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Joe W. Kelly: Four Star General from Martinsville

While some famous Martinsville people are Hall of Fame basketball coaches and others are former Indiana governors, only Joe W. Kelly has the honor of being a four star general from Martinsville, Indiana. A United States Air Force general, flight instructor, B-26 bomb group commander, and pioneer of the transition to jet aircraft, Joe W. Kelly has served his country well in the air and on the ground. Born on January 19, 1910 in Waverly, Indiana, Joe Kelly and his family soon moved to the Indianapolis suburb of Martinsville, Indiana. Kelly attended high school at Martinsville High School before moving to nearby Greencastle, Indiana to attend DePauw University. He graduated from Martinsville in 1927 and attended DePauw for only one year before enrolling in the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1928. It was at West Point that Kelly got his first taste of the military, graduating as an Infantry second lieutenant in 1932.

Joe Kelly attended flight school for a year before being assigned to Selfridge Field, Michigan as part of the 94th Pursuit Squadron. Kelly got a humble start in aviation; his first position was as that of an air mail pilot. Kelly cut his teeth in the air on countless flights from New Jersey to Ohio, but eventually he moved on to instructing other pilots at Randolph Field in Texas. By 1944, Joe Kelly was a colonel and the acting commander of the 386th Bomb Group in the 9th Air Force. The 386th was one of the most successful B-26 medium bomber units in World War II while under Kelly’s command. Due in part to Joe Kelly’s leadership, the 386th racked up the highest scores in enemy aircraft destroyed, tonnage of dispatched bombs, and successful sorties flown; the unit also had the highest bombing accuracy score.

In December of 1944, Joe Kelly returned to West Point as the director of aviation. From there, Kelly’s career hopscotched around a number of important United States Air Force positions, including an enrollment at the Air War College at Maxwell Air Force Base, a 5 1/2 year stint as a commander with the Strategic Air Command in Yokota Air Base, a period as the director of Legislative Liaison for the Office of the Secretary of the Air Force (for which he earned the Air Force Distinguished Service Medal), and in 1958 he became the head of the Air Proving Ground Center in Eglin Air Force Base.

However, Joe Kelly’s pinnacle achievements took place during his tenure as Commander of the Military Air Transport Service (MATS), which was in charge of all major airlift and supply missions. The first four star commander of MATS, Kelly took the post in the early 60’s and was pivotal in bringing the United States into the jet age. As a matter of fact, he flew the first MATS jet powered plane in 1961 from its factory in Washington to McGuire Air Force Base. Kelly spent four years as the commander of MATS, a long time during an especially tumultuous period in American history. Kelly’s MATS participated in the Cuban Missile Crisis, Operation Deep Freeze (exploratory missions into Antarctica), and the Congo Crisis. By the time of his retirement in 1964, Kelly had racked up a sizable trophy case that included the Legion of Merit, the French Croix de Guerre, an induction into the Minuteman Hall of Fame, and the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Joe Kelly passed away at the age of 69 on July 8, 1979. Though this famous Martinsville person didn’t spend a whole lot of time in the Indiana town, his impact on the military and the nation was a strong one, particularly during World War II. The first four star commander of the Military Air Transportation Service, Kelly assumed a number of roles during his long military career, including that of an air mail carrier, a flight instructor, and commander of a medium range bomber wing. The recipient of awards and medals from around the globe, Kelly brought MATS into the jet age while serving in some of the toughest periods of international tensions the 20th century had seen. While not a star basketball coach or a popular Indiana governor, Joe Kelly is a Hoosier son who served admirably in the United States Air Force and beyond.


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