Doug Robinson: Utah man discovers powerful story behind family's 'forgotten' soldier
Somewhere near Aachen, Germany, Jerry’s plane was hit by enemy fire. Jerry radioed that he had “smoke in the cockpit.” His fellow pilots lost sight of Jerry’s plane. Later, they returned to the area in which he disappeared to search for the plane, but their efforts were futile. The mission was briefly described by author Tim Grace in a book called “Second to None,” with a brief mention of Jerry Kelly. “Second Lt. Gerald B. Kelly was lost. He was last seen attacking one of the marshaling yards when his plane was believed to have been hit by flak. He was listed MIA.”
Don Evans wrote about Jerry in a memoir shortly before his death in 1999:
As the youngest member in the flight group, Jerry Kelly was heckled by the other men as a "kid away from his mother too soon.” Jerry took the chiding good-naturedly, but never lowered his moral standards. The guys knew he was a Mormon and even though they ribbed him constantly, they looked up to him for sticking to his principles. Most of them also looked out for him like a kid brother when he was flying with them on dangerous ground support missions. Seldom did a mission go by but what one or two of our men failed to return out of sixteen planes. Of course, there was always sadness on these occasions, but in Jerry's case, there was a time of mourning and respect for him the likes of which had never occurred in our squadron before.
As Kelly tells it decades later, Jerry's family held onto hope that Jerry would be found, especially Jerry’s mother, Violet Bytheway Kelly. She owned Mrs. Kelly's Bakery on 3240 S. Highland Drive, which was next door to Kelly’s Barbershop, where Gene worked. In his many letters to his family, Jerry repeatedly expressed a desire to return from the war so he could eat his mom's roast beef sandwiches and drink "gallons and gallons of milk." After Jerry went missing, Violet left a plate of food on the front porch every night, hoping she would wake up one morning to find the food eaten and Jerry back in his bed.
As Kelly writes, “Jerry's dad, John Kelly, also held out hope his son would return and tried to prepare for that day. John, 50 years old at the time, had attended (Latter-day Saint) church meetings regularly for 25 years with his wife, but never felt right about joining the faith. He was even serving as his ward's Sunday School president at the time as a non-member. Shortly after Jerry went missing, he decided to be baptized.”
Jerry’s body was finally discovered in early 1946. According to family lore, Jerry had been buried by a Catholic priest in Stadtkyll, a town on the German-Belgium border. The Grave Registration Service, an organization mandated by the U.S. government to find the bodies of American soldiers and bring them home for a formal military burial, recovered the body of Jerry Kelly and transported it to a temporary cemetery in Luxembourg. Eventually, his body was among the thousands that the U.S. government returned to American soil with a full military escort.
Kelly writes, “In May 1949, Jerry’s family went to the train station in Salt Lake to see their fallen hero arrive home. On June 6, 1949 — on the fifth anniversary of D-Day — a memorial service was held for Jerry. Almost 1,000 people showed up, including LDS Apostle Mark E. Petersen.”
Jerry’s memory lived on, for better or worse. Kelly says his grandfather Gene Kelly never recovered from the loss of his brother. Gene was a glider pilot in the Philippines and was reputed to be the first Utahn to enter Tokyo after Japan’s surrender. “My grandpa talked very little about the war and about the brother he loved dearly,” writes Kelly. “He only shared one story with my dad. While driving in the passenger seat of a Jeep at night in the Philippines, he heard a voice that said ‘Stop!’ He told the man driving the Jeep, his commanding officer, to stop the Jeep. He didn't know why. Embarrassed and fearing a reprimand, they got out and surveyed the area. They were 10 feet from a sheer drop-off. Had they not stopped immediately, they would have been killed.”
Gene named his firstborn son Jerry, after his brother.
Only one of the Three Musketeers escaped the war unscathed. On Christmas Eve, 1944 — almost exactly two months after Jerry disappeared — Evans was shot down during the Battle of the Bulge. He spent Christmas Eve under a tree in Belgium. He was captured by the Germans and was a prisoner of war for three months before he was liberated by the Russian army.
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