Corporal John Kelly, United States Marine Corps, Battle of Chosin, Korean War

This story was written by Ron Albers for Motts Military Museum and is reprinted here with permission.

John William Kelly (“Jack”) was born on November 17, 1930, at a tuberculosis sanitarium on Alum Creek Drive here in Columbus, Ohio, because his mother had TB. (Today Columbusites know of Maryhaven, a renowned addiction treatment center, which is on that same site.) Jack’s mother died when he was only three and a half years old, forcing Jack and his brother Lefty (who was eight years old) to move to Nightingale Cottage, a home for anywhere from 50 to 75 children whose parents had died of tuberculosis. During the last six months of their year-long stay there, they were joined by their younger sister, Pat, who was only two at the time. Research tells us that the Columbus Society for the Prevention and Control of Tuberculosis, a predecessor to the Breathing Association, was founded by Carrie Nelson Black in 1906. A visionary civic leader, she remained its president until her death in 1936. One of her programs, Nightingale Cottage, was a disease prevention and convalescent home for young children and was located on Brice Road in Columbus, Ohio. Patients were referred by the local children’s hospital, the university hospital, the district nursing association, private physicians, courts, and various health agencies. Nightingale Cottage was dedicated in 1931 and demolished in 1973.

The remainder of Jack and his siblings’ childhood was spent living on the west side of Columbus on Hague Avenue. They lived with their father, Floyd Kelly, and various stepmothers. (Jack says his father married at least five more times after his mother died.) When Floyd wasn’t married, their grandparents raised them. They went to West Broad Elementary and both West Junior and Senior High schools, where Jack graduated in January of 1949. Through all twelve years of school, they pretty much attended with the same group of classmates. Interesting to note at this point is that Jack grew up with Glenn Thompson, who was his next door neighbor; and the two of them played a lot of ball together. (You may recall that Glenn was featured in “From the Trenches” a couple of issues ago for his heroism in the Korean War. Glenn had quit school and in April of 1948 enlisted in the active duty Navy and was assigned as a medic with the USMC.)

While playing high school football, Jack was kicked in the mouth and lost a couple of teeth. (Of course, back then, they had no faceguards.) Lucky for him, the coach told him that, for the first time ever that year, the school provided medial insurance to cover such injuries. Without that coverage, Jack’s family could not have afforded a dentist to repair the damage. Because of a lack of dental care while growing up, Jack had already lost a couple of other teeth in his upper plate. He fondly remembers the dentist telling him that it would cost the same to replace those few teeth as it would to pull all of his upper teeth and make him dentures. So Jack went with the latter option. The Cost? $52! So, while still a teenager, Jack wore dentures.

In September of 1948 about a dozen players from the West HS football team enlisted in the Marine Reserves, because they knew that they had basketball and softball teams and were impressed with the sharp warm-up jackets they had. At the time, such Marine Reserve unit members were not required to go to boot camp like regular Marines. Instead they only had two weeks of summer camp, and they met two hours every week for training. In the summer of 1949 Jack went to Camp Lejeune for two weeks of training. He and his unit were scheduled to train there again in 1950, but in June the Korean War began, and Marine Reserve units were going to be activated. (There was no draft for the Korean War.)

Jack’s unit (C Company, 7th Infantry Battalion) left by train from Ft. Hayes here in Columbus on September 4, 1950. When they arrived at Camp Pendleton, California, they were divided into three groups – Combat Ready, Need Training, and Boot Camp. Placed in the Need Training group, Jack trained for just over four weeks before boarding a ship for Japan on October 15. Upon arrival there, he spent 15 days before boarding another ship and landing at Wonson, Korea. Jack was then moved to Hamhung and Hagaru-Ri, where he was assigned to E Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment. Although every bit of his training in the Reserves and California had been in machine guns, Jack was given an M1 Garand rifle and made a rifleman in “Easy” Company.

Jack’s foxhole partner was Bill Voorhees, and they dug foxholes all the way from Hagaru to just north of Yudam-Ni. Bill was from Toledo, Ohio, and a member of the Marine Reserve unit there. A strange coincidence occurred once while they were digging a foxhole. They had found a big piece of wood, perhaps a door, which they wanted to incorporate as more shelter from the elements. When they lifted it from the spot where it lay, they found something truly baffling under it. It was an “eversharp” pencil with the words engraved on the side, “Oak Grove Tavern, Mansfield, Ohio. Because that would be located halfway between their home towns, they vowed to visit there when they returned to Ohio. (Years later, Jack did visit there. It’s still open under the same name today.) On their march north, Jack “celebrated” his 20th birthday, and on Thanksgiving Day Easy Company ended up on Hill1282. On the night of November 27th, a Chinese regiment attacked Hill 1282. The temperature was thirty degrees below zero. Although Bill and Jack survived the first attack, they ended up low on ammunition and grenades; so Jack worked his way down the hill to get some more. This was Jack’s first combat experience, but Bill had been in earlier battles at Inchon. It was Bill who suggested that Jack depart, so Jack took the advice of his more-experienced comrade. (That was the last thing he knew about Bill. It was only at a Chosin Few convention years later that he learned that Bill was killed on Hill 1282 that night during four more attacks conducted by the enemy.) As Jack was headed down for the needed ammo, there was a blast that knocked him out cold. When he came to his senses, he realized that his upper denture had been blown away. Another Marine apparently saw him staggering and came to his aid. (Years later, at a company reunion, Jack and his fellow Marines figured that it was a concussion hand grenade that caused his injury, because the Chinese had been throwing them often during their attack that night.)

I have written earlier about one of our museum members, MSgt John Mitchell, who survived the bloodiest battle of the Korean War near the Chosin Reservoir, where the Marines were surrounded by probably 120,000 Chinese and forced to retreat back down a single road with no cover in blizzard conditions with temperatures often hitting minus forty degrees. (At that temperature, Centigrade and Fahrenheit are the same.) Yudam-Ni and Hill 1282 are in the far northern part of that infamous road. Jack and Easy Company became members of the “Chosin Few,” and suffered the full distance and experience of that horrific battle.

By the time Jack made it back to Sudong with his brutal wound, his feet were so frozen that he could no longer walk; and he was having blackout spells, probably from the loss of blood. To this day he still has problems with his hands and feet due to the frostbite. It was so cold that plasma or any liquid needed for treatment would freeze, rendering it useless; and medics were forced to wear heavy mittens that prevented them from giving the type of treatment needed. Morphine shots were often kept in medics’ mouths to prevent freezing. Anyway, from Sudong, Jack was evacuated by ambulance to Hungnam and then by boat, ship, and plane to Yokosuka Naval Hospital in Japan. After about two months of treatment and recovery there, Jack was flown to Oak Knoll Naval Hospital in Oakland, California. Although the treatment of his serious battle wound was fairly successful, Jack continued to have blackouts. After numerous tests, exams, and treatments, the Navy medical professionals decided to medically retire Marine Corporal Jack Kelly on August 1, 1951.

Of the Charlie Company Marine reservists from Columbus, many were in combat less than three months after boarding the train at Ft. Hayes. Most never had boot camp. Five were K.I.A. Forty five earned Purple Heart medals. Many others were awarded Silver and Bronze Star medals. As for Jack’s unit in Korea, E Company, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division, participants in the battle on Hill 1282, there were two Marines awarded the Medal of Honor and five Navy Cross recipients. Sadly, of the 176 Easy Company Marines who marched onto Hill 1282 on November 27, 1950, only 30 could march off the following afternoon. In the entire epic battle of the Chosin Reservoir that began on November 27th, the approximately15,000 Marines and allied troops suffered about 12,000 casualties – including more than 3,000 K.I.A., 6,000 wounded in action and thousands more suffering from frostbite. It has been documented that the Chinese suffered more than 45,000 casualties, in spite of the fact that they had strategic advantage and eight times the manpower. The bitter battle lasted 15 grueling days and nights, ending only when our troops arrived back at Hungnam on December 11.

Very soon after returning to Columbus, Jack accepted a week-long temporary job to replace a guy who had gone on vacation. When the man never returned, Jack was hired full-time at United Refrigeration where he worked a variety of jobs from technician to dispatcher to company officer, retiring in 1994 after 43½ years on the job. Jack had met his bride-to-be, Wanda, in February of 1950, before being activated; and they were married in June of 1954. Their three children (Terry, Tammy, and Erin) have given them the joy of four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren (with a sixth on the way.) During his retirement years, Jack still enjoyed playing softball and basketball. He even played in an Over-70 softball league.

Jack has been active in the Chosin Few Inc, American Legion, Military Order of the Purple Heart, AMVETS, DAV, VFW, and other military and veterans’ organizations. He and Wanda are proud members of our museum. Until recently the Kellys lived a couple of blocks from his friend of 80 years, Glenn Thompson; and they remain close friends. A few years ago, they moved into a new condo in a suburb of Columbus, and they are now enjoying the retirement life they have so rightfully earned. We are honored to have them as members of our museum family.



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