Editor’s Note: This is first in a series of Rotary Club of Tulsa members who served in World War II. Author Ed Jenkins is also a veteran of that war
In 1943, Levan Kelly graduated from Roswell N.M. High School and then went on to attend New Mexico Military Academy for a year. On the first day school let out, all members of the class received orders to report to Ft Bliss in El Paso, Texas. Within 10 days, the new privates had new orders to begin basic training at Ft. Riley, Kansas. Pay was $21 dollars per month. Levan endured those four months and was then selected to report to Officer Candidate School. His training four years in Reserve Officer Training Corps and a year in a military academy was a factor in the transfer to Ft Knox. A few months later he was acclaimed an officer and a gentleman by an act of congress. Lieutenant Kelly was told to report for a year of training in engineering at Texas A&M. Then this so called 100-day wonder was called back to Ft Riley as a member of the Armored Cavalry. He was assigned to teach the new recruits. Many of these young men had never left home before and had little or no experience with horses, guns or camping. Levan had ridden horses and hunted all his life, so he found it very unusual for a draftee to be so fearful of horses. For example, Levan recalled how one recruit cried and another recruit was so nervous on the firing range he wet his pants.
Maturing rapidly because of the responsibilities he was assuming, Lt. Kelly trained three recruit groups and then received the expected orders to report for active overseas duty as the Americans prepared to possibly attack Japan. An estimated one million young American men were expected to loose their lives in this final battle.
Levan spent two weeks on a packed troop ship. Leaving the ship, he went down rope ladders to a flat bottom boat that shoved off for the army campsite on Leyte, an island in the Philippines. It was hot and humid. There were huts with little or no circulating air, where the troop slept on cots. The tropics held fungus diseases, parasites and worms. Levan wondered about his fate during this period. He can recall the yellow tint of the Americans’ skin because of the necessity to take atabrin tablets to prevent malaria (Even today two million people in the world die of this affliction).
Fortunately, he was shortly transferred to Cebu and assigned as Officer in Charge of the station hospital. He now ordered, purchased, and planned meals for the entire contingent. The food allowance was 90 cents per day per man.
Levan commanded the labor force of both GIs and natives. The hospital staff consisted of 10 nurses, 12 male officers most of whom were physicians, and 80 enlisted men.
Fortunately, Levan started college as a premedical student, so he was somewhat familiar with the treatment of many of the medical problems.
The hospital consisted of two open wards. The intense humidity, heat and crowding was a problem in those poorly ventilated chambers. The unpleasant odor of soaked bandages, sweat and chemicals lingers in his memories.
Appendectomies were common because of the age group. Although the island was under U.S. control, pockets of die-hard Japanese were still a danger, adding to the tension.
Christmas in the tropics seemed weird, but it became a happy celebration when Levan had his men decorate the entire facility. Visiting USO troops were a happy diversion and seemed to raise morale. Paperback books and movies were another form of entertainment. A ration of beer and cigarettes was given out regularly. Levan said he was not particularly interested in either, and he would sell his portion for money to send home.
It was not unusual for a southwestern U.S. youth never to have learned to swim. Public pools, if available, were shunned because of the fear of contracting poliomyelitis. Levan was grateful for the doctor who taught him how to swim in the salt waters around the island.
One day good news came. The Japanese surrendered. There was great relief and joy throughout the station. Of course the enemy would not believe their country gave up, so there was still the danger of being shot by enemy troops abandoned in the islands.
Then came some very bad news. Levan’s father was dying. Home leave was extended to the Lieutenant. Sadly, by the time he arrived home, his 71-year-old father had died of cancer. Fortunately, Kelly had accumulated sufficient points to allow discharge. His new responsibilities required looking out for his mother and four younger brothers.
He was discharged from Ft. Chaffee in Arkansas in 1946. His father had left 30 head of cattle and 60 acres of land. The brothers formed a limited partnership, and Levan was sent off to the University of Oklahoma to study business and finance. He made all A’s the first year. He had a soft drink concession, and sold hamburgers and cheeseburgers to students to earn money. With help from the GI Bill of Rights, he made it through college by attending class year round. He received his degree in 1948. While at OU he was invited to join Chi Alpha Epsilon. He was elected president of his pledge class.
Back at the ranch, the five brothers pooled their money so that all could get an advanced education. Their holdings expanded to 12,000 acres. The cattle herd grew as well. The brothers were able to grow all the feed they needed, and in addition leased out 3,000 acres for cash. The brothers branched out into banking, and now own Spirit Bank.
Levan continues to take an active part in his many businesses and financial interests. He was a founding member of the Inverness Village board where he and his wife Betty reside. He and Betty were childhood friends who became sweethearts. They married in 1950. They have three children, a boy and two girls. He joined the Bristow Rotary Club many years ago and transferred to the Rotary Club of Tulsa in 2004.
When asked how his early challenges due to the Great Depression and totally unexpected changes in his life due to WW II have affected him, he responded as follows: “All the new responsibilities made me mature rapidly. It was essential to develop leadership abilities, and this required self-discipline and commitment.”
He had to sacrifice immediate gratification for future success. As an officer he found he had to show courage and patriotism. It also was very obvious that to defeat a terrible, cruel and treacherous enemy, it was necessary to win this war at any cost.
To close, I add thank you Levan Kelly for your hard work and devotion. Congratulations on a life well lived. You are a shining example for the generations that follow.