that so many heroes, out of modesty or reluctance to recall those horrific times, didn’t even confide in their own nearest and dearest about them.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Whenever I drop by your blog GP, I’m reminded of the efforts my own parents made to help keep Britain free during WW2. My father was in the Royal Artillery and my mom had several roles first as a nurse and later she inspected guns. I often tell my own daughter of my late parents efforts for freedom and the hardships they endured so she knows her roots and the sacrifices made by Britain and her Allies.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am very happy to hear that you have taught your daughter of the family connection. Too often parents neglect to give their children the additional education that school systems ‘drop the ball’ on. This year your RAF has its 100th Anniversary – Congrats to all the vets!!

      Like

  12. Very well done !

    Liked by 1 person

  13. How could a ship of just 2200 long tons take such punishment and survive?
    The HMS Hood pride of the RN a giant of a ship went down from 1 x 15″ shell, admittedly it was lucky enough to go straight down the smokestack and blow the ship apart, but even so how could the USS Laffey survive?.
    The great pity is that they repaired the vessel, can you imagine the awe in which it would have been held had she have been left for the world to see the true horror or war?

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Worth a viewing …

    Liked by 3 people

  15. So many stories that old grunts could tell.
    Could … but mostly don’t, or won’t—communication works both ways and there has to be some foundation for understanding.

    Thankfully for many people ‘war’ and combat and fear are simply academic terms—and long may it stay that way.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think if war becomes too distant and removed, them people won’t fear having another one. This war still affects the entire world even today, but people ignore it and hope history will fade into oblivion. And THIS proves my point…..
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_ongoing_armed_conflicts

      Liked by 1 person

      • The biggest threat is ‘uniqueness’. We all have it, that wonderful “It won’t happen to me” … when you look across at your buddies and pity them, all the while knowing that it won’t happen to YOU (even though you still hunker down that little bit further). Academically you know that it could, might … but emotionally you will live, for ever. (Hard to explain.)

        This is why the kamikaze so intrigues me. I imagine that all the way down to the end he still knew that it would happen to anyone else but not to him. Somehow. So for as long as people—blatantly mistakenly—have that feeling we will have wars.

        Again I say that people wanting wars should be the ones fighting them, as a grunt at the front. That ain’t gonna happen either …

        Liked by 1 person

  16. Respect for such a great man

    Liked by 1 person

  17. What a brave man ! I really do wonder where people like him get it from!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I sometimes think it is born out of necessity to survive and then other times I believe they were raised with a commitment to to do right by their parents. I’m sure there are many theories, but thank goodness we had them there!!

      Like

  18. How anyone got off that ship is a miracle in itself!

    Liked by 2 people

  19. Through the years I’ve often been asked why I joined the Marines to fight as a “grunt” groundpounder. “Why not the Air Force, or the Navy?” was the usual sample question. My stock answer was always something like, “When the s**t hit the fan, I could go to ground, maybe dig-in, but there was still terra firma beneath me. If I’m in an aircraft that gets hit, there’s that long fall, and if I’m aboard a ship, well I can’t walk on water.” My cover is off to all those brave sailors and airmen who fought in all our wars. Semper Fidelis.
    –Michael

    Liked by 2 people

    • Good answers, Michael!! haha Do you ever get someone who still wishes to debate it?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Not is several years. Most of the questions used to come from those who never served in any compacity. Those who have know the dangers involved whether air, land, or sea. There WERE those rickety helicopters we had to fly in at times– those old UH-34s were something to behold! The USMC during my combat tour (1967-68) only used Hueys as gunships. Otherwise, it was the ’34s or the CH-46s (Sea Knights). I always preferred to hump anywhere I went, if possible. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  20. Looking at the Laffey after the attack it is indeed a miracle that anyone, our hero included, on that ship walked away unscathed.

    Liked by 2 people

  21. What a story. That flag–I get it.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. >He died, still clutching the flag
    I’m deeply touched by this phrase.

    My late father was conferred decorations(medal) from his majesty the Emperor.
    My father was proud and crying.
    It is Important that Praise the service of Ppl who Fought(Defence) for own Nation.

    In deepest sympathy. 

    Liked by 1 person

  23. After we moved to Charleston in 2011, my husband being a Navy veteran, he wanted to see ‘Yorktown’ and ‘Laffey’ at Patriots’ Point and so we went to see them. They are both awesome ships. As I understand, there were 34 sailors who were killed and the 71 injured during that World War II attack on Laffey. She was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation and earned five battle stars for service during World War II. It also was awarded two battle stars for service during the Korean War.
    I saw this link on Post and Courier https://www.postandcourier.com/business/world-war-ii-veterans-recall-their-experiences-at-battle-of/article_d7f34c0a-4e96-5272-af00-72c338dd4f3f.html.

    Liked by 2 people

  24. What a great story and beautiful tribute!

    Liked by 1 person

  25. This one made me tear up. The flag meant something back then, didn’t it? Bill Kelly’s story is amazing. I’ve heard so many stories about soldiers who didn’t make a fuss out of their bravery. What character!

    Liked by 2 people

  26. That Bill Kelly is one tough son-of-a-gun!

    Liked by 2 people

  27. These men and women …. where would we be without them? Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  28. Had the tissues ready this time! Great post GP, that ship and her crew had a lot of heart.

    Liked by 1 person

  29. What a nice, humble man. I love the first hand accounts. That ship has an amazing history. I’m glad it’s still floating.

    Liked by 1 person

  30. What a lovely story of a brave war hero. He is so modest and maybe his children would have liked to hear him speak about his experiences during the war. It’s not too late as he is still alive

    Liked by 2 people

  31. Heartbreaking and joyful, at the same time. Thank you for posting this.

    Liked by 1 person

  32. Great story. I read the book written by the skipper of the USS Laffey and visitedcPatriot Point. Amazing!

    Liked by 2 people

  33. A snapshot of history which you personalised with some wonderful photographs – thank you. Young Bill Kelly was a good looking lad. It is so easy to forget that they were once so young…….

    Liked by 2 people

  34. Wonderful account.

    Liked by 1 person

  35. What a great story, and a much deserved tribute to Bill, and his shipmates.
    I am sure that his humility and endurance will be an inspiration to many.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 2 people

  36. The Burgess cameo is such a poignant detail

    Liked by 1 person

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