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Charles Kelley survives Pearl Harbor, thrives at age 99 in Monroe
Charles Kelley
When the alarm sounded for battle stations on Dec. 7, 1941, Mess Attendant 2nd Class Charles Kelley had no idea that he was at war, that he would be torpedoed within three minutes, or that he would be torpedoed three times in his naval career. He also had no idea that, on one of those occasions, he would spend 72 hours in the ocean clinging to a life raft, praying for rescue. Neither did he think he'd still be alive at the age of almost 100 years, much less driving his van around town and walking everywhere. His brother, Ernest, also on board, could not have imagined that the events of the next few minutes would change his life forever. But then none of us know the future. We only know the past.

For Charles and Ernest Kelley, the past began on a cotton farm near Morehead, Mississippi. Charles was born May 21, 1917. His brother would be born four years later. Times were tough. The Great Depression was still on. Unemployment was fluctuating between 14 percent and 19 percent nationwide. Forty percent of all the farms in Mississippi were on the auction block the day of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's inauguration in 1933. So the two brothers began to consider their career options. Some navy recruiters began to interest them in joining. So in November 1937 they enlisted. They did their basic training at Norfolk Naval Yards in Virginia. After basic training, Charles and Ernest spent two years at Annapolis working in the mess hall, serving the midshipmen. In October 1939 they were assigned to the U.S.S. Helena (CL-50). The Helena was a brand-new light cruiser built at the Brooklyn Naval Yards. She sailed to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Montevideo, Uruguay, where members of the crew boarded the wreck of the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee. She was assigned to the Pacific Fleet and made her way to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

That first week of December she had been on maneuvers all week, practicing gunnery and night actions. She had returned to Pearl and was assigned to Dock 1010, the usual berth of the battleship Pennsylvania. It was this unexpected dock assignment that would put her in the bomb sights of the attacking Japanese planes, as their priority was to wipe out the battleships first.

Charles was laying in his bunk when the call to general quarters sounded. At first he couldn't believe that the alarm was real. After all, it was Sunday. No exercises were scheduled. But then, surely no one would be playing a joke, either. And then the announcement came over the intercom: "Japanese planes bombing Ford Island. Man all battle stations. Break out service ammunition." The time was 0757. "I rushed to my battle station," Charles said. "I was an ammo bearer for the 5-inch guns. My station was in the very bottom of the ship in the magazine. I wasn't on station for even one minute when a Japanese torpedo hit the boiler room 18 feet below the water line."

Water came pouring in. Instantly the power failed over the entire ship. Crew members were rushing to their battle stations in the dark. No gun could load or fire. The smoke was so intense that gas masks had to be worn by the engineers to get the ship fighting. Working quickly, the engineers had the auxiliary power running within a few minutes. The crew quickly secured the water-tight doors and kept the ship afloat. With the power restored, the Helena began returning a heavy volume of anti-aircraft fire. That day the Helena's 5-inch guns would fire 375 70-pound shells at the incoming Japanese planes.

When the attack was over, 34 of Helena's sailors had lost their lives and 69 were wounded. Both Charles and Ernest escaped unharmed.

Helena returned to the states for repairs. The Kelley brothers remained on Pearl Harbor to work until the Helena was returned to duty in August 1942. Again the Helena would be in the thick of the action as she was attached to the Task Force built around the carrier Wasp. Helena would be involved in several actions with the Wasp. Then on Sept. 15, 1942 Wasp was hit by three torpedoes and became an instant inferno. The Helena rescued 400 of her sailors.

Her next battle came on the night of Oct. 11, 1942. The Helena and three other cruisers, plus five destroyers, engaged three Japanese cruisers and six destroyers, in what would be called the Battle of Cape Esperance. Cape Esperance is located on the northern corner of the island of Guadalcanal. This U.S. Navy victory would stop the Japanese from reinforcing their army on the Island of Guadalcanal. The Helena sank the Japanese Cruiser Furutaka. For this action the Helena was the first Navy ship to receive the Naval Unit Commendation.

The Helena and the Kelley boys would continue to be involved in several other engagements with the enemy. But a pivotal engagement came in the early morning hours of July 6, 1943. The battle that occurred on Kula Gulf would be a U.S. victory, but it would also mark the end of the Helena and almost mark the end of both brothers. The Helena, two more cruisers and four destroyers were returning to the Coral Sea to replenish fuel and ammunition when they ran into 10 Japanese destroyers. At 0157, the U.S. forces opened up on the Japanese. Because Helena had expended all of her flashless powder (used in night actions to conceal the muzzle blast from the enemy), she had to use smokeless powder, the flash of which illumined her for the Japanese gunners. The Japanese fired four torpedoes at her. Three hit their marks, cutting the ship in three pieces. Two pieces sank quickly. Charles was at his battle station, and he rushed to the topside to get off and away from the rapidly sinking section of ship he was on. His brother, in another section of the ship, was blown into the air as a fourth torpedo passed underneath him and the ship. It did not explode, saving Ernest's life. Within 22 minutes the two sections of the ship the Kelley boys were on would sink. At first, Charles and another seaman were swimming together to get away from the sinking ship's suction. The battle was raging all around them. About midday a motor launch came alongside. It had room for only one of them, and Charles was left behind. What Charles thought would be only an hour's wait for rescue turned into three long days. The battle carried ships away from him, and Charles drifted with a group of sailors who joined him throughout the night and next day. Sharks arrived on the scene, and a sailor advised Charles to be perfectly still. He was, and after awhile the sharks left. The sun was blazing hot. They had no water or food. Charles began to hallucinate, dreaming about the banquets that he had often prepared for the officers. Finally, on July 9, he was rescued. After his rescue he received the good news that his brother had also survived.

This time the boys were split up. Charles was assigned to a brand-new ship, the U.S.S. Houston (CL-81). Her shakedown cruise began Feb. 1, 1944. She arrived in the Pacific in May 6, 1944. She would participate in the "Great Mariana's Turkey Shoot," which was the greatest aircraft carrier battle of World War II. The Houston would help destroy four attacking Japanese aerial formations.

After shelling Okinawa, the Houston, as part of Task Force 38, proceeded to Formosa to destroy the Japanese Air Force there. It proved to be a major victory for the U.S. Navy. However, in this action, the Houston was torpedoed, and Charles Kelley again found himself floating in the water, this time off the coast of Taiwan. Fortunately, it was only for two hours, as the captain and a skeleton crew were able to keep the ship afloat. The ship was towed to port for repairs. Because her damage was substantial and because the West Coast repair facilities were already full of damaged ships, the Houston was taken all the way back to New York City for repairs. Charles landed in a naval hospital for awhile and was never in combat again. He was mustered out of the Navy in 1946. His brother Ernest also survived the war.

Charles went on to work for the U.S. government as an electronics technician. He married, had a large family, and today you can still see him on almost any day of the week, driving his van to the store, the bank or to church. He is enjoying excellent health, and lives with his family in Monroe. Even though he is just five months short of 100 years old, he walks without any hint of difficulty, and his mind is sharp. Ernest, 96, made good as a real estate salesman in Atlanta, Georgia, where he continues to live at his home as well.

- Steven D. Owen is pastor of Liberty Baptist in Monroe. He lives in Orangeville.