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A rededication like no other
The stadium located on the Screven County High School campus over the years has hosted several notable events like the senior class graduations and the state football championship in 2002.
On Saturday night, however, the stadium extended a welcome home to a friend who has been unified with the venture for 50 years.
Kelly Memorial Stadium was rededicated for American hero U.S. Army Maj. Charles Kelly Aug. 23 as the heat index outside hovered in the triple digits during the evening hours of the event. The tribute to the namesake of the stadium included the unveiling of a new monument at the main entrance and a ceremony on the football field before the SCHS Gamecocks played the Islanders from St. Johns, S.C.
The Gamecocks would win the game 48-0 behind a powerful rushing attack and a stingy defense. The Screven County community and the nation as a whole already were the winners for having Kelly as a part of it.
Charles Kelly Jr. and his sisters Carol Kelly Dorn and Barbara Kelly Howerton were on hand Saturday as their father was memorialized for his patriotism. In the 1940s, Kelly Sr. lied about his age to enter World War II when he was 15 and then in the 1960s re-entered the military during the Vietnam War to save the lives of others as an ambulance helicopter pilot.
In Vietnam, Kelly would save lives and also save Dustoff, which, thanks to Kelly Sr., still exists today as the epitome of helicopter Aeromedical evacuation.
“It is an honor to be able to coach in a stadium that is named for such a great American and the other 11 men who died serving our Country during the Vietnam War,” said SCHS head football coach Ron Duncan. “Our players were again given the story of ‘Combat Kelly’ during our pregame meal and they were extremely touched.”
Kelly was killed in the Vinh Long Province of Vietnam July 1, 1964, fifty years ago last month. The stadium was first dedicated to Kelly Oct. 15, 1965. By his death, Kelly set the standard for future generations of Army Medical Evacuation pilots and crew members who volunteer to fly their unarmed helicopters into battle zones to save Americans.
The monument at the entrance to the stadium has a refurbished plaque and Kelly’s name on the front of the 5-foot granite with a Huey helicopter with a red-colored cross on the back side.
The two walkways up to the monument have engraved bricks with the names of individuals and groups. Among the engraved bricks already in place were members of the Kelly family; fellow graduates of Kelly from the Sylvania High School Class of 1947; and the other 11 soldiers from Screven County who perished in the Vietnam War.
The monument and an American flag at the site are illuminated with lights at night.
Engraved bricks may still be bought for $50 each as those proceeds will go toward the funding of the monument. To buy a brick, checks can be mailed to Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 7116 Commander Peter Mayer at 424 Runs Branch Road, Newington, GA 30446. Make the checks payable to the VFW post and denote the contribution in the lower left as “Maj. Charles Kelly Rededication.” Also include the name of names desired on the brick.
Brick applications are available at the Sylvania Telephone, VFW and local businesses. Individuals also may contact Mayer by phone at 912-266-1752 or via email at email@example.com.
“It was a wonderful ceremony honoring Maj. Kelly and all the veterans that help make it a success,” said Mayer, who served on the organizing committee for the event. “In spite of the weather conditions, it was a great turn out. Taps and all that were involved with the original color guard and the military made it a moving experience. Emotions were running high.”
With Gamecock football game announcer Ray Reynolds voice detailing Kelly’s life, approximately 65 Vietnam War veterans stood on the sidelines; 70 band members in full uniform were on the field; and the military presented the colors and had a firing party to honor Kelly with a 21-gun salute.
The extreme temperatures took its toll as the Kelly children’s aunt, Vietnam veterans and band members fainted from the heat. Each were treated for their symptoms.
Reynolds said Kelly was something special.
“It is always a pleasure to be a part of something that has such meaning and substance,” Reynolds said. “Many of us like to think we make a difference, but here was a man, with no question, that did and still continues to make that difference. I will always be proud to say, ‘Good evening ladies and gentlemen and welcome to Kelly Memorial Stadium.’”
The color guard was from the Hunter Army Airfield 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade. Additionally on the field were three members of the color guard from the original stadium dedication on Oct. 15, 1965 -- Ralph Beard, Donnie Mallard and Boykin Stuart.
The SCHS band performed “God Bless America” and the national anthem. The high school director of bands Justin Burke and drum major Darius Williams played “Taps.”
“It was a privilege honoring our country with music along side the active duty troops and veterans on the field,” Burke said. “I know our students will always remember being part of such a special event. Even in the tough conditions on the field, our band kids showed great discipline and no one complained about being out there.”
Prior to the monument unveiling and on-the-field ceremony, nearly 50 Kelly family members, soldiers, dignitaries, and individuals from the Friends of Maj. Charles Kelly Committee met for a dinner at R&D’s restaurant.
“I thought this was an amazing ceremony. Take away the extreme heat and everything went almost perfectly,” said Burton Kemp Jr., a member of the committee and SCHS social studies teacher for the past 36 years. “There were a lot of things that tugged at me -- the fact that the color guard and firing party were volunteers because of their unit’s connection to Maj. Charles Kelly. They were not professionals at these things. Another was the presence of more than 60 Vietnam veterans, some who came from as far away as Savannah to take part. I truly hope that this was meaningful to them.”
The color guard and firing party were members of Charlie Company of the 2-3 Aviation Regiment, active duty medics, crew chiefs, and flight dispatchers who serve in a modern-day version of Kelly’s 57th medical company. A few of the veterans in attendance came from South Carolina.
“I wish everyone could have heard Maj. Jason Jones’ unrehearsed speech at the dinner at R&D’s on his thoughts on Major Charles Kelly. They were amazingly heartfelt,” Kemp said.
Maj. Jason Jones commands Company C, 2nd Bn., 3rd Aviation Reg., the unit Kelly led in Vietnam, formerly the 498th Air Ambulance Company. Jones said he felt like he has been in Kelly’s “shoes” as Jones led his team into hostile territory and was able to get them out safely.
“It was an incredible honor to be a part of this dedication, and to provide the color guard and firing party,” Jones said. “Major Charles Kelly is more than a war hero, he was also the founder and pioneer of our noble profession, establishing standards and systems for MEDEVAC helicopters in Vietnam that we still use today in Afghanistan. He made a choice every day to risk his life to save others, and paid the ultimate price. Kelly’s story reminds us that MEDEVAC is a dangerous business, but that the rewards are priceless.
“We will never quit. We will never stop until we have your wounded,” Jones said. “I can completely identify with him going out on missions and then one day he did not come home. To come here and see his family, it brought goosebumps on me.”
Luis Carreras, Army Reserve Ambassador for Georgia, said it was impressive the ceremonies involved so many different groups to honor Kelly.
“It was such a great event for a great guy. You need to be very proud of what you did,” said Carreras, whose ambassador protocol standing to the Army is equivalent to a 2-Star general. “You did a wonderful job of letting the community be involved. He is a gentleman and he is something special. It was overwhelming to see a small community come together like this.
“This gave a history to current generations – especially to young people and making them think,” Carreras said of the unveiling and pregame rededication. “There are lots of heroes – policemen, firemen, newspaper reporters – in this world. He is a perfect hero.”
Carreras knows about heroes first-hand. He is on the board of directors for Honor Flight Savannah whose mission is to fly World War II veterans to Washington, D.C., so that they may visit the memorials built and dedicated to honor their sacrifices. Honor Flight Savannah recently extended its offer to additionally fly veterans of the Korean War.
“Wow. What an event!” said committee member Ron Elliott, public affairs director for Fort Stewart and Hunter Army Airfield. “Thank you and everyone there for letting me play a small role. Our soldiers from the Aviation Brigade were extremely honored to be a part of the ceremonies especially since Maj. Charles Kelly’s legacy is such a critical element of Army MEDEVAC operations.
“Personally, I was emotionally moved by the number of Vietnam veterans that
showed up for the ceremony,” Elliott said. “Some in wheelchairs, others walking with a limp or a cane as they stood in unity behind the monument and along the sidelines of the football field, you could see and feel their pride as they honored one of their brothers.”
Multiple presentations involving the school system, the city, and the Kelly family were made.
The pregame ceremony also included a 40-second in-stadium broadcast of the sound of a Huey flying and dubbed in voices from the ground to Kelly on his final mission. The audio including the sounds of gun fire striking the helicopter.
The U.S. Department of Defense recently began a 13-year commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War. With Saturday’s ceremonies, Screven County became part of that tribute to those who fought, who treated, and who rescued during that conflict.
On that day in July 1964, the home base of the 57th Medical Detachment stationed in the Vinh Long Province of South Vietnam received a call to send a Dustoff helicopter ambulance approximately 10 miles to pick up a wounded American military advisor and several wounded South Vietnamese soldiers. Kelly, the commander of the 57th; Dick Anderson his co-pilot; and two other crewmembers headed in their Huey Dustoff helicopter to pick up the wounded from what they believed to be a secure landing zone.
When Kelly arrived over the area, the helicopter immediately began receiving enemy fire and was told by an American ground advisor to leave. Kelly’s reply was “When I have your wounded.”
Only seconds later, Kelly’s next words on the radio were “My God” as he was dying from a single Viet Cong bullet shot that traveled through his heart. The Huey crashed and Kelly was the lone fatality.
Kelly’s reply of “When I have your wounded” became the battle cry of the crews of the medical helicopters of the 57th Medical Detachment. They all carried the call-sign Dustoff, an acronym for Dedicated Unhesitating Service to Our Fighting Forces.
The legacy of Kelly will remain strong through the pregame presentations.
On behalf of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 7116, Post Commander and District Commander Mayer presented a copy of Maj. General Patrick Brady’s Book “Dead Men Flying” to SCHS principal Brian Scott. The book will be placed in the SCHS media center.
Sylvania Mayor Margaret Evans presented the Kelly family a resolution enacted by the city to honor Kelly for his valiant service to his country and for the lasting advancements he made in the field of military medial service.
“I cannot begin to express my gratitude for having been a part of the rededication of Maj. Charles Kelly Memorial Stadium,” said an enthusiastic Evans. “It was a distinct honor and one of the highlights of my life.
“My sincere thanks to everyone involved, because without the invincible spirit evidenced throughout the planning and still present at the rededication service Saturday evening shown by the crowd of supporters, it would not have been the same,” Evans said. “The same spirit continued throughout the evening, evidenced by the Screven County High School band and football team. It was an awesome night and we were all blessed by it. We had a worthy cause and everyone recognized it.”
State Rep. Jon Burns from District 159 presented the Kelly family with a resolution enacted by the state of Georgia to honor Kelly for his bravery and acts of valor that saved the Dustoff units in Vietnam to enable them to become the greatest lifesaver in the history of warfare.
“Saturday night’s rededication of Kelly Memorial Field was an opportunity to remember a true American hero, who not only represented this community, but represented the best of America,” Burns said. “Charles Kelly’s selfless devotion to help his fellow man in the face of the greatest personal peril is an example of true love for our fellow man that we must all seek to exemplify. Recognizing and thanking other Vietnam War veterans present at the ceremony added to the importance of this memorial event. Thanks to all of those in the community who worked to make this remembrance possible. I am proud to be part of a community that continues to recognize the sacrifices of those who keep America free.”
“I was deeply moved to see how the community came together to honor a hero who was unknown to many, but whose memory will now be preserved for future generations; and to honor all Vietnam veterans,” said State Sen. Jesse Stone who stood with Burns during the presentation.
Kelly’s son Charles Kelly Jr. presented SCHS’s Scott with a copy of a poster of his father titled, “When I have your wounded.” The poster will be hung in the Kelly Memorial Stadium press box.
“I have been all over the country at events honoring the memory of my father and what he did as a soldier,” said Kelly Jr. “I have been to hall of fame inductions. I have been to the Pentagon for the debut of ‘When I Have Your Wounded.’ I have spoken to the 57th Medical Detachment, known as the ‘Originals’ of Dustoff and my father’s last command.
“But I have to say, the event [Saturday] was the most personal and memorable of anything I have ever seen said or done to honor my father,” Kelly Jr. said. “It was the town and people of Sylvania that he loved the most. It was his love of family, county and Sylvania that led him to his last command as a volunteer to go to Vietnam.
When Kelly Jr. attends events to pay tribute to his father, he carries the patch Maj. Kelly had on his clothing when he was shot down in 1964. The patch has stains from his father’s blood. Kelly Jr. had the patch with him Aug. 23 in Sylvania.
“To see the town come out in such numbers and to see his childhood friends there along with the current soldiers of Dustoff that carry his legacy into battle in the same place to honor my father was the most moving event for me that I have ever gone to,” Kelly Jr. said. “I was there as a 5-year-old child in October of 1965 when the stadium was first dedicated and my memories of that time are brief. To be there almost 50 years later and to see the remembrance of the town and school he loved played out there with such an overwhelming number and cross section of the three distinct parts of his life was a true blessing.
“His family was there, the Army that he loved was there, and the people of Sylvania that he gave his life for were there,” Kelly Jr. said. “My father would be so very proud of the town of Sylvania to remember him a half century later and I am as proud of Sylvania as I am of my father, an emotion that I cannot find words for. Again, I want to thank the committee that put this event together. It was an enormous amount of work and the planning and effort that went into it was detailed and meticulous. We may have had a couple of bumps in the road, as there were a lot of moving parts to this event, but it all came together at the end and I will always remember that Saturday evening at Charles Kelly Stadium.
“I may live in the Augusta area, but Sylvania has always been and will always be home to me,” Kelly Jr. said. “Thank you all for one of the most memorable times of my life. The Army takes care of its own and the town of Sylvania, Ga., has memorialized a man whose name I carry with more pride than you can imagine.”
Carol Kelly Dorn said the family loved spending time in Sylvania. She attended the Sylvania First Baptist Church the morning after the Saturday night game.
Dorn said that although she only lived in Sylvania for two and half years as a child, her family roots are in Screven County.
“I will always think of it as my hometown,” Dorn said.
The Kelly siblings met at the family house on South Main Street in Sylvania and reminisced. In the kitchen of the house is a fireplace. That would be the last place Barbara and Carol saw their father before he left for Vietnam in January 1964. Maj. Kelly was tending to the fire and appeared deep in thought according to his daughters.
The field at the high school has served as a lasting tribute to Kelly Sr.
“We would certainly like to thank the VFW and the city of Sylvania for all their hard work to make such a great event possible,” Scott said. “The ceremony honoring both Maj. Kelly and all the Vietnam veterans was excellent and well done. The monument at the entrance to the stadium is first class and is a great centerpiece for all people entering the stadium to enjoy.”
On behalf of the Kelly Family, Carol Kelly Dorn presented Screven County School Superintendent William Bland a framed copy of her portrait of her father. The portrait will hang inside the SCHS auditorium.
“I would like to thank the committee that worked so hard on this rededication and all their efforts to make this event a success,” Bland said. “I don’t think you will find a citizen of Screven County that has not heard of or been to an event at Kelly Memorial Stadium. Now, because of this rededication ceremony, they will truly understand how it got its name and the true impact of Maj. Kelly to Screven County and our country.”
Barbara Kelly Howerton said she and her husband Bruce were honored to attend the re-dedication of the stadium in honor of her father Maj. Kelly.
“To everyone involved in the conception, planning, and implementation of the event, thank you for your hard work,” Howerton said. “The statue is truly beautiful and the ceremony inspiring. Mayor Evans, thank you for your enthusiasm, vision, and communication with us throughout the planning process. The inclusion of Vietnam veterans, and active duty Dustoff crew members was very special and that so many others traveled to be there as well was very touching. Thank you all for coming.
“It was also great to see the Screven County High School Marching Band looking fabulous and marching with precision,” Howerton said. “The gathering at R&D’s Restaurant before the ceremony was relaxing and fun and gave us the opportunity to see old friends and family and meet new friends. The food was like Thanksgiving! Sylvania has always been a special place to my siblings and I, now even more so.
“Sylvania, thank you for remembering and honoring our father, he was our father but your son,” Howerton said.
“It was an honor to be invited to the Major Charles Kelly Rededication on Saturday,” said Allen Burns, executive director of the Coastal Regional Commission. “Maj. Kelly was a true hero and it was a privilege to be able to honor him and the Vietnam veterans who attended.”
Retired Army Col. Ben Knisely was a lieutenant when he was assigned to the 498th Air Ambulance Company in Vietnam. Though Knisely was not present for the ceremony, he summarized the evening with comments about his experience with Kelly.
“Charles Kelly is none other than a genuine national hero, and for the community to preserve his name and legacy is truly admirable, and the right thing to do,” Knisely said.
When Kelly served in the Vietnam War, he already was a military veteran. He joined the U.S. Army in February 1941, before Pearl Harbor at the age of 15.
He completed two years of high school; spent four and 1/2 years as a World War II combat medic; came back to Sylvania a decorated soldier; went back to finish high school; and was elected the Sylvania High School 1947 senior class president.
Kelly then enrolled at Georgia Southern College as he obtained his masters degree in teaching and became a high school principal in Warm Springs, Ga. He would stay in that position for only a year as he had another calling.
He rejoined the military as an officer and learned to fly helicopters.
Kelly throughout the years has been immortalized for his passion for his role in the war and devotion to his country. Along with Sylvania’s stadium graced with his name, other facilities are named in his honor outside Screven County like the Army heliport at Fort Sam Houston in Texas. Kelly also has received tributes in literature.
Kelly “set a standard for excellence that was both monumentally and memorably unmatched in the annals of life saving,” wrote retired Medal of Honor recipient Maj. General Patrick Brady in his book “Dead Men Flying.” “He is most remembered for his physical courage in combat life-saving, but it was his moral courage that saved Dustoff, the greatest lifesaver the battlefield has ever known. Thanks to Kelly, a soldier on a battlefield in Vietnam had a greater chance of survival than a civilian in an accident on a highway in America. Kelly and Dustoff contributed immeasurably to the great fighting spirit of the Viet Nam warrior.”
Brady has called Kelly’s death “the most productive U.S. combat death ever.”
In a book entitled “A Gift of Love” that was published for McCall’s in 1966, Gen. William C. Westmoreland, the commander of all U.S. armed forces in Vietnam, was asked to contribute a piece. The book contained seven stories of kindness, courage and concern.
Of all the soldiers he could have selected, Westmoreland decided to write about Kelly.
“I chose an action involving a man of mercy on a mission in the flat, rich Mekong Delta region of South Vietnam,” Westmoreland penned. “A living legend.
“To every American in the delta, he was the voice of mercy and a link to the outside world,” Westmoreland wrote. “The Maj. Kellys have given America more than they have taken from her. And they are still giving, for when the going gets rough and an extra ounce of effort is needed, Maj. Kelly’s last words still shine brightly ‘When I have your wounded.’”
Kelly sought to expand the role of medical helicopters. He wanted them to have the right to fly at night and fly into fire. His death by an enemy’s single bullet in July 1964 is believed to have enabled those role expansions to occur and save lives in the process.
The use of medical helicopters grew from five to more than 300 at the height of the Vietnam War. Approximately 250 such helicopters followed troops into Operation Desert Storm in Iraq. Kelly’s philosophy was “We fly anywhere, anytime.”
His words “When I have your wounded” set the standard and example for generations of Dustoff crews.
Affectionately nicknamed “Crazy Kelly” or “Combat Kelly,” he earned numerous medals and badges including the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star Medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star Medal, the South Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Palm, and the National Order of Vietnam.
A 2011 documentary “When I have your wounded – The DUSTOFF Legacy” was filmed to honor the bravery of Kelly, whose personal motto was “No Compromise. No Rationalization. No Hesitation. Fly the Mission. Now!”
The stadium was named in honor of Kelly Oct. 15, 1965, after the high school’s letterman’s club, the S Club, had sponsored a contest as students submitted potential names for the field. A committee of community leaders, civic clubs and school personnel then narrowed the list down to three. The school board reviewed that trio of choices; took them under advisement; and chose Kelly to be the namesake for the stadium.