Share this article

print logo

Falling on a Viet Cong grenade

As a first lieutenant in the Vietnam War, Richard J. Kelley would not ask his soldiers to do anything he wouldn't do.

He would, in fact, do anything to protect his soldiers, including smothering a live grenade with his body. Because of a slow fuse on the grenade and his quick reaction to toss it, he lived.

Then there's the time he crawled into a tunnel in pursuit of two Viet Cong guerrillas. A firefight erupted, and the enemy paid with their lives.

Crawling back out of the subterranean passage, Kelley's foot brushed up against a booby trap, which exploded and collapsed the tunnel. He suffered a concussion and hearing loss, but after a shower and a new boot, he was ready for more action.

And there would be plenty for the 1964 Niagara University ROTC graduate.

Kelley had headed to Vietnam in 1966, after being stationed in Fairbanks, Alaska, where the temperature often dropped to 45 degrees below zero.

Buffalo winters, the Queens native recalled, seemed like summer in comparison.

On his way to Vietnam, he had the chance to thaw out in Hawaii, where he trained at Schofield Barracks in preparation for the tropical war zone.

But in Vietnam, the chill of death was never far away.

Imagine being caught in a field with no cover as mortar rounds start raining down. That's exactly what happened to Kelley.

"I could only hug the ground and wait it out," he said. "I knew by the sound of one of the incoming rounds that it was going to land close. I actually saw it and said a quick prayer. It landed about 5 feet away, but didn't explode."

Heavy rains, he theorized, had softened the earth enough so that the fuse on the mortar round failed to detonate.

Kelley was one of some 20,000 Army personnel stationed at the 25th Infantry Division's base camp at Cu Chi, where the enemy was literally underfoot.

It turned out that the camp had been built above the largest enemy tunnel complex in South Vietnam.

By day, soldiers brushed up against locals from Cu Chi village who worked at the camp as laborers. By night, those same laborers, Kelley said, slipped back into the base through the tunnel system and raised havoc.

"They would be right in the middle of where we were sleeping, and they would start shooting at us," Kelley said. "We'd scatter and try to find out where the shooting came from and get our weapons. But by the time we did, they were gone -- they were back down in their holes."

The results were often deadly.

"What they would do is give our coordinates to their artillery, and mortars would start coming in with extremely accurate precision," said Kelley, who more than once suffered shrapnel wounds from the explosions.

"The next day they would show up for work as if nothing happened and they were our friends again."

Although there is nothing amusing about this, a light moment occurred when comedian Bob Hope brought his Christmas show to the base in December 1966. As thousands of GIs applauded aboveground, the enemy watched from their tunnel peepholes.

"Years later, in their published memoirs, they stated they enjoyed the show as much as the GIs and kept peace so the show would continue," Kelley said.

But that was only a brief respite.

His most harrowing experienced occurred while on a small reconnaissance patrol. He noticed enemy movement and selected a few of his men to go with him and investigate.

"As we were following a jungle path, a Viet Cong hand grenade landed in the midst of us," he said. "I yelled a warning, but the other men remained standing. They froze."

What Kelley did next earned him a Silver Star.

"With complete disregard for his safety, 1st Lt. Kelley dove on the grenade and covered it with his body. When the grenade did not explode immediately, he reached under his body, clasped the grenade in his hand and threw it toward the Viet Cong," the award citation read.

"As a result, the grenade exploded in midair and all three [of his] men were saved from certain injury or death."

The grenade, Kelley noted, ended up killing two Viet Cong.

"I then charged their position, and we eliminated the rest of the ambush," he said.

What prompted him to use his body as a shield to protect his patrol?

"We were all going to be dead if I let it explode," he said, "so I figured I'd save the others."

At an awards ceremony back at the base, Army Gen. William C. Westmoreland, the top U.S. commander in Vietnam, presented Kelley with his Silver Star for gallantry in action.

After Vietnam, Kelley continued his stateside hitch with the Army and, like so many other war veterans from that era, endured the heckling, ridicule and sometimes physical assaults of anti-war protesters.

"I had an assignment in Boston teaching ROTC at Northeastern University, and they were in our face all the time," Kelley recalled of those troubled times.

"They would throw containers of all types of liquid at us, and we had to change our uniforms frequently. They attacked the ROTC building with firebombs and disrupted our weekly outside drill sessions."

In 1971, he returned to civilian life and worked as a sales executive, settling in the Buffalo area. He and his wife, Sharon, raised a family of six children, and community service was a big part of his life.

Kelley is one of the founders of the Lou Gehrig Little League in East Amherst and served as its president, and as a coach for two decades.

To this day, Kelley says, he remains deeply proud of his service to the country:

"I've returned with my wife to Hawaii at least 20 times where I'd trained at Schofield Barracks right before I went to Vietnam."

***

Richard J. Kelley, 69

Hometown: East Elmhurst, Queens

Residence: East Amherst

Branch: Army

Rank: Captain

War zone: Vietnam

Years of service: 1964-71

Most prominent honors: Silver Star, Bronze Star, Army Commendation Medal with "V" device for valor and an oak leaf cluster, two Purple Hearts, Combat Infantryman Badge

Specialty: Infantry platoon leader