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NEWS | June 9, 2010

Local Sailor looks back at the Battle of Midway Island

By Eric Sesit Naval Weapons Station Charleston Public Affairs

Editor's Note: At last count, the Navy has on file the names of 292 survivors of the Battle of Midway. Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with one naval aviator whose introduction to war began as a 22-year-old Ensign and ended more than 20 years later after accumulating more than 7,500 hours of flight time, the Distinguished Flying Cross and two Navy Air medals.

When you meet Thomas McKelvey, he appears to be just another senior citizen, living his days out in peace and quiet in a comfortable house in Charleston, S.C. He is 90 years old and quickly approaching 91. His handshake is firm, his eyes are clear and he walks unaided by a cane or walker. Yet it is his mind that will impress you.

He has an amazing recollection of the events surrounding Pearl Harbor, Midway and World War II. And when some of the details get a little blurry, which is understandable for anyone trying to remember events from 70 years ago, he turns to his tattered photo albums, each black and white image clearly marked with the names of his shipmates and friends that he met during his career.

He grew up in Monck's Corner. He remembers the area before engineers dammed the river and made the Santee lakes. "I spent two and a half years at the University of South Carolina before going into the Navy. I was sent to Pensacola where I learned to fly and was assigned to VP-23, a squadron that flew the PBY or sea-plane which was used for surveillance and rescues at sea."

Mr. McKelvey joined his squadron on Ford Island in Pearl Harbor about two weeks before the surprise attack of Dec. 7, 1941.
"I was in the [officers' quarters] when the first attack wave hit battleship row. By the time we got out of the building, the second wave was strafing our planes, circling around our barracks and hangars at about 800 feet. After the attack, out of 12 planes in our squadron, only three were still able to fly."

In the weeks following the attack, Mr. McKelvey's squadron was assigned patrol duties, flying 800 nautical miles every day. "Those were long days. I was a co-pilot then and we flew 12-hour missions looking for any signs of the Japanese," he said.

In mid-May of 1942, VP-23 aircraft flew to Midway Island. It's a well-known story how American code-breakers were able to decipher the Japanese messages marking Midway as the next point of attack.

"I attended a briefing a week before the June 4 attack ... We knew the attack was coming and knew that it would probably be from the north-northwest and that a land invasion would come in from the west. We already had three 200 miles east of Midway ready to spring the surprise attack. All we had to do was find the Japanese fleet, he said.

"As we took off from Midway on June 3, I clearly saw a periscope outside the reef. We were under strict orders not to attack any subs as the waters were filled with enemy and U.S. subs and we couldn't be sure if they were friendly or not. It's hard to identify a submarine by its periscope," Mr. McKelvey continued. "I can't be 100 percent certain, but I believe we found out that the periscope I spotted belonged to the submarine that later torpedoed the Yorktown."

The outcome of the Battle of Midway resulted in the sinking of four of the six Japanese carriers that attacked Oahu on Dec. 7, 1941. The Japanese lost more than 100 pilots and more than 700 trained aircraft mechanics whose technical expertise could not easily be replaced. The U.S. lost the carrier Yorktown and the destroyer Hammann, but the losses to the Japanese fleet ultimately turned the tide of the war.

"When the battle was over, we spent the next several days scouting for downed friendly aircraft," said Mr. McKelvey. The first day we spotted a pilot and gunner floating in a raft. We landed on the water and picked them up. Eight days after the attack, we were still pulling survivors out of the water. We picked up one [dive bomber] crew that had been on a raft for eight days; no shade, no water, no food and very sunburned, but other than that, they were in pretty good shape. They were really glad to see us."

When it was all said and done, 29 downed naval aviators, mostly from the initial wave of dive bombers that attacked the Japanese fleet, were rescued by VP-23 PBY aircraft.

Mr. McKelvey went on to see extended duty in the South Pacific eventually receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross and two Air Medals for his service. But that didn't end his time in the cockpit. After the end of the war, he found himself in Europe, this time flying supplies into Germany as part of the Berlin Airlift.

Mr. McKelvey remained on active duty until the early '60s, retiring as a commander.
After retiring, his life turned in numerous directions. He flew for a charter company out of Las Vegas, worked for the Atomic Energy Commission, supervised the building of industrial warehouses and worked in real estate before ending up at the personnel department at the Medical University of South Carolina.

The only time McKelvey became emotional was when he spoke of the love of his life, Margaret, whom he married in 1968. She was his constant companion for the last four decades, but sadly, Margaret passed away in February 2010.

"She loved to spend her time fishing with me," Mr. McKelvey said. "I really miss her."

Mr. McKelvey now spends his time quietly at home. His days of glory during World War II are written in history books for future generations, but many of those books will never be completed. They will lack the names of the comrades and brothers-in-arms who lived and fought and died together.

"We still have reunions once in a while ... Unfortunately, there just aren't that many of us still around. Those of us who are still here, well, I was unable to travel to the last reunion. Many of us are just too old or too sick to take long trips," he said.

"We were young back then. I don't remember getting scared when the bombs started falling. All I knew was that I loved to fly and we had a job to do, and we did it."