This Memorial Day, The Story About My Dad’s Death In Vietnam Gained A New Chapter

Marine portrait of Michael John Kelly
PFC Michael John Kelly (1948-1968)

Memorial Day is for remembering those who served who didn’t make it back home alive. We honor their sacrifice.

Millions of people have just as many stories about their lost loved ones. For years I believed one story about what happened when my father was killed. Only recently I found out what I knew wasn’t the whole story.

My father, Michael John Kelly, was killed in action on February 15th 1968 in Vietnam. His platoon was on patrol when it was ambushed. My Dad was on point and was killed instantly. I was only a month and a day old at time and never met him or knew him.

Growing up, I had been told that he had two funerals one in March and another in April of 1968. I was told that part of him was brought back in March and the Marines found the rest of his remains later. They have a saying in the Marines that they never leave anyone behind.

It was war and things like that happen where the family either gets back the whole body, part of a body, or nothing at all. We were lucky that even with a delay we had his whole body to bury in Maple Grove Cemetery. I visit his grave as often as I can when I return to Findlay. I even have a picture of it to look at when I think about him.

Grave Marker – Maple Grove Cemetery Findlay, Ohio

Flash forward to 2010 and I am contacted by a writer named Jack Wells. He served in Vietnam and now writes books and articles about the war.

He asked me if I knew about the Doom Patrol? I had not, so this is the story I was told:

When my Dad’s unit was ambushed, they tried to remove the dead and wounded while still in the firefight with the enemy. The tree cover was so thick they had to use baskets and straps to lift the wounded and dead up to hovering helicopters. The fight was so intense they then withdrew to an old bomb crater.

By then they were low on water and ammo. The area was still full of the enemy and the wounded had all been evacuated. The decision was made to leave my Dad’s body buried at the crater with the idea they would come back and get him at a later time and date.

Once the company returned to base, a battalion commander made the decision to have a volunteer group go back and get the body. Eight men from his company, Company C, volunteered and they planned to leave early the next morning so they would arrive near the crater at first light. They had little time to get the body because the area was scheduled for a B-52 carpet bombing soon. The Doom Patrol, as it became known, had to get in, get the body, and get out quickly.

According to a press release at the time, the Doom Patrol did the job and was able to recover my Dad’s remains and get it back to our family. The story was picked up by the news wires all over the country.

Jack Wells wrote about the Doom Patrol in an article in Leatherneck Magazine and was contacting me because he wanted to try and get some medals for members who retrieved the body. For some reason none had been handed out in 1968. I was able to give him as much information about our end of the events as I could. He sent me a copy of the article as well.

The story I had been told since I was a child was that the first funeral in March of 1968 buried my Dad’s leg as that was all the company was able to take out after the ambush. I wasn’t sure why his leg was separate from the body but learned later, through official records, that an enemy bullet had hit a grenade my Dad had on his belt and the explosion separated the leg from the body. The 2nd funeral was for the rest of remains that had been recovered around the time of the first funeral. The 2nd burial was in late April.

2nd funeral, April 1968 Findlay, Ohio

Before I finally learned the whole story from LtCol. Wells, I assumed that the Doom Patrol had recovered the remains for our 2nd funeral. I was not aware that his body had been left at the bomb crater during the original operation and the Doom Patrol had only recovered the leg that was buried in the first funeral.

There are probably people wondering why reports credited the Doom Patrol with recovering the remains when in fact only a leg was brought out. More than likely it was done to protect my family from the gruesome facts. In hindsight, that was probably the wrong thing to do but is done more often than people know during wartime. My Dad’s platoon leader wrote a letter to my Grandparents mentioning that the body was recovered probably for the same reason.

The facts that LtCol. Wells gave me about the Doom Patrol added an interesting twist to a story I thought I knew. The members of the patrol risked their lives and did what they could and should be recognized for that even if the facts don’t match the original story. If they hadn’t done what they did, we might not have had any remains to bury.

Then a few weeks ago I was contacted by Paul Semones who is a researcher. He asked if Michael John Kelly was my father and I said yes. He had a story to tell me and it was one that blew my mind.

Paul is working with a Vietnam vet, a Captain, who had been troubled about an incident that happened to him and his company in March of 1968. He was on a mission in the same area where my father was killed. Members of his company reported to their CO, the Captain, that they found a partly decomposed body of a marine in a bomb crater. The body had his dog tags and a name taped to his flak jacket. The body was missing a leg.

The Captain, a good Marine, radioed back to base and asked for a Medivac to recover the body. After a pause, the Tactical commander denied the helicopter and ordered the Captain to bury the body in place. He did as he was ordered but he and his company hated doing it.

Once back at base, the Captain and the company went to a higher authority about the dead Marine and was given the air assets to recover the body.

For 50 years the Captain couldn’t remember the name of the dead Marine or knew what happened to the body. Was he returned to his family? To add insult to injury he was accused of making a stink about it by contacting then Senator Robert Kennedy. As the Captain was processing out of the Marines, he was strongly advised to let the matter go and not to rock the boat.

The dead Marine who the Captain worked so hard to recover was my father, PFC Michael John Kelly.

What looks like an attempt by the Marine leadership to cover up the fact that the Doom Patrol hadn’t recovered all of the remains not only caused trouble for the Captain but everyone who was on the Doom Patrol or supported that mission. Those men had any medals requested rescinded. (According to service members who were there, the lack of medals was due more to heavy action in the area, the death of the company commander, and a backlog of paperwork. The fact remains no one on the Doom Patrol have been recognized for the operation.)

In researching this story, Mr. Semones had his local member of Congress look for my father’s file in the National Personnel Record Center in St. Louis. What was found also was a shocker.

My father had been in the service less than year (May 1967 to February 1968) yet his folder was 1 inch thick! There were letters written by members of his company and others complaining about how his remains were treated. The Secretary of the Navy was involved and so was the White House. At the top of that thick file was a personally written letter to Senator Robert Kennedy asking him to look into my father’s treatment. The letter was from a member of the Captain’s company.

In a memo dated May 1968, the Marine Corps gave the results of an internal investigation that confirmed the events as the Captain said they happened. The Doom Patrol only brought back a leg and the Tactical commander told the Captain to bury the remains to spare our family from having to have a 2nd funeral.

Also there was discussion by the leadership to not return the remains or to offer alternatives to returning the remains after they were recovered.

I actually think they wanted to take the heat off the PR campaign about the Doom Patrol. The military and government were losing the support of the public for the war by 1968. The Tet offensive had just happened and the military clung to any feel good positive story to publicize back home. They didn’t want to see egg on their face.

Either the Doom Patrol just happened to be a feel good story before they got back with the leg or someone in the brigade decided to omit the obvious fact from the papers knowing full well that the rest of PFC Kelly lay rotting in the bomb crater. The other view is again the military didn’t want to cause upset to my family.

Odds were that had the Captain’s company not come across my father’s body it might have been reduced to dust by the B-52 mission or even artillery shooting against the enemy in the area.

The whole story may never be completely known since some people directly involved have died. The paper records and personal narratives explain some of it. What I know now fills in a lot of the blanks for me helps me feel closer to a man I never knew.

If I could, I would personally thank the members of the Doom Patrol for their work. I hope that my part in discovering the truth helps the Captain and those who were under his command who never forgot about that body found in the crater and worked to make sure it got back to our family.

*Note* – This post was updated in July 2021 to make my feelings about the Doom Patrol and the issues surrounding the recovery of my Dad’s remains more clear. The big take away is I am not angry or upset that the Doom Patrol was honored for doing nothing more than bringing back a leg. They risked their lives just as the Captain’s company did in recovering the rest of my Dad’s remains. The Doom Patrol should be honestly honored for what they did. If I have any issues about the events, it is directed at the leadership at the time – from the people who promoted and disseminated a less than accurate report of the Doom Patrol’s operation, to the officer who ordered the Captain to bury my Dad in the crater, and those who discussed not returning the remains once they were recovered. Not causing further upset to my family might be a valid reason for omitting the facts but I disagree with that reasoning. — Doug