Archive for Thursday, May 8, 2003

Legislature honors veteran

May 8, 2003

For Harry Kelley, a scar running down the middle of his chest exemplifies how he lives his life -- wounded deeply but heart still strong.

Kelley, a Basehor resident and World War II veteran, knows about life struggles. Held by the Japanese as a prisoner of war for 3 1/2 years, he knows even more about overcoming them.

His heart, about the only thing his Japanese captors couldn't beat, torture or starve, drove him to survive the Burmese jungle. It fueled him day after day as the enemy used him and other prisoners for slave labor to build the 250-mile Burmese-Thailand Railway, or what's most commonly referred to as the Bridge over the River Kwai.

It's the same heart that allowed him to keep his promise to return home; the same organ that caused him to fall in love with his wife, Audrey, and the same muscle that ached when he talked about his captivity.

"I worked for 32 years on the railroad and no ever knew I was a prisoner of war," Harry said. "I never really cared to talk about it."

His wife agreed.

"He never used to want to talk about it," Audrey Kelley said.

But as the years lengthened since Kelley's horrific ordeal, his wall of silence eventually broke down.

When his story was told and retold, word spread quickly and accolades and recognition came pouring in. During the past several years, Kelley's been honored by everyone from the United States Post Office to the Chinese embassy.

"All of the sudden it's like a blooming flower," he said.

On Friday, May 2, Kelley, one of just 60 survivors from the U.S.S. Houston, was honored on the floor of the Kansas legislature in Topeka. His shipmate, Bill Stewart of Independence, Kan., was also honored.

Both men received certificates of recognition and legislators stood and applauded the veterans for nearly five minutes.

For most, a comparison between the Burmese jungle and Legislature wouldn't apply, but for Kelley, ceremonies such as Friday's always bring back a piece of those tumultuous years in captivity.

A downed ship

Kelley joined the Navy July 29, 1940, at the age of 19. For the teen-ager who grew up farming, the allure of the sea proved overwhelming.

His first station was aboard the U.S.S. Yorktown. The ship, based at Pearl Harbor, was out of port on Dec. 7, 1941, the day Japanese fighters attacked.

He later volunteered for the Houston, a ship in the Asiatic fleet. The Houston wouldn't prove as fortunate as the Yorktown.

On March 1, 1942, the second day of the Battle of the Java Sea, Japanese torpedoes sank the battleship.

Three-hundred and sixty eight men got off the Houston that night. More than 700 lost their lives.

"That's 700 there and most of them were young kids," Kelley said.

Kelley swam the ocean for 11 hours before a Japanese ship picked up him and 20 of his shipmates.

'Death Railway'

Now a prisoner, Kelley was first taken to the island of Java. There, the Japanese tied prisoners to ammunition carts and made them haul around the trolleys.

"We couldn't escape," he said.

Later the prisoners were taken to the most hellish destination any of them would ever know, the Burmese jungle. For the next three years, prisoners were routinely beaten and tortured and subjected to tropical diseases.

The slightest infractions by prisoners brought swift, severe punishment from the Japanese.

The prisoners were used as slave labor to build Japan's most daring engineering project of the day, the Burmese-Thailand Railway.

Many died while held captive.

"I buried 133 men," Kelley said.

Others starved.

"I weighed 93 pounds," Kelley said. "I don't know how anyone could take the brutality and starvation that we did."

Coming Home

Before leaving for the service, Kelley promised he would return home.

"When I left Kansas City in 1940, I told everybody I would be back," he said.

When the war ended in 1945, Kelley was released and sent home, fulfilling his promise. More than 100 of his shipmates weren't so lucky.

Kelley spent a year in the hospital back home, recovering from malaria, dysentery and a collapsed lung.

At the hospital, Kelley would meet his wife, Audrey. Four days after he was released from the hospital, they married.

Kelley doesn't allow his mind to venture back to those days much anymore.

Occasionally, he'll tell his tale to high school students during a presentation on World War II because it's important they realize "what older people did to keep this country free."

Other times, memories come flooding back when he sees modern prisoners of war on television returning home.

"We landed in New York and there wasn't a damn soul to meet us," he joked, "but I'm glad to see them back OK."

At the Kelleys' home on 155th Street in Basehor, walls are decorated with pictures, plaques and other awards honoring the decorated veteran. Countless service medals are stored away for safekeeping.

"(Audrey) keeps all that stuff," Harry said.

Although others keeping calling him a hero, Harry Kelley insists his tale isn't one of heroism but more of survival.

"Sometimes I say 'why me,'" he said. "But anyway, I'm still here."

Commenting has been disabled for this item.