The Early Years

DUSTOFFer Bobby Mock writes about the day Kelly went down.

On July 1, 1964, I was the one to get the message from the CO of the 121st. It’s strange now that these very short moments in our lives are still so clear. I was sitting in our little operations room in front of our hooch when he rushed in. His exact words were, “Kelly’s down.” Then he turned on his heels and ran out of the room. It was not until about a half hour later that the word came that Kelly had been killed.

I immediately got on the land line trying to get the operations shack at our headquarters to report the news. I even tried the radio. After about ten minutes of trying, I went through to the orderly room and found out that the whole group had gone to lunch. It took another ten minutes to get Bloomquist at the Officers’ Club just to get the word out. He said they would launch and contact me by radio in the air. By the time he got me on the radio, the CO of the 121st had given the coordinates for the downed aircraft, and the rest is more or less history.

I was stuck at Soc Trang all day and was not able to get out to see the crash site. Si Simmons told me about it later and talked about what a traumatic effect it had for the guys there.

I can say with certainty that all our lives were changed forever on that day. As the men of the 121st began to come back from the day’s missions, they came by our hooch and just looked in and said a word or two of condolences. I don’t think a single man failed to shed a tear. It was a hard day then and is now a hard day to remember. We lost our innocence that day.

As these things go, the operation of the unit had to go on. Captain Patrick Brady moved into Kelly’s bunk that night. My bunk was just a couple of feet from Kelly’s and separated by a thin wall. I’m sure I could hear soft sobs coming from the wall, mixed with my own.

Major Kelly was a very quiet man with a specific mission that he tried each day to perform. The crew at Soc Trang was Major Kelly, Captain Richard Anderson, 1LT Jerry Shaw, 2LT Ernie Sylvester, and me, 2LT Robert Mock. Major Kelly used to say he was holding school for his lieutenants.

Major Kelly flew every mission that came in to our dispatch. The only way we could fly with him was as a peter pilot. He carried a small bag about the size of a medic’s kit. In it he had some C-rations, first aid supplies, and a .22 pistol with several boxes of shells. He used to joke about us carrying everything from Thompson submachine guns, shotguns, .357 pistols, .45 caliber Army pistols, and most anything we could get our hands on.

I can still see Captain Patrick Brady and his riot shotgun and ammo belt with shotgun shells in it. It was quite dashing, and I wished that I had one. He explained that he figured if he were shot down, he only wanted something light to carry and a weapon just to keep the bad guys’ heads down. He never had to put this to use, but it stuck with me my entire career. In fact, I traded my Thompson submachine gun for a VC flag a week later.

Down at Soc Trang, Major Kelly was all business and very seldom went to the Officers’ Club. I can still see him walking to the shower unit in a towel and thongs. He was not a big man and was rather balding. He had a habit of holding his hat and rubbing the few hairs from the back of his head to the front. I never saw Major Kelly angry, nor did I ever see him “ream a man out” in front of others.

He was a loner, in that he hardly ever said a word to any of us. He would come out in the morning and look at the operations board and read a short paragraph that Ernie Sylvester would write each day, called the “Good Word for the Day.” Kelly liked the words and would read them out loud and say, “That’s just what we need for today. Ernie, did you write that yourself?” Ernie would say no, he had a book he took the phrases from. “Well, keep it up. It’s just what we need.”

Major Kelly spent a great deal of time writing in his room. In fact, I think Si Simmons was given the task of getting just the right weight of paper for this writing exercise. He would sit at his desk and hold the paper in his hands and sort of hit them on the table so that each page was just right. He might do this several times before he began to write. This procedure cannot be overemphasized, as it would sometimes last fifteen to twenty minutes without Major Kelly writing a single thing. Most of the time, he had a large coffee can that he would burn each sheet in. I would give almost anything to know what he had written.

I do know that he prepared a letter he left on his desk that was to be opened “In case of my death.” I believe 1LT Jeff Grider got the mission of sorting out Kelly’s personal effects as required by the Special Court Martial convening authority. Jeff later told me that he found the letter in Major Kelly’s foot locker, lying right on top. I believe Captain Patrick Brady or Captain Paul Bloomquist got the letter, and I never heard any more about it.

Time waits for no man, and that night Captain Patrick Brady slept in Major Kelly’s bed.