Veteran recalls experiences as WWII prisoner

Harry Kelley, of Basehor, flips through a scrapbook displaying a photo of him and other World War II prisoners of war in Cairo, Egypt, after they were released at the end of the war. Kelley said one other person in the photo was still alive. Kelley will celebrate his 90th birthday at 3 p.m. today at the Basehor VFW post.

Some details have grayed over time, Harry Kelley says. But more than 60 years on, the stories pour forth with scrapbooks opened on the kitchen table of his Basehor home.

He remembers spending three days in a tin hut where he couldn’t sit or lie down, for the sin of sleeping in a mess hall to avoid mosquitoes. And he remembers sweating in his cot with malaria, with nothing but water to get through it. And he won’t ever forget sitting on a runway in New York, crying because he was home.

Yes, it’s hard to remember everything, says Kelley, a prisoner of war in the Pacific during World War II.

“But I’m still here. It’s her fault, too,” he says, nodding across the table toward his wife of 62 years, Audrey. “She kept me fed good all the time. I’m sure that’s the big thing.”

Kelley’s 90th birthday was Tuesday — one day after the 65th anniversary of his release from captivity. Harry and Audrey, longtime Basehor residents, will celebrate the birthday with friends at 3 p.m. today at the Basehor VFW post, 2806 N. 155th St.

‘Death Railway’ worker

Kelley spent three and a half years as a prisoner of the Japanese, 18 months of which he spent in the Burmese jungle, working on the 250-mile Burmese-Thailand Railway. The railroad is perhaps best known as containing the famed Bridge over the River Kwai, but Kelley and others who were there knew it as the “Death Railway.”

“You ever hear of the movie ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’? Don’t believe a damn thing in there,” Kelley said. “I know. I was there. Eighteen months in that jungle. When I came out of there, I weighed 93 pounds. I don’t know how anybody survived that. Some people do it. Some people don’t. That’s all.”

Before he went to the jungle, Kelley was a 19-year-old from Rosedale, now part of Kansas City, Kan., who enlisted in the Navy in 1940, two years after he’d been told he wasn’t in good enough shape to do so. He was in the Philippines when Pearl Harbor was bombed, and shortly afterward he volunteered for the U.S.S. Houston, a ship in the Asiatic fleet.

On March 1, 1942, one of many dates Kelley still has no trouble recalling, the Houston was sunk by Japanese torpedoes. After he spent 11 or 12 hours in the ocean trying to swim toward an island he could see in the distance, a Japanese ship picked him up. He would not be free again until the war was over, in the late summer of 1945.

Upon his return, he spent about a year in a hospital in Chicago, struggling with a collapsed lung, bouts with malaria and other health problems. In the room next to him was a man from Minnesota also suffering from injuries suffered in the war. Kelley would walk over to check on him if he thought he might be in trouble.

The man died after a few months, but Kelley grew close to his sister, and they married soon after he left the hospital in Leavenworth, where he was later transferred.

“He was so good to my brother, I would have done anything for him,” Audrey Kelley said.

From Minnesota to Basehor

The Kelleys married in Minnesota – “40 below zero,” Harry says – and farmed there for about five years before Harry got sick of the cold. They moved to Louisburg, where they ran a dairy farm and raised three sons while Harry worked for the Santa Fe Railway. In 1972, after the sons had left for the Navy and they didn’t have enough hands for the farm, the Kelleys came to Basehor.

There, Harry drove a school bus, driving kindergartners on field trips and high school bands to competitions across Kansas and Missouri. The Kelleys grew tomatoes, onions and other vegetables in their backyard, leaving a tin can for trusted neighbors to pay for anything they wanted to take.

“I never lost a dime,” Harry said.

During his time in Basehor, as Harry began to talk more about his experience as a POW, he’s received honors from the Kansas Legislature, the city of Basehor and others. But he doesn’t like to brag.

“I figure myself a survivor,” Harry said. “That’s the best I could do.”

At the party this weekend, the Kelleys will eat from a buffet and catch up with friends and neighbors from around Basehor. The Kelleys aren’t able to garden anymore, but still will provide the food for the celebration at the VFW post. Meantime, Audrey will focus on making Harry presentable.

“I’ve got to cut his hair,” she said.