Current Commandant Gen. David H. Berger noted the general’s passing online, saying, “Gen. Kelley served with honor and distinction.”
Born on Nov. 11, 1928, the 91-year-old Boston native joined the Marine Corps in 1950 after graduating from Villanova College in Pennsylvania, according to his biography.
He served as an infantry officer before an assignment at Headquarters Marine Corps. Kelley commanded the newly formed 2nd Force Reconnaissance Company and later deployed as commanding officer of 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, in combat in Vietnam in 1965. During that tour he was awarded the Silver Star.
In 1970 Kelley returned to Vietnam as commander of 1st Marines — the last Marine regiment in combat in the war.
In July 1983, at age 52, he was promoted to general and succeeded Gen. Robert H. Barrow as commandant.
It was only four months later that a terrorist bombing at the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, killed 241 Americans.
Years later, the former commandant would call the episode, “the worst emotional trauma of my life.”
Kelley rushed to the site to comfort his Marines and check on the survivors.
“When you see 144 caskets on an airplane,’” he later said, remembering his grief at the time, “it will have an impact on you for the rest of your life.”
Kelley served as the commander of the Rapid Deployment Force under President Jimmy Carter, which was a concept of having ready military forces outside of the Middle East on call to react to the area. That evolved into U.S. Central Command.
The Corps faced dark incidents during his tenure, one including the revelations of the Iran-Contra affair involving Marine Corps Lt. Col. Oliver North and an espionage scandal involving Marine security guards at diplomatic posts in the Soviet Union, specifically Sgt. Clayton J. Lonetree, who was charged with espionage but also involved at least four other Marines at the post.
At the same time, Kelley oversaw a post-Vietnam renaissance of the Corps that improved its Marines and equipment, preparing the service for an outsized role in a range of operations in the coming decade from the Persian Gulf War to peacekeeping and disaster response missions across the globe.
On the eve of his retirement, Kelley told the Christian Science Monitor that he saw a general “breakdown in the morals of American youth” as a source of concern for the state of future military service members.
He blasted Congress for believing that national defense could be done “on the cheap” and for reporters who have a “lynch-mob mentality.”
Kelley retired from the Corps in 1987 after 37 years of service.
In a 2014 interview with Armchair General, Kelley reflected on his time as commandant: “I was one of the most fortunate commandants and one of the most unfortunate commandants."
"It was unfortunate because early in my tenure the Beirut bombing of the Marine barracks occurred, an emotional time for all of us because we lost a considerable number of Marines,” he said. “The positive part of that is that the president at the time was Ronald Wilson Reagan, and I could not have asked for a better commander in chief ever than Ronald Reagan, and from that he and I became close personal friends.”
His personal decorations and awards include: the Distinguished Service Medal; the Silver Star Medal; Legion of Merit with Combat "V" and two gold stars in lieu of second and third awards; the Bronze Star Medal with Combat "V" and a gold star in lieu of a second award; the Joint Service Commendation Medal; Navy Commendation Medal; and the Army Commendation Medal. He was a Marine Corps Parachutist and U.S. Army Master Parachutist.
A New York Times profile at the time of his retirement noted how much an impact his time in uniform had on him.
“According to some of his peers, General Kelley does not so much personify the Marine Corps as he personalizes it, taking to heart what happens in the Corps and making himself the incarnation of the organization he leads.”
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.