Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Legend of Doug Kelley

The Legend of Doug Kelley
By Hans Zeiger
(A version of this article appeared in the Puyallup Herald on January 7, 2009)

We mustn’t forget the greatest daredevil who ever called Puyallup home. His name was Talbot Douglas Kelley, but in the 1930s, “Doug” was enough for anyone to know that something very dangerous was going on in town.

Doug would hop on his motorcycle and drive to a straightaway, and then, hurtling down the avenue, would draw up his feet onto the seat and come into a standing position. The neighbors grew worried as they saw him pass by their front porch on a summer’s evening, standing on his motorcycle like Evel Knievel before his time. This feat of acrobatics was a regular subject for town discussions about public safety, as were Doug’s flying habits.

In the age of Lindbergh, Doug Kelley aspired to greatness in the sky. He took up flying in his teen years, saving his money from a job delivering telegrams and special mail to pay for lessons and plane rentals. Taking off from the little airstrip along the river, he would come down low over his girlfriend’s house in the Riverside area, buzzing in for a noisy greeting. “He did things our parents shuddered at,” his classmate Frank Hanawalt recalls. “We all thought it was great.”

Some say that Doug once flew a small plane beneath the Puyallup River Bridge at the Meridian crossing. Others call this a myth. “He was always pulling something,” said his friend Earl White. “He was a pretty darn nice guy on top of it.”

After graduation from Puyallup High School in 1939, Doug joined the Royal Canadian Air Force. Though America would not be at war for another two and a half years, Doug’s ambitions for glory transcended the national border as well as the ground. With training, Lt. Kelley was off to England for the Battle of Britain. He commanded a night-fighter in the Nazi-laden sky over London in the fateful summer of 1940—and survived. Nearly a fifth of the 3,000 allied flyers in the Battle of Britain were killed.

With Doug Kelley, it was the enemy that had to worry, said Jackson Granholm, Kelley’s high school chemistry lab partner and later a navigator on bombing raids over Germany with the Eighth Army Air Force. “Knowing what a tough cookie and a wild man Kelley was, I felt sorry for the German air-crews,” Granholm wrote in his 2000 memoirs.

After the U.S. entered the war, Lt. Kelley returned home and went to work for Uncle Sam. The Army Air Corps assigned him to lead advanced air training at an air base in Florida. After months of teaching his craft to the rising generation of flyers, Kelley was apparently restless. He wanted to get back into the action of war. His request for transfer to the South Pacific was granted.

In October 1943, Doug came home to Puyallup on furlough. His brother Jack, a field artilleryman then stationed at Fort Ord, was also home. For the two brothers and their mother Florence, it was the first time their little family had been together for three years. And it would be their last.

In December, Lt. Kelley flew over the Pacific in a P-38 or a P-70 to join up with the 419th Night Fighter Squadron under the Thirteenth Air Force newly arrived at Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. The 419th went to Guadalcanal to reinforce the 6th Night Fighter Squadron, Detachment B, which had been flying P-38 and P-70 patrols in the area since February. The P-70s flew best under 10,000 feet, only half the altitude of the Japanese bombers. When the superior P-38s were brought to Guadalcanal, the difficulty of spotting enemy planes in the dark of night from an altitude of 30,000 feet made it nearly impossible to intercept the Japanese until ground crews turned searchlights onto the offending bombers.

At this rate, Detachment B could claim only one kill for each of the two types of aircraft by the time the 419th arrived in the fall. Meanwhile, Japanese Zero bombers inflicted serious damage on U.S. targets at Guadalcanal.

On his night mission of January 10, 1944, Lt. Kelley’s plane went down in the Pacific. He was reported as MIA. Florence Kelley learned that her son was missing a few weeks later. But of course, in Doug’s business, MIA in the Pacific almost certainly meant the worst.

Aboard a destroyer escort in the Pacific, Frank Hanawalt received a letter from his mother with news of Doug’s death. “My mother wrote to me that he had been killed by a Japanese Zero and that it was speculated that the type of flying between the European and South Pacific theater was different and that he hadn’t quite adapted to it yet.”

Doug’s high school classmate Essey Faris playfully imagined him crash-landing on a remote Pacific Island and soon “setting up a kingdom.”

But if anyplace deserved Doug for royalty, it was our own daffodil frontier. Lt. Doug Kelley, who lived and died dangerously, should never be forgotten here.

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