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102-year-old veteran recalls duty with Michigan National Guard

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Dan Heaton
  • 127th Wing
"My experience in the Guard? The people I met, the people I knew. It was a wonderful thing," the old Soldier recalled, sitting in his living room on a recent sunny winter day.

At 102 years old, Philas J. Kelly of Farmington, Mich., is likely the oldest living veteran of the Michigan National Guard. From 1937 to 1940, Kelly served in the 107th Observation Squadron of the Michigan National Guard.

That's right -- Kelly served before World War II, and well before the 107th became a part of the Air National Guard when the Air Force was created as a separate service some 10 years after Kelly first signed up.

Kelly recently became a member of the Michigan Air Guard Historical Association. Upon coming to the attention of Michigan Air National Guard leaders at Selfridge Air National Guard Base, the former corporal was invited to spend a day at Selfridge, touring today's 107th Fighter Squadron and other facilities.

"The National Guard's very foundation is the history of our Citizen-Airmen and Citizen-Soldiers," said Brig. Gen. John D. Slocum, commander of the 127th Wing at Selfridge. "Our Michigan Guard Airmen today seek to emulate the standard first set by the Minutemen and then carried on by veterans like Mr. Kelly. Meeting him was a privilege and honor as well as a chance, in a very small way, to honor those he served alongside in an earlier era."

For most of the 75 years since Kelly was honorably discharged from the Michigan National Guard, however, he said he really didn't consider himself a veteran.

"I was only in for a few years and only in the National Guard," Kelly said. "But a few years ago, I was speaking to a woman, a counselor at the senior center about benefits. She told me 'I served and I shouldn't be hesitant to say that I am a veteran.'"

"Now," he says as he pulls out a thin file folder, "these are my proudest possessions."

"These" are his National Guard discharge paper and his old 107th OBSN. SQDN. unit patch - both in pristine condition. The patch, featuring the Red Devil logo still used by the modern-day 107th Fighter Squadron, looks as if it has not been touched by human hands in decades. If there is as status above "mint condition" this patch is it.

In 1937, Kelly was 24 and had been working at Ford for a couple of years. A number of his friends were in the 107th and "prevailed upon me to join up." Back in those days, there was no basic training required to join the unit, he was issued a uniform and started getting on the job training.

The 107th Aero Squadron had existed for a time during and after World War I, 1917-1919. In 1925, a new version of the 107th - now as an Observation Squadron -- was established when a group of men began meeting in a Detroit garage with the intention of forming a military flying squadron. On May 7, 1926, the squadron was formally recognized and established as a National Guard flying squadron - one of the original 26 such squadrons established around the country that year. After operating in various locations for its first couple of years of operation, the 107th, then part of the 32nd Infantry Division, was stationed at what is now known as Detroit Metropolitan Airport in Romulus.

"I think I was the only private assigned to the photo section," Kelly said of his service.

At the time, the 107th was flying Douglas O-38s, a two-seat bi-plane equipped with a camera for aerial observation and photography. Kelly's primary duty was to process the film used in the cameras, spending plenty of time in the squadron darkroom. Periodically, he would get to fly aboard the aircraft.

"On a training mission in Lacrosse, Wisc., myself and another soldier were out on the flight line, loading film into the cameras," Kelly recalled of a 1938 operation. "The pilots came out and said, 'Come on, you guys, let's go.'

"So we climbed on board and took off. We had no idea that we would be performing dive bombing practice," said Kelly, as he motions with his hands to show a pilot pushing the control yoke forward in the old plane.

In addition to the camera, the O-38 was equipped with two machine guns and could carry up to four 100-pound bombs.

"We landed just in time for lunch, but after all that dive bombing - we had no interest whatsoever in lunch," Kelly said.

Kelly was born in a small town in northern Ontario, Canada in 1913. When he was 10 years old, his family moved to Detroit where his father took a job.

As a young teen, living in the Corktown neighborhood of Detroit, Kelly worked at Navin Field, the old stadium where the Detroit Tigers baseball team was playing. He started out working bagging peanuts, preparing hot dogs and similar tasks. His pay was a free 75-cent ticket to a future game that he could then sell and keep the proceeds. Later, he worked as a gasoline station attendant across the street from the ballpark and on game days would often work parking cars for players and team officials, as well as fans. In one memorable episode, in 1935, Charles Navin, a member of the family that owned the Tigers and who worked in the team's front office, gave Kelly several sets of tickets to that year's World Series, in which the Tigers were participating.

"That's when I had my first taste of entrepreneurship," Kelly said. "I sold those tickets very quickly at a little premium, returned the face value price to Mr. Navin and kept the profit. At that time, I was supporting my mother and younger sister on a salary of $17.50 per week at the gas station, so any additional income was very welcome."

By the time Kelly enlisted, he had been working at Ford Motor Company for about two years. He had begun "working at hard, manual labor in the steel mill operations" at the Ford Rouge plant. After about a year and a half there, his manager selected him to be laid off, in order that he could take a new position in the accounting department of the mill.

"I then went to work with a pad of paper and a number 2 pencil. I dressed a little better. Beginning in 1940, I became a salary worker in the disbursing department," Kelly said. "I look on two moments as the key moments in my life: when my family moved to Detroit in 1923 and the day I was hired as salary at Ford Motor Company."

It was his work at Ford that prompted his discharge from the Michigan National Guard. In fact his discharge, signed on Oct. 5, 1940, by Major Frederick R. Anderson, 107th squadron commander, states "business" as the reason for his discharge.

"In 1940, Ford was getting pretty involved in war work," Kelly said. "I was becoming increasingly involved in working on contracts between Ford and the War Department."

When the U.S. entered World War II in 1941, Kelly's job was deemed war-essential, meaning he was exempt from further military service.

Among his duties during WWII was overseeing part of the contract Ford held to produce B-24 bombers at the famed Willow Run plant in Ypsilanti. As part of his duties, he would frequently leave his office in Dearborn, where Ford headquarters is located, and travel to the plant.

"The impressions that stay with me to this day was watching a B-24, this big bomber roll out of that plant, one every hour," he recalls.

"And then they would take them across a field they had at the plant and they would fire the guns at some targets to sight-in the guns. The sound of that firepower was awe-inspiring."

Kelly would eventually work more than 39 years at Ford, retiring in 1974. Way back in his days as a laborer in the Rouge plant, he was in the plant one day when "Mr. Henry" walked through the plant, as Kelly referred to Henry Ford, the company's visionary founder. Seeing "Mr. Henry" walk by was his only brush with the company founder, though he was also among the thousands of mourners who passed by as Ford lie in state in the Ford Rotunda at the company's headquarters building when the founder died in 1947. Years later, Kelly would periodically deliver marketing and sales reports to Henry Ford II, the grandson of the founder and himself CEO of the company. (On Kelly's 100th birthday in 2014, he received a congratulatory letter from Bill Ford Jr., the great-grandson of "Mr. Henry" and also a CEO of the company for a time.)

In 1960, some 20 years after he left the photo lab of the 107th Observation Squadron, Kelly picked up a camera again for the first time. He's been an avid amateur photographer ever since and has served lengthy tenures in leadership of the Photographic Society of America and of the Photographic Guild of Detroit.

"It's funny. I was in the photo section of the 107th, but didn't touch a camera for more than 20 years, didn't own a camera," Kelly said.

"And even more than that, I served in the 107th, in the National Guard. In all my life, I have never once touched a gun. Never held one in my hands. Certainly never shot one."

Recalling his military service, Kelly quickly begins rattling of a few names, this one a master sergeant, that one a photographer at General Motors in his civilian capacity.

"You'd be surprised at how easy it is to forget some names and others you never forget," Kelly said. "And you have no control over which ones you remember and which ones you forget."

Jim Kalig - Kelly acknowledges he's guessing at the spelling after all these years - was his lieutenant. Master Sgt. Tex Schilling - he was the one from GM - was head of the photo lab. Master Sgt. Dan Bergan, he was the top sergeant in the whole squadron.

Working to memorialize and honor the service of both former and current members of the Michigan Air National Guard, the Michigan Air Guard Historical Association recently launched a campaign to increase its membership numbers. That campaign included a mass mailing that reached Kelly.

"There are so many stories that make up the Guard," said Lt. Col. (ret.) Lou Nigro, a former Michigan ANG pilot who now serves as executive director of the MAGHA's Selfridge Military Air Museum. "There are the people who make a full-time career of service in the Guard, but there are also thousands upon thousands of people, from all walks of life, who have served the Guard at various points in their lives. They continue on with their civilian career, but they also served in the National Guard. Our volunteers work very diligently to preserve their stories through photos, aircraft and other artifacts.

"It isn't too often that we bump into a person who served in the Guard 75 years ago, but when we do, we want to hear his story and salute him or her for their service," Nigro said.