The Legend of Colin Kelly

Scott Erickson Contributor
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As we remember the recent anniversary of the attacks on Pearl Harbor, an attack as vivid to a previous generation of Americans as the attacks of 9/11 have been to our own, I thought it important to recall a story of American heroism and sacrifice: The Legend of Colin Kelly.

This story began for me a few years ago. Living in the chaos of a major American city, I rarely found time to reflect upon the small details of my daily life. Like most of us, I did not often find cause for reflection in the mundane tasks of driving to work, shopping for groceries, or walking to and from the store.

One night, after having walked down Colin P. Kelly, Jr. Street for probably the thousandth time, I became drawn to the fact that I had no idea for whom this little street near my house in San Francisco had been named. As soon as I arrived back at my apartment I googled “Colin Kelly,” half assuming that the search would reveal the particulars of an iconic San Franciscan of a century past. What I learned took me aback.

Colin Kelly, a member of the United States Army Air Corps, was a B-17 pilot whose charge was to fly bombing runs in the Pacific during the first days of America’s entrance into World War II. Shortly after the catastrophe of Pearl Harbor, and with the United States’ war efforts intensifying, Colin Kelly would come to define American character and sacrifice.

On December 10, 1941, Colin Kelly and crew launched their B-17 from Clark Field in the Philippines, seeking Japanese cruisers to engage. As they advanced toward their targets, the Japanese cruiser Natori came into sight. After successfully striking the Natori, Kelly piloted his men back toward safety. Unfortunately, trouble soon emerged.

Encountering a group of Japanese Zeroes, Kelly’s B-17 sustained significant damage. As Kelly struggled to control the plane, the crew was instructed to bail out to safety. With Kelly’s hand steadying the crippled aircraft, each crew member was able to safely disembark. At the last moment, while Kelly and his co-pilot attempted to eject themselves from the aircraft, it exploded.

Both men ejected as the explosion sent the plane hurtling toward the earth. Kelly’s co-pilot, Lt. Donald Robins, safely opened his parachute and survived the exploding aircraft. Colin Kelly’s parachute never deployed.

In his act of selfless heroism, Colin Kelly became known as one of the first American heroes of the Second World War. He was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for having sacrificed his life to allow his fellow soldiers to save their own.

After I became aware of the story of Colin Kelly, it occurred to me that, even in the heart of San Francisco, potent symbols of American heroism remain.

When we hear the argument that American exceptionalism only exists in our own minds, or that heroes really don’t exist at all, we only need to take a moment and look around us to be reminded of how false such statements are. The vestiges of American heroism and sacrifice exist all around us, even on lonely street signs in the middle of a city. Take a moment to look around. You might be inspired by what you see.

The Legend of Colin Kelly refers to the eponymous painting memorializing Kelly’s act of heroism.

Scott G. Erickson is an advocate of conservative, principled solutions to the issues facing America. He has worked to advance conservative priorities through coalition building and is an active participant in myriad organizations seeking to restore the foundational principles of America. A committed public servant, he has worked in the field of law enforcement for the past decade and holds both his B.S. and M.S. in Criminal Justice Studies. He resides in the San Francisco Bay Area.