When his P-40 Warhawk was hit and set afire by German fighter planes in the skies over North Africa during World War II, Army Air Force Lieutenant Robert Kelley made a decision that probably saved his life.
As he was about to parachute to the ground, he noticed a convoy of German tanks and troops below. Rather than risk imprisonment — or worse — he stayed in the cockpit and guided the plane back to base, where he crash-landed.
A member of the 85th Fighter Squadron that trained at what is now Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford, Mr. Kelley was awarded a Purple Heart for the broken back and other injuries he suffered in the war.
Highly decorated for his service during World War II and the Korean War, Mr. Kelley died Jan. 10 in Saint Ann Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in Dover, N.H. He was 97 and had lived in Hudson, Mass.
A native of West Roxbury, he was featured in the Boston Traveler in December 1943 along with four other Boston-area members of what was known as the Flying Skull squadron. The Traveler noted that he had saved his wingman — who was being attacked by two German planes — by shooting down one plane and forcing the other to turn away. In another air battle, he had shot off a Nazi warplane’s landing gear, and he quipped to the Traveler: “I thought I’d make it tough for him to land.”
The Traveler also reported that Mr. Kelley flew a captured German aircraft “to see what the other fellow had to offer.”
His other decorations included a Distinguished Flying Cross, a Bronze Star Medal, an Air Medal with four Oak Leaf clusters, and the Air Force Commendation Medal.
On one occasion, Mr. Kelley playfully buzzed a British convoy, after which the chief of staff of the US 9th Air Force reprimanded him for the “boyish prank” and wrote in warning that “General Patton is looking for tank commanders.”
The letter was among Mr. Kelley’s mementos and has become part of family lore.
“Dad enjoyed the reunions of his squadron over the years,” said his daughter, Patricia of Greenland, N.H., “but his experiences as a fighter pilot he kept inside. In that regard, he was a private person.”
The 85th, which was part of the 79th Fighter Group, flew combat missions in the African, Mediterranean, and Italian theaters and in southern France during World War II. The fighter group helped forces led by British General Bernard Montgomery push the German Army out of North Africa.
Hanscom was known as the Boston Auxiliary Airport when the 85th was assigned there in July 1942. The fliers departed that September.
Prior to being discharged in November 1946, Mr. Kelley was stationed at Hörsching Air Base in Linz, Austria, when he and two other officers were driving in a Jeep and noticed Elizabeth Sedlaceck walking home.
“He asked me my name, where I lived, and if it was OK for him to visit and meet my parents,” she recalled. “He was a gentleman and fun to be with, and I loved him for more [than] 70 years.”
They married in 1947.
Robert Patrick Kelley was a son of Daniel P. Kelley, a civil engineer who worked on the construction of the Sumner Tunnel from 1929 to 1933, and the former Cecilia Haley.
Mr. Kelley graduated in 1939 from Boston Latin School, and in 1951 from Catholic University in Washington, D.C., with a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering.
A member of the Air National Guard, he was stationed at Nagoya Air Base in Japan during the Korean War when he flew with a fighter escort group.
Promoted to major, Mr. Kelley moved on to the Missile Development Center at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, where his assignments included a land sled project that tested G-forces on the human body. He also worked on a tracking telescope that monitored satellite movement, including John Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission in 1962, when Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth.
Mr. Kelley was close friends with John Powers, who was NASA’s mission commentator for the six manned Mercury flights and was known as Shorty.
“Whenever there was a launching, Dad had the whole family watching it on TV,” his daughter recalled. “He was fascinated by it, and he’d always say, ‘C’mon, Shorty will be on.’ ”
Mr. Kelley retired from the service in 1966, after he had been promoted to lieutenant colonel, and moved to Hudson. He worked at Hanscom Air Force Base for the next 21 years as a civilian for the US Department of Defense. He was a configuration specialist, and his projects included the radar installation in Bangor, Maine, that could detect incoming missiles over the North Pole.
An avid golfer who learned the sport with his wife while stationed in Japan, Mr. Kelley played at Stow Acres Country Club.
He read historical works — one of his favorites was “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” — and he faithfully and lovingly baby-sat for his grandson, Cory Boyle, who has cerebral palsy.
“Dad was on the quiet side, but he was also strict, which had something to do with his military background,” his daughter said. “All our mom had to say was, ‘Wait until the colonel gets home,’ to get us to shape up.”
In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. Kelley leaves three other daughters, Elizabeth Stanley of Defuniak Springs, Fla., Maureen Mann of Hudson, and Catherine Kochanski of Leominster; two sons, Peter of Maynard and John of Yarmouthport; 13 grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.
A service has been held. Burial was in Forestvale Cemetery in Hudson.
On Jan. 22, a Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition was presented posthumously to Mr. Kelley by US Representative Niki Tsongas, a Lowell Democrat.
“He will be remembered as being part of the Greatest Generation and taking on adversity when his country needed him the most,” it reads.Marvin Pave can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.