Home » From WWII B-17 pilot Colin P. Kelly to the “Ghost of Kyiv

From WWII B-17 pilot Colin P. Kelly to the “Ghost of Kyiv

by Till Daisd
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As the Ghost of Kyiv legend spreads, we are reminded of another wartime tale that also inspired people during a time of war

As the legend of the Ghost of Kyiv grows, we are reminded of another wartime story that also gave a nation hope during a time of war. The story of Colin Kelly is one that clearly shows how specific details about a given combat action can be magnified in a way that can resonate among people living through a dark time.

Here is what Kelly’s Wikipedia page reports:

Kelly was born in Madison, Florida, in 1915 and graduated from high school there in 1932. He went on to West Point in 1933, graduated in the Class of 1937, and was assigned to a B-17 bomber group. He was the first Army officer to fly the Boeing Flying Fortress in the Far East.

Battle and death

On December 10, 1941 (December 9 in the United States), Kelly, with the 14th Bombardment Squadron, 19th Bombardment Group, United States Army Air Corps, was in command of a B-17C Flying Fortress heavy bomber, #40-2045, which departed from Clark Field, on the island of Luzon, Commonwealth of the Philippines, alone and without escort, to search for an enemy aircraft carrier that had been reported near the coastal city of Aparri, at the northern end of the island. Kelly’s Flying Fortress had not been fully fueled or armed because of an impending Japanese air raid. It carried only three 600-pound (270 kg) demolition bombs in its bomb bay. While en route to their assigned target area, Kelly and his crew sighted a Japanese amphibious assault task force north of Aparri, including what they believed was a Fusō-class battleship. The crew was unable to locate the reported aircraft carrier, and Kelly decided to return to attack the ships that they had seen earlier.


Kelly made two passes at 20,000 feet (6,100 m) while the bombardier, Sergeant Meyer Levin, set up for a precise drop. On the third run, Sergeant Meyer released the three bombs in the trail and bracketed the IJN light cruiser Natori. It and an escorting destroyer, IJN Harukaze, were damaged during the attack:

…The battleship [actually, the light cruiser IJN Natori] was seen about 4 miles offshore and moving slowly parallel with the coastline… A quartering approach to the longitudinal axis of the ship was being flown. The three bombs were released in the train as rapidly as the bombardier could get them away. The first bomb struck about 50 yards short, the next alongside, and the third squarely amidship… A great cloud of smoke arose from the point of impact. The forward length of the ship was about 10 degrees off center to portside. The battleship began weaving from side to side and headed toward shore. Large trails of oil followed in its wake…

— Narrative Report of Flight of Captain Colin P. Kelly, Air Corps, O-20811 (deceased) on Dec 10, 1941, by Eugene L. Eubank, Colonel, Air Corps, Commanding, Headquarters, 5th Bomber Command, Malang, Java, Feb 19, 1942.

On its return flight, the bomber was then engaged by the Tainan Air Group A6Ms which had been patrolling over Vigan. They attacked it, followed it, and attacked again. Kelly ordered his crew to bail out and though the fire had spread to the flight deck, Kelly remained at the bomber’s controls while he tried to keep the plane straight and level. Staff Sergeant James E. Halkyard, Private First Class Willard L. Money, and Private Robert E. Altman were able to escape from the rear of the B-17. The navigator, Second Lieutenant Joe M. Bean, and the bombardier, Sergeant Levin, went out through the nose escape hatch. As co-pilot Lieutenant Donald Robins tried to open the cockpit’s upper escape hatch, the Flying Fortress exploded. Robins was thrown clear and was able to open his parachute. Boeing B-17C 40-2045 crashed approximately three miles (4.8 km) east of Clark Field. The bodies of Kelly and Technical Sergeant William J. Delehanty were found at the crash site.

The wreckage was found along a rural road two miles (3.2 km) west of Mount Aryat (Mount Aryat is about five miles (8.0 km) east of Clark Field). The tail assembly was missing. Parts … were scattered over an area of 500 yards (460 m). The right wing with two engines still in place remained almost intact although it was burning when the search party arrived. The fuselage and left side of the plane were badly wrecked and burned. T/Sgt Delehanty’s body was lying about 50 yards (46 m) north of the wreckage. Kelly’s body … was found very near the wreckage with his parachute unopened….

— Narrative Report of Flight of Captain Colin P. Kelly, Air Corps, O-20811 (deceased) on Dec 10, 1941, by Eugene L. Eubank, Colonel, Air Corps, Commanding, Headquarters, 5th Bomber Command, Malang, Java, Feb 19, 1942

The attacking planes did not see this and initially were credited only with a probable “kill”, shared jointly by Toyoda, Yamagami, Kikuchi, Nozawa, and Izumi. Saburō Sakai, who has often been credited with destroying this aircraft, was indeed a flight (諸隊 (shotai)) leader engaged in this fight with the bomber, but he and his two wingmen do not appear to have been given official credit for its dispatch.

Early reports misidentified the ship attacked as the Japanese heavy cruiser Ashigara, which was present, or as the battleship Haruna, which was not. While initial reports incorrectly stated that the ship was sunk, it was hit but did not sink, although Kelly’s crew did report major damage was inflicted.

his painting of Capt. Colin P. Kelly, Jr., hanging in the Air Power Gallery at the National Museum of the US Air Force, was painted by Deane Keller of Yale University.

Kelly’s exploits were emphasized as he progressed from the straightforward light cruiser Natori to the heavy cruiser Ashigara, and finally to the battleship Haruna. According to the story, he was awarded the Medal of Honor and had his crew bail out so he could crash-dive on the battleship, sinking it and saving the day. Sadly, his brave effort did not affect the Philippines Campaign in the same way in real life. An eager nation for war news received the news of his mission via MacArthur’s Headquarters communique.

Yet, Colin P. Kelly’s narrative served as an example for a generation of American youth who headed for war. Those who were already in the training process intensified their efforts to do their part to aid in the War effort. In the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor, those who were still living on Civvie Street had a heroic story to add to the revenge factor, giving them even another motivation to enlist. Every American combatant who served in World War II did their part to erode the Axis Alliance of Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, and Fascist Italy. Their efforts would pay off when the Axis fell before the strength of the Allies, thanks to a war machine created and motivated by Colin P. Kelly’s epic story.

Regardless of who the “Ghost of Kyiv” is, they have succeeded in inspiring the globe with a story that may or may not be true. It’s possible that the ghost isn’t a specific person; instead, it could be the resistance spirit of Ukraine. On February 25, 2022, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense tweeted:

“Dozens of experienced military pilots from the captain to the general, who had previously been discharged from the reserve, are returning to the Air Force of the Armed Forces. Who knows, maybe one of them is the air avenger on the MiG-29, which is so often seen by Kyivites!”


With up to twice the armament of a single MiG-29, the Sukhoi Su-35 remains one of the planet’s most effective air-to-air platforms. Similar load-outs are seen on the Sukhoi Su-27. Despite the possibility of a MiG-35, it sounds like another MiG-29. Sukhoi Su-25s do appear to be a target a MiG-29 could take out rather quickly. On Day 1, according to the Ukrainians, seven Russian aircraft were shot down. As we’ve already mentioned, it is unlikely that a deteriorating MiG-29 could have given Ukraine so many victories while a complete air force and air defense system engaged in combat but only managed to sink one aircraft. Consequently, we argue that it is highly implausible that a single pilot could account for 6 out of 7.

Also, it appears that Ukraine’s MiG-29s are heritage aircraft from the collapse of the Soviet Union when Fighter Regiments with MiG-29s were left in what would become Ukraine. Although these aircraft have had some improvements and some even have the modern digital camouflage, their equipment fit is somewhat rudimentary, with cockpits that are still predominantly steam gauges and Soviet Blue interiors.

Check out Facebook Page Pensacola Aerospace Museum for further aviation photos and stories.


Photo by: Deane Keller / U.S. Air Force

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