The explosions woke Tom McKelvey.
The 22-year-old Navy pilot – son of a sawyer and millwright from Charleston who learned how to fly from a stunt pilot – looked out the window at what always had been a beautiful view of Pearl Harbor and saw black smoke.
A guy ran through the corridor of the bachelor office quarters and shouted.
McKelvey rushed outside, where he saw the U.S.S. Utah battleship already on its side and other ships burning. Sailors in underwear – “skivvies” – who had survived ran past him. Behind the sailors, ships burned and men were dead and dying.
This Navy pilot saw a war start right before his eyes, and there was not a thing he could do about it.
It all happened 71 years ago today, Dec. 7, 1941, but McKelvey remembers it clearly still at age 93. Nobody forgets the day that 2,403 people died and 1,178 were wounded in the Japanese attack.
Especially when your name is Commander Tom McKelvey, U.S. Navy.
McKelvey is long retired, but that day when he was a young officer and pilot is never retired. It is a day that lasts forever.
“I looked up, and these two silver-colored airplanes, doing these shallow dives, and I could see the red suns painted on the sides,” recalled McKelvey. “They were strafing. The one pilot, he got so close I could see his face.
“There wasn’t any doubt we were at war – and I was right in the middle of it.”
A second wave of attack planes veered toward the Navy men outside the barracks. A sailor grabbed a machine gun that was in a nest on a tripod, and tried to shoot down one of the planes. But the sailor was no gunner and the only thing he hit was air.
McKelvey’s seaplane, the type that had to land in water and have wheels manually added and taken off, could not take off that awful day.
“It was a flying boat it is what it was,” said McKelvey.
Only a few American planes got up that day – McKelvey recalls three – after the surprise attack that launched a nation into war.
“The next day we got up in the air and searched for the Japanese, but they were long gone,” McKelvey said.
“We knew that the war had started. We just didn’t know how long it would go on or what we would have to do.”
He carried bombs and coal and everything in between on so many runs, and his planes took valuable pictures for intelligence in those days when navigation was largely by sun and stars and guts.
McKelvey piloted planes through machine gun fire and landed on rough and heavy seas and airfields carved from jungle. He was a country boy from Moncks Corner, but in that war it was country boys who did not yield to Tojo or Hitler.
It was country boys and city boys who won that war. McKelvey stayed in the Navy until 1962, retiring as a commander. He did his duty and a lot more during that war and he has never forgotten any of it – even as he claims, “I am getting old.”
Just last year, McKelvey’s family sold his house near Charleston and moved him to Lake Wylie Assisted Living, to be closer to his step-son and grandchildren in Clover. McKelvey uses a wheeled walker sometimes now.
He is no longer in his own home – a place where he flew the American flag each day and certainly on Dec. 7.
He flew planes in the worst war in the history of the world when the test for pilots was simple: Did you have the guts, the courage, to fly a metal tube filled with explosives toward almost certain death, then defy that death with a sneer and a victory drink of the best Scotch afterward?
Tom McKelvey did that for a whole war – from the day after Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, when McKelvey soared to find an enemy that had killed his buddies, until the war was finished. His days now are filled playing bridge with other residents at the assisted living center. He drinks his coffee in the morning and eats a single egg. He reads with a magnifying glass to help him, and his smile lights up a room.
His shoulders are narrow, and he’s a small, short man, not 5 feet 5 inches tall. All this little guy did was help save the world.
He can look out the window at the roundabout at the entrance to the assisted living center, where the flagpole stands.
The flag will be raised in his honor today, Dec. 7.
McKelvey is one living, breathing, smiling reminder of the men whose blood and guts saved that flag, the country it represents and the freedom of an entire planet.
When McKelvey sees that flag, he will salute. We should all salute him.