Doug Robinson: Utah man discovers powerful story behind family's 'forgotten' soldier

Published: Tuesday, March 4 2014 3:30 p.m. MST

A month later, Kelly wrote an essay about Jerry with the little information he had been able to gather and mailed it to Jerry’s younger sister, Ruth Worthen, in Santa Cruz, Calif. She wrote back, “Your essay touched my heart. You have details I did not know. You captured the essence of him. Jerry was a special person. He was smart, a straight-A student, very funny, and life-loving … at our 50th high school reunion, we were asked what event at Granite High we remembered most, and (one woman) said, ‘The day we learned that Jerry Kelly was missing in action.’ He made an impression on a lot of people.”

Kelly exchange several emails with Worthen. At one point she told him that she had a collection of letters in her closet that Jerry had written to his mother. She mailed 20 of them to Kelly.

Kelly and his father, Tom, flew to California to meet with Ruth, reading Jerry’s letters on the plane. During their visit, Worthen told them she had more of Jerry’s letters — about 150 in all, chronicling his life from training camp until the final week of his life.

“A family treasure,” says Kelly.

His quest continued. He visited Jerry's best friend in high school, Cliff Lawrence, who had volunteered with Jerry to be a pilot in the Army Air Corps. While Kelly and Lawrence talked, the latter's son, Stan, walked into the house and overheard the conversation. "I've been hearing about Jerry Kelly all my life," he told Kelly. That day, Kelly was told that Lawrence had named one of his sons Kelly in honor of Jerry.

As Kelly learned, Jerry and Lawrence showed up at Fort Douglas shortly after graduation to sign up as pilots with the Army Air Corps. Jerry was told he would have to have his parents sign a release because he was weeks away from his 18th birthday. His mother refused, Jerry persisted and his father finally signed.

Worthen's letters revealed that Jerry had two close friends in the military, Bob Sharp and Don Evans. They had met at pilot training school in Louisiana and discovered that they were all Utahns and Mormons. They were inseparable and became known as the Three Musketeers. Together they traveled across the Atlantic on the RMS Elizabeth in early July 1944 to report to the war in Europe, where they were assigned as tentmates.

After much research and persistence, Kelly discovered that Sharp was alive and lived in Arleta, Calif. He’s 90 and still active and healthy. Kelly and Sharp talked frequently on the phone and developed a friendship. Sharp shared stories and sent several photos of his lost friend. Kelly then flew to California to visit Sharp at his home. He learned that Sharp also named a son Kelly in honor of Jerry.

Sharp told Kelly, “Jerry was the cleanest, purest soldier I ever met ... He didn't drink, didn't smoke. And he was probably the only soldier I met who never even swore."

It's true that Jerry Kelly exuded a certain goodness and innocence that shines through even in the old photos that appear on this page. Sharp said he thought often about why Jerry was taken so early from the earth. He thinks Jerry learned all that he came here to learn and accomplish.

"It's taken me 90 years to become what I need to become,” Sharp told Ryan. “It only took Jerry 20 years."

Kelly tracked down one more contact in his search to learn more about Jerry: Ken Evans, son of the late Don Evans, the third member of the Three Musketeers. From his home in Saratoga Springs, he is writing a book about his dad’s service in the war. Kelly and Evans had lunch together and have since collaborated in their research about the Three Musketeers.

As for the fate of Lt. Jerry Kelly, this is what happened. On Oct. 20, 1944, he departed Belgium for his 10th sortie of the war. He was now 20 and one of the youngest members of the 397th Fighter Squadron of the 368th Fighter Group in the Ninth Air Force. He was flying a P-47 Thunderbolt, the largest and heaviest fighter plane in history that was powered by a single prop engine. The purpose of the missions was to bomb and strafe railroads, road junctions, supply lines and other infrastructure. Sharp flew on Jerry’s final mission, as well. As they taxied next to each other on the runway to prepare for takeoff, their eyes met and Jerry waved goodbye to Bob. It was the last time they would see each other.

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