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

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

Second Lt. Gerald Kelly is shown with his plane somewhere in Europe.

Doug Robinson

On the surface, this is the story of a Utahn who was killed in World War II — a man who so endeared himself to others in his brief life that three children would be named after him. But it is more than that. It is equally the story of one relative’s intense need to know him 70 years later.

What would drive a young man to search archives and read more than a hundred old letters and track down aging comrades-in-arms and travel hundreds of miles to talk to them and hire a researcher to assist his cause, all to learn more about an ancestor he never knew and barely heard of?

Ultimately, it’s the story of the nearly inexplicable pull of family, the urge to know more about people who help form our lives and the power of genealogy.

Ryan Kelly, a 30-year-old investment analyst at Evergreen Capital Management, contacted me last summer after reading a story I had written about Don Snarr, a 90-year-old World War II pilot. “There is much written about veterans still alive, which I think is important,” he wrote. “But I think perhaps more could be written about the heroes who never made it home.”

His reasons for telling the story proved deeper than that.

In his youth, Kelly had heard about his great uncle Jerry Kelly, but only that he had been killed during the war. Ryan’s grandfather and Jerry’s brother, Gene, a World War II pilot in the Pacific, had found it too painful to talk of the war or his only brother. He died of a heart attack in 1974 at the age of 54. The family believes if he had lived longer he would have opened up about the war, as many veterans eventually do. Anyway, there was scant information about Jerry, and, as Kelly says, “Jerry was kind of forgotten in the family.”

It might have remained that way if Kelly hadn’t been moved upon by events in his life. Two of his close friends died within days of each other last summer. “That got me thinking about life and death,” he says. And then he watched a TV interview with David McCullough in which the historian said, among other things, that we are all shaped by people we’ve never met.

“That one phrase caught my attention,” says Kelly. “I started thinking about my great uncle. I asked my dad about his Uncle Jerry, and I realized that my family knew next to nothing about him. His story just hadn't been passed down. He gave his life for the freedoms we enjoy every day, yet we didn't even have a picture of him. In fact, my dad had no memory of ever seeing a photo of Jerry, his only uncle.”

Knowing that Jerry had attended Granite High School, Kelly called the school district and learned that it had a collection of old yearbooks in a basement vault. During a lunch break, Kelly thumbed through the 1942 yearbook and found a picture of the senior class officers — and there was Jerry, the senior class president. “He looks like Joe DiMaggio,” says Kelly. He took a photo of the page and sent it to family members. “He looks like you,” many of them replied.

“Something clicked after that,” says Kelly. “I became obsessed with learning more about him. I’d say since August there hasn’t been a two-hour period of time when I haven’t thought about him.”

He searched for more information. Kelly wrote a letter to one of Jerry’s former classmates, 89-year-old Richard Winder, and they talked on the phone. “He told me that Jerry was really smart, outgoing and was a true gentleman to everyone. He said some of the very finest guys in the Granite High class of 1942 were killed in the war.”

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.

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.

Sharp, having lost his two fellow Musketeers, would fly a remarkable 78 missions in a P-47 before returning home. He earned a degree at the University of Utah, took an engineering job with Lockheed in California and raised a family.

As for Evans, he completed his education at BYU and became a businessman in Orem. He and his wife, Laura, raised four children. Evans held many LDS Church leadership positions, including stake president. According to his son Ken, Evans referred to Jerry in his sermons, using him as an example of someone who always held firm to his principles and didn't give in to peer pressure during the war.

After months of research, Kelly says he is thankful that no one spoon-fed him the history of his great-uncle Jerry. “That made it more meaningful that I had to do so much work,” he says. “It was like working a detective case at times. One thing leads to another, and there are still more things to learn. The more I find out, the more I want to learn.”

Sometimes Kelly, a devoted runner, runs the two miles from his home in Holladay to the site of the old family barbershop and bakery. They are long gone now, replaced by a furniture store, but the memories still live there.

“I run by it and I look at it,” he says. “It makes me feel closer to Jerry and my grandpa to realize they walked and worked and lived there. … We really are shaped by people we never met. I’m really indebted to a guy like my great-uncle and to the others like him. If they didn’t answer that call to serve, my life would be much different.”

On July 16, the family plans to visit Jerry’s burial plot in the Salt Lake City Cemetery. Jerry would have turned 90 this year.

One postscript: Kelly hired a World War II research expert, Norm Richards, to look for anything he could uncover about Jerry in the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis. Richards found two letters written by the war department to Jerry’s family. One of the letters, dated Dec. 8, 1944, contained this memorable account of Jerry’s final mission:

Lt. Kelly was … participating in a dive bombing mission to an area west of Koln, Germany, on October 20th … at about 11:50 a.m., as our planes were strafing a train, a radio message was received from your son stating that his aircraft had been hit. It then dropped out of formation, headed in the direction of its base and was last observed to disappear into a cloud.

“The thought that Jerry was last seen disappearing into a cloud is poetic,” says Kelly. “Jerry lived a good life and no doubt was worthy to immediately enter into a heavenly realm.”

Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: drob@deseretnews.com

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