Aviation History

From World War II B-17 pilot Colin P. Kelly to the “Ghost of Kyiv:” How Legends give Nations hope during Time of War

As the legend of the Ghost of Kyiv grows, we are reminded of another wartime story which also gave a nation hope during a time of war.


As the legend of the Ghost of Kyiv grows, we are reminded of another wartime story which 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.

According to Kelly’s Wikipedia entry, which we quote in full;

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 14th Bombardment Squadron, 19th Bombardment Group, United States Army the Air Corps was in command of 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 which 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 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 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.

This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. B-17G Flying Fortress – 42-31076, LG-V “Chief Sly’s Son” 91st BG, 322nd BS – 1944

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 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 accomplishments were magnified from the simple light cruiser Natori, to the heavy Cruiser Ashigara, thence to the Battleship Haruna. In the legend, 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. Unfortunately in real life, his heroic deed had no such impact on the Philippines Campaign. The story of his mission was sent out by MacArthur’s HQ communique, and broadcast to a nation hungry for war news.

Still, the story of Colin P. Kelly helped inspire a generation of young Americans heading for war. Those already in the training pipeline redoubled their efforts to do what they could to contribute to the War effort. Those still on Civvie street had a tale of heroism to add to the revenge factor in the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor, and yet another reason to join up. Every American fighting man who fought in World War II helped do their bit to grind away at the Axis Alliance of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan. Their efforts would bear fruit as the Axis crumbled before Allied might, under a war machine forged and inspired by the heroic tale of Colin P. Kelly.

Whoever the “Ghost of Kyiv” may be, they have managed to inspire the world with a tale that may or may not be true. The Ghost may not be a single individual, it may just be the Spirit of Ukrainian resistance. Ukraine’s Ministry of Defence tweeted on Feb. 25, 2022:

“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!”

Still, the Sukhoi Su-35 is one of the most potent Air to Air Platforms on the planet, with up to double the armament of a single MiG-29. The Sukhoi Su-27 has a similar loadout. Another MiG-29 sounds likely though it could be a MiG-35. Sukhoi Su-25s do sound like something a MiG-29 could shoot down relatively easily. The Ukranians claim 7 Russian Aircraft shot down on Day 1. As we have already explained, the chance an aging MiG-29 could score so many of Ukraine’s victories while an entire air force and air defense system which also fought and yet scored only a single shootdown. Thus we contend the chance 6 of 7 from a single pilot is extremely unlikely.

In addition, Ukraine’s MiG-29s appear to be legacy airframes dating from when the Soviet Union collapsed, leaving Fighter Regiments equipped with MiG-29s in what would become Ukraine. These aircraft have some upgrades, some sport the new digital camouflage, but their equipment fit appears relatively spartan, with cockpits still in the Soviet Blue interior color and steam gauges predominant.

Still, stranger things have happened through history.

Still, an entire nation under siege right now wants believe.

Godspeed to all in Harms Way, and to those Pilots of the Ukranian Air Force facing virtually impossible odds.

Be sure to check out William Cobb’s Facebook Page Pensacola Aerospace Museum for awesome aviation’s photos and stories.

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

William Cobb

Mr. William Cobb is a licensed Instrument Flight Instructor in Single and Multi Engine Airplanes who is the founder and director of the Pensacola Aerospace Museum. Mr. Cobb spent from 2008 to 2015 instructing for the U.S. Navy's Initial Flight Screening program. After 8 years of full time Flight Instruction, Mr. Cobb started his own Commercial Drone Business, obtaining the first FAA Part 107 certification in his FAA region. Subsequent Drone work led to his becoming involved in Film Production work, and his establishing the Pensacola Aerospace Museum, an entity dedicated to honoring the memory of all those who ever gave their lives to flight.

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