Commander Thomas R. "Bob" McKelvey 3 August 1919- 14 December 2016 (interviewed via his cousin Josiah Williams)
Bob (Commander McKelvey) had an extraordinary career during WWII. He was a graduate of Berkeley High School and attended the University of South Carolina before the war broke out. He first became a civilian pilot, and in March 1941 he joined the Navy as an aviation cadet at Pensacola, FL- after being rejected by the USAAC.
Graduating in October 1941, he reported to Patrol Squadron 23 (PBY’s) based on Ford Island in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The aircraft he flew with the VP-23 Squadron was the PBY. He was one of the few pilots who got off the ground at Pearl Harbor on 7 December during the Japanese attack. He participated in the Battle of Midway in June 1942, operating out of Midway Island. During the days following the battle, he and his crew landed at sea twice rescuing downed carrier aircraft crews.
Bob’s next assignment was VB-139, where he flew PV-1s.
In January 1944, Lt. McKelvey volunteered to be a part of the three plane group which made the first night flight over the cold waters of the northern Pacific to attack and photograph targets in the Japanese Kurile Islands. These three crews formed the nucleus of a tactical offensive which became known as the “Empire Express”.
Ventura still remains his favorite aircraft: “It was fast! PBY was a great airplane, too… but I still like the Ventura better! It could outmaneuver a
P-38- they tried it after the war at one of the Army air bases!”
Once Bob’s Aleutian rotation with VB-139 was over, he was promoted, and for a short period worked in Navy Air Traffic Command. However, soon after the VJ-day he was transferred to Europe, where he flew C-54 as part of the Berlin Airlift in 1948-49, for about 10 months. He has completed over 100 missions between Frankfurt and Berlin.
He graduated from the General Line School and the Naval War College in Newport, RI and later served three years on the staff of the Naval War College. He was the recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross, two air medals, and the Pearl Harbor Survivors’ Commemorative Medal.
Josiah Williams, Commander McKelvey’s cousin:
“He has been, and always will be, one of my all time heroes. He is a very soft-spoken man and does not discuss the experiences unless it is with very close friends. I am a pilot, as well, and have discussed just the navigation part of their flights across the North Pacific with my cousin. We now have GPS and other advanced forms of navigation at our disposal but back then most of their flights were what we refer to as “dead reckoning,” which is simply bearing and time to station. Bob was also very good at celestial navigation and when they had clear nights he could use the stars for guidance.
As far as the PV-1 planes, he remembers that they had two 50 cals in the nose, one 30 cal just below the tail and two 50 cals in one of the blisters. He did not fly any rocket strafing missions. He said that the rockets came along about the time he was rotating out. As far as artwork, he could not remember any specific artwork other than beautiful women painted on the side of a lot of the aircraft. He could not specify which airplanes had the artwork.
Bob says that the decorated aircraft on the background of the crew photos is probably from VB-135 as their unit (VB-139) did not care as much about decorations on their airplanes. Also, in regards to the camera placement, that story was pretty interesting. Bob said that the cameras were usually installed in flight, depending on the mission. He said that the co-pilot would have to move out of his seat so the camera operator could place the camera in its mounts under the nose. When he moved the glass out of the opening, Bob said they always told him to make it quick as the cold air would be very uncomfortable at altitude until he had the camera in place for the photo runs. When they were through with the photo missions, the operator would remove the camera and replace the glass (or metal) cover, all while in flight.
He also said that he (McKelvey), Birdsall, and McGregor were the first three flight crews to make the first North Pacific crossing to attack the Kurile Islands in January or February 1944. They each received the Distinguished Flying Cross for this mission”.
“I got to go see my cousin, Commander Thomas R. (Bob) McKelvey, yesterday (8 July 2014) and spent several hours with him. I told him of your research and your comments regarding your grandfather’s involvement with fighting the Japanese and his warm feelings for the Americans. He was truly impressed with all of your work and comments. I took the time to go over each of the photos you had sent. He remembered all of the faces but, at 95, he could not remember all of the names and the ones he did remember he was not completely confident that he had the right names.”