"My experience in the Guard? The people I met, the people I knew.
It was a wonderful thing," the old Soldier recalled, sitting in his
living room on a recent sunny winter day.
At 102 years old,
Philas J. Kelly of Farmington, Mich., is likely the oldest living
veteran of the Michigan National Guard. From 1937 to 1940, Kelly
served in the 107th Observation Squadron of the Michigan National
That's right -- Kelly served before World War II, and
well before the 107th became a part of the Air National Guard when
the Air Force was created as a separate service some 10 years after
Kelly first signed up.
Kelly recently became a member of the Michigan Air Guard
Historical Association. Upon coming to the attention of Michigan Air
National Guard leaders at Selfridge Air National Guard Base, the
former corporal was invited to spend a day at Selfridge, touring
today's 107th Fighter Squadron and other facilities.
National Guard's very foundation is the history of our
Citizen-Airmen and Citizen-Soldiers," said Brig. Gen. John D.
Slocum, commander of the 127th Wing at Selfridge. "Our Michigan
Guard Airmen today seek to emulate the standard first set by the
Minutemen and then carried on by veterans like Mr. Kelly. Meeting
him was a privilege and honor as well as a chance, in a very small
way, to honor those he served alongside in an earlier era."
For most of the 75 years since Kelly was honorably discharged from
the Michigan National Guard, however, he said he really didn't
consider himself a veteran.
"I was only in for a few years
and only in the National Guard," Kelly said. "But a few years ago, I
was speaking to a woman, a counselor at the senior center about
benefits. She told me 'I served and I shouldn't be hesitant to say
that I am a veteran.'"
"Now," he says as he pulls out a thin
file folder, "these are my proudest possessions."
his National Guard discharge paper and his old 107th OBSN. SQDN.
unit patch - both in pristine condition. The patch, featuring the
Red Devil logo still used by the modern-day 107th Fighter Squadron,
looks as if it has not been touched by human hands in decades. If
there is as status above "mint condition" this patch is it.
Pvt. Philas Kelly (24) in 1937, then a member of the 107th
Observation Squadron of the Michigan National Guard, on a training
exercise in Florida. Kelly, who was born in 1914, made a visit to
the 107th Fighter Squadron at Selfridge Air National Guard Base,
Michigan on March 15, 2016. (U.S. Air National Guard photo courtesy
of Philas Kelly)
In 1937, Kelly was 24 and had been working at Ford for a couple
of years. A number of his friends were in the 107th and "prevailed
upon me to join up." Back in those days, there was no basic training
required to join the unit, he was issued a uniform and started
getting on the job training..
The 107th Aero Squadron had existed for a time during and after
World War I, 1917-1919. In 1925, a new version of the 107th - now as
an Observation Squadron -- was established when a group of men began
meeting in a Detroit garage with the intention of forming a military
flying squadron. On May 7, 1926, the squadron was formally
recognized and established as a National Guard flying squadron - one
of the original 26 such squadrons established around the country
that year. After operating in various locations for its first couple
of years of operation, the 107th, then part of the 32nd Infantry
Division, was stationed at what is now known as Detroit Metropolitan
Airport in Romulus.
"I think I was the only private assigned
to the photo section," Kelly said of his service.
time, the 107th was flying Douglas O-38s, a two-seat bi-plane
equipped with a camera for aerial observation and photography.
Kelly's primary duty was to process the film used in the cameras,
spending plenty of time in the squadron darkroom. Periodically, he
would get to fly aboard the aircraft.
"On a training mission
in Lacrosse, Wisc., myself and another soldier were out on the
flight line, loading film into the cameras," Kelly recalled of a
1938 operation. "The pilots came out and said, 'Come on, you guys,
"So we climbed on board and took off. We had no
idea that we would be performing dive bombing practice," said Kelly,
as he motions with his hands to show a pilot pushing the control
yoke forward in the old plane.
In addition to the camera, the
O-38 was equipped with two machine guns and could carry up to four
"We landed just in time for lunch, but after
all that dive bombing - we had no interest whatsoever in lunch,"
Kelly was born in a small town in northern
Ontario, Canada in 1913. When he was 10 years old, his family moved
to Detroit where his father took a job.
March 15, 2016 - Philas Kelly, at age 102 likely the oldest living
former photographer to have served in the National Guard, talks with
Senior Airman Ryan Zeski, the youngest photojournalist
currently serving in the Michigan Air National Guard's 127th Wing at
Selfridge Air National Guard Base. Kelly was recently a guest at the
base to visit his old unit, now the 107th Fighter Squadron. (U.S.
Air National Guard photo by Terry Atwell)
As a young teen, living in the Corktown neighborhood of Detroit,
Kelly worked at Navin Field, the old stadium where the Detroit
Tigers baseball team was playing. He started out working bagging
peanuts, preparing hot dogs and similar tasks. His pay was a free
75-cent ticket to a future game that he could then sell and keep the
proceeds. Later, he worked as a gasoline station attendant across
the street from the ballpark and on game days would often work
parking cars for players and team officials, as well as fans. In one
memorable episode, in 1935, Charles Navin, a member of the family
that owned the Tigers and who worked in the team's front office,
gave Kelly several sets of tickets to that year's World Series, in
which the Tigers were participating.
"That's when I had my
first taste of entrepreneurship," Kelly said. "I sold those tickets
very quickly at a little premium, returned the face value price to
Mr. Navin and kept the profit. At that time, I was supporting my
mother and younger sister on a salary of $17.50 per week at the gas
station, so any additional income was very welcome."
time Kelly enlisted, he had been working at Ford Motor Company for
about two years. He had begun "working at hard, manual labor in the
steel mill operations" at the Ford Rouge plant. After about a year
and a half there, his manager selected him to be laid off, in order
that he could take a new position in the accounting department of
"I then went to work with a pad of paper and a
number 2 pencil. I dressed a little better. Beginning in 1940, I
became a salary worker in the disbursing department," Kelly said. "I
look on two moments as the key moments in my life: when my family
moved to Detroit in 1923 and the day I was hired as salary at Ford
It was his work at Ford that prompted his
discharge from the Michigan National Guard. In fact his discharge,
signed on Oct. 5, 1940, by Major Frederick R. Anderson, 107th
squadron commander, states "business" as the reason for his
"In 1940, Ford was getting pretty involved in war
work," Kelly said. "I was becoming increasingly involved in working
on contracts between Ford and the War Department."
U.S. entered World War II in 1941, Kelly's job was deemed
war-essential, meaning he was exempt from further military service.
Among his duties during WWII was overseeing part of the contract
Ford held to produce B-24 bombers at the famed Willow Run plant in
Ypsilanti. As part of his duties, he would frequently leave his
office in Dearborn, where Ford headquarters is located, and travel
to the plant.
"The impressions that stay with me to this day
was watching a B-24, this big bomber roll out of that plant, one
every hour," he recalls.
"And then they would take them
across a field they had at the plant and they would fire the guns at
some targets to sight-in the guns. The sound of that firepower was
Kelly would eventually work more than 39 years at Ford, retiring
in 1974. Way back in his days as a laborer in the Rouge plant, he
was in the plant one day when "Mr. Henry" walked through the plant,
as Kelly referred to Henry Ford, the company's visionary founder.
Seeing "Mr. Henry" walk by was his only brush with the company
founder, though he was also among the thousands of mourners who
passed by as Ford lie in state in the Ford Rotunda at the company's
headquarters building when the founder died in 1947. Years later,
Kelly would periodically deliver marketing and sales reports to
Henry Ford II, the grandson of the founder and himself CEO of the
company. (On Kelly's 100th birthday in 2014, he received a
congratulatory letter from Bill Ford Jr., the great-grandson of "Mr.
Henry" and also a CEO of the company for a time.)
March 15, 2016 - Major Bill Rundell, a pilot with the 107th
Fighter Squadron, shows some of the life support equipment used by
Air Force pilots to Philas Kelly, who served in the 107th prior to
World War II, during a visit by Kelly to the squadron at Selfridge
Air National Guard Base. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Terry
In 1960, some 20 years after he left the photo lab of the
107th Observation Squadron, Kelly picked up a camera again
for the first time. He's been an avid amateur photographer
ever since and has served lengthy tenures in leadership of
the Photographic Society of America and of the Photographic
Guild of Detroit.
"It's funny. I was in the photo
section of the 107th, but didn't touch a camera for more
than 20 years, didn't own a camera," Kelly said.
even more than that, I served in the 107th, in the National
Guard. In all my life, I have never once touched a gun.
Never held one in my hands. Certainly never shot one."
Recalling his military service, Kelly quickly begins
rattling of a few names, this one a master sergeant, that
one a photographer at General Motors in his civilian
"You'd be surprised at how easy it is to
forget some names and others you never forget," Kelly said.
"And you have no control over which ones you remember and
which ones you forget."
Jim Kalig - Kelly
acknowledges he's guessing at the spelling after all these
years - was his lieutenant. Master Sgt. Tex Schilling - he
was the one from GM - was head of the photo lab. Master Sgt.
Dan Bergan, he was the top sergeant in the whole squadron.
Working to memorialize and honor the service of both
former and current members of the Michigan Air National
Guard, the Michigan Air Guard Historical Association
recently launched a campaign to increase its membership
numbers. That campaign included a mass mailing that reached
"There are so many stories that make up the
Guard," said Lt. Col. (ret.) Lou Nigro, a former Michigan
ANG pilot who now serves as executive director of the
MAGHA's Selfridge Military Air Museum. "There are the people
who make a full-time career of service in the Guard, but
there are also thousands upon thousands of people, from all
walks of life, who have served the Guard at various points
in their lives. They continue on with their civilian career,
but they also served in the National Guard. Our volunteers
work very diligently to preserve their stories through
photos, aircraft and other artifacts.
"It isn't too
often that we bump into a person who served in the Guard 75
years ago, but when we do, we want to hear his story and
salute him or her for their service," Nigro said.
By U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Daniel Heaton
Comment on this article