Ken Harbaugh tells the stories of service members who have distinguished themselves through an act of valor. These stories feature recipients from the Civil War to present day, including a few who were originally overlooked for the medal.
Surviving a Rocket: Lt. Comdr. Thomas Gunning Kelly
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Lieutenant Commander Thomas Gunning Kelly served in Vietnam as a river assault division commander. Even after a rocket rendered him temporarily blind and unable to walk, he successfully directed his division’s defense of a vulnerable boat until the threat was gone.
Welcome to the Medal of Honor podcast, brought to you in partnership with the National Medal of Honor Museum. I’m Ken Harbaugh. In each episode, we’ll learn about a different service member who has distinguished him or herself through an act of valor.
Thomas Gunning Kelly was born on May 13th, 1939 in Boston, Massachusetts. In his senior year at College of the Holy Cross, he followed the lead of his friends and joined the Navy.
He was originally stationed off the coast of Vietnam, away from combat. In 1969, he volunteered for the River Assault Division, a more dangerous assignment that would put him in the middle of the action.
On June 15th, 1969, then Lieutenant Kelly was leading a group of eight boats as they ferried soldiers from one part of the Ong Muong Canal to another. As they stopped to pick up another group of soldiers on the canal bank, one boat’s loading ramp experienced mechanical failure, and wouldn't raise back into place. With the ramp lowered, the boat couldn’t depart without taking on water. The entire crew lended a hand to manually raise the ramp, but this was a laborious process, and they were sitting ducks.
Seeing their opportunity, hidden Vietcong soldiers opened fire at the boat from across the canal. Lieutenant Kelly ordered the other boats to form a protective circle around the vulnerable crew, and put his boat directly in the enemy’s line of fire to protect his men. Suddenly a rocket shot out from the trees and hit the side of Kelly’s boat, breaking the armor plating and exploding just six inches from Kelly himself. He was immediately thrown back and fell a few feet down a chute. He heard one of his men say he was dead over the radio, but Kelly, still holding onto his own radio, said “No I’m not”.
Temporarily blind and unable to walk, Kelly continued to direct the defense of his division over the radio. His speech was difficult to interpret due to his injuries, but another soldier understood his instructions and helped relay them to the rest of the men.
Eventually a Navy Corpsmen from another boat named Richard Nelson hopped aboard and provided first aid to Kelly under heavy fire. Kelly refused evacuation and continued directing the defense until the fire from the other side of the canal stopped.
Kelly was airlifted to a field hospital where his wounds were treated. He suffered several skull fractures, and he lost his right eye, but he survived. Kelly credits Nelson with saving his life.
On May 14th, 1970, one day after his birthday, Lieutenant Commander Thomas Gunning Kelly was presented the Medal of Honor for his strength and leadership.
After his injuries, the Navy deemed Kelly unfit for service, but he was determined to stay. He served another 21 years, and later worked at the Pentagon.
The Medal of Honor podcast is a production of Evergreen Podcasts.
Nathan Corson is our executive producer and mixing engineer, Declan Rohrs is our associate producer, scriptwriter, and recording engineer, and I’m Ken Harbaugh.
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