Jim Kelly

By Paul Wood

Photo By Heather Coit/The News-Gazette

URBANA — When Jim Kelly was in the Marines, he met John Wayne in a bar.

The film star bought him a drink in Laguna Beach, Calif. Pvt. Kelly couldn’t return the favor; he had only 35 cents in his pocket. But he was impressed.

Well, the Duke should have been impressed, too.

Though he starred in “Sands Of Iwo Jima,” Wayne never served in the military in World War II.

Kelly, on the other hand, was really at Iwo Jima, landing in the sixth wave on “Sulfur Island” with the Fifth Marine Division.

The 1940 Urbana High School graduate was in a pool room on Main Street when he heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor. Some people weren’t sure where that was, he said.

Eager to fight, he had to wait because he had a valuable railroad job that was important to the war effort. A boss finally let him go when he became a union steward.

He saw action in the biggest way possible in February 1945, when the war in Europe was waning but the war in Japan was any anything but certain.

Kelly was part of a team that was supposed to move ammunition and supplies from the beach to the front. On Feb. 19, 1945, his unit got up at 3:30 a.m. and had “anything we wanted” for breakfast.

They hit the beach at 11:20 a.m.

The first wave had seen little resistance at first, but the attack turned withering. Kelly’s band of Marines was shot up bad.

“There were so many dead and wounded on the beach, you couldn’t help but step on somebody,” he said.

The soil was ash; he has a bottle of it in his home.

“They had a network of tunnels the brass didn’t know about,” said Kelly, 93, a retiree from the Urbana Fire Department.

They could hear the Japanese in caves but rarely saw them. Once, a mortar nearly wiped Kelly off the volcanic sands of the island, but he usually knew of them by hearing the chatter from the caves.

“You could hear them jabbering down there. The flame-thrower was the best weapon we had there,” Kelly said.

Afraid they might run across the enemy in the confusion — some of whom could speak English — they changed passwords regularly. Once, it was the name of any president; the next three nights, any U.S. car; and for three days, any American tree.

The perfectly safe response one night: “I am President Roosevelt driving a Lincoln looking for an elm tree.”

“I got shot at a lot, but never was hit,” Kelly said. “I never got a Purple Heart, but sure was shook up from a mortar shell.”

Kelly said he lost four good friends. He retrieved Cpl. Dick Pittman’s body from Mount Suribachi and made sure he was buried.

Pittman was 20 when he was killed by a sniper. He had played tackle and captained Urbana’s championship football team. The 1943 Urbana High graduate also placed second in the 165-pound division at the 1942 state wrestling tournament.

Pittman was elected to the Urbana Sports Hall of Fame in 1977.

Kelly later suggested naming the new Marine Corps League post after Richard L. Pittman, said another Marine League leader, Ray Elliott of Urbana.

“He was in school behind me,” Kelly said.

Even with the flame-throwers, Marines never went in the caves, even after the surrender.

“You never knew if we got them all or not,” he said.

Kelly was at Iwo Jima from Feb. 19 to March 31.

After Iwo Jima, the Marines were set to invade Japan.

When Kelly heard word of the two atomic bombs, he called the news “wonderful.”

“It saved lives. The incendiary bombs we used killed a lot of people, and we were sure there would be resistance,” he said.

When Kelly finally arrived in Japan after the surrender, he saw a devastated country.

He was in the Marines into 1946, then resumed his railroad career before switching to the fire department. He married Lee, who passed in 2010, and has two “terrific” children, Cheryl Johnson and James Kelly II.

Kelly said he is happy with his life and his service.

“I’ve never regretted being a Marine,” he said. “There were a lot of good friends and companionship.”

Are the Marines as tough as people say?

“Naturally, they are. They’re all tough,” he said.

Do you know a veteran who could share a story about military service? Contact staff writer Paul Wood at pwood@news-gazette.com.