Veterans Voice: Steve H. Kelly
Retired Army Colonel Steve Kelly lives between Cameron and Osborn, Missouri.
A native of New York, Steve attended New York University and graduated with a Business degree. After college he went to work for American Oil Company in their office on New York City’s 5th Avenue. Just prior to his first major assignment with American Oil, he received his Draft Notice.
His original intention was to serve one tour of duty and return to the business world. However, he found he enjoyed military life and applied for Officer Candidate School (OCS) at Fort Sill (OK). He was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant of Field Artillery.
Encouraged to remain in the military by other officers and NCO’s, he decided to make the military a career. He enjoyed the structure, discipline and purpose of military life.
He attended “Jump School” (Parachute Training) at Fort Benning (GA). After this training he was assigned to Germany for two years during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. He assumed command of a Field Artillery Unit prepared to confront any Soviet invasion. His unit worked with mobile missiles, and was sent to Scotland once a year for “live fire” training in the North Atlantic.
As his stint in Germany was winding down, so was the Cold War tension, but Vietnam was just warming up. He went to Vietnam with the 4th Artillery.
Steve arrived at Cam Ranh Bay, and two days later was sent as commander to 1st Brigade Headquarters. He traveled by helicopter to a field location, arriving after dark. The copter had him and another officer jump to the ground where they landed in 6-inch mud. The helicopter left, leaving the two of them in total darkness and silence. They had no idea which was they were to go. Fortunately someone showed up shortly and led them to base. He was issued a M-16, but had never received training on the weapon. His first action was receiving instruction on its use.
Steve flew 7 days a week in support of the 3rd Battalion, 8th Infantry. His duty was to call in and direct artillery fire at enemy locations, and they were in action most days. In one of those miraculous quirks of battle, Steve took one day off duty in order to catch up on paperwork. It was on that day that the helicopter he would have been on clipped some trees and went down in flames with all aboard lost.
Later Steve participated in the Battle of Dak To, a 33-day battle in the Central Highlands against 4 North Vietnamese Regiments. The battle was fought in extremely difficult terrain near the Cambodian and Laos borders. Hundreds of American troops lost their lives, including 3 Company Commanders. Overhead, Steve directed artillery fire in support of ground troops. Although their helicopter received a number of bullet holes, no one on board was injured.
Steve commented that it was common practice to fire one artillery shell per night at strategic coordinates. They rotated target locations which kept enemy troops apprehensive and disrupted their activities to some degree.
In another notable incident, Steve was hand-picked to locate and destroy a newly installed piece of heavy artillery near the border with Cambodia. They had a “rough idea” where it was located, but would be hard to find due to the jungle canopy. He and a pilot flew a small Piper Cub plane into the area and continuously circled in search of the emplacement. It was eventually spotted, and Steve directed artillery fire to destroy it. He is confident it was destroyed, although ground confirmation was impossible. Steve was awarded an Air Medal with a “V” device.
On another occasion Steve recalls receiving an “urgent” call to replace a field commander. Apparently the former commander was demonstrating a “trick” with a hand grenade and managed to blow his hand off. Apparently this commander was well-liked and his men were a bit distraught to lose him. Steve assumed command and everything went well. It was after this assignment that he returned to the United States.
He returned to Vietnam in 1972, assuming a command position at Ha Tien in the southwest of the country. By this time the war was winding down and his tour of duty was cut short.
He returned to Fort Monroe in Virginia, and was now on the list for promotion to Lieutenant Colonel. It was during this time that he met and married his wife Cathi (originally from Plattsburg, MO).
From Fort Monroe he was sent to Germany where he served as Battalion Commander of the 1st Battalion, 40th Field Artillery. They were equipped with 8” artillery firing 203 lb. Shells which were extremely accurate.
Steve retired as a full Colonel after a successful military career. Almost his entire career was as a “Commander” and he was a “5-percenter”, among the 5% who were promoted ahead of normal procedure.
Leadership positions included Commander of the Salt Lake City Recruiting District and as Commander at the Presidio in San Francisco ( a prestige assignment) where he was responsible for all recruiting west of the Mississippi, including Hawaii and Alaska. He also served at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. He ended his career as Commander of the Reserve Readiness Unit.
Steve and his wife are the parents of Iraq War hero Matthew Kelley.