Keel ceremony for battleship evokes pride for Springfield hero’s family

The Book of Ecclesiastes lists 28 things for which there is a season.

On Dec. 15, when she helped authenticate the keel of the U.S. Navy guided missile destroyer that will carry her late father’s name across the world’s oceans, Kelley Elaine Neal Gray, a Springfield native living in Columbus, envisioned a 29th: “A time to stick out your chest.”

Seven years after he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery and 72 years after the heroic rescue mission in the mountains of Korea for which he was awarded the Navy Cross, Gray watched as her initials were etched into the backbone of what will become the George M. Neal. Gray is the official sponsor of the ship.

>> EARLIER: Navy destroyer named for local Korean War hero

Because watching their father being honored was “overwhelming” for family members,” Gray said, he “would be over the moon” about his own name being given to the 509-foot Arleigh-Burke class destroyer under construction at Ingalls Shipyard in Pascagoula, Miss.

The vessel is expected to be finished in 2026.

The ship’s naming for Springfield-born Neal has revived a story that had faded from the spotlight to the extent that retired Air Force Test pilot Paul Metz of Springfield learned about it only because a friend of his who builds dioramas of historic military scenes built the one in which Neal played a crucial role.

Given his enthusiasm for things military and things Springfield, “it kind of surprised me that I didn’t know, and the staff (at the Clark County Heritage Center) didn’t know of the story,” Metz said.

Over two years in which he would “dig and find a side road and dig into a sideroad,” Metz gathered 1.8 gigabytes of information he has shared with the museum about Neal and Navy Lt. John Koelsch, whose actions led him to be the first helicopter pilot to be awarded the Medal of Honor.

The two were dispatched July 3, 1951, to rescue Marine Capt. James Wilkins, whose Corsair fighter plane had been downed by enemy fire in the mountains of North Korea.

In hazardous conditions and as night was falling, they found Wilkins, landed, and were winching him aboard when enemy fire disabled their helicopter. With a wounded Wilkins in tow, they managed to evade the enemy for nine days before being captured and sent to the prisoner of war camp in which Koelsch died of malnutrition, dysentery and beatings.

Two years later, both the Dayton and Springfield newspapers carried stories about Neal being presented with his Navy Cross Dec. 3, 1953, presentation at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Metz found. He also discovered that a television documentary show called “Navy Log” broadcast Neal’s heroics to the nation.

Credit: Courtesy of HII’s Ingalls Shipbuilding

Credit: Courtesy of HII’s Ingalls Shipbuilding

Koelsch’s heroics also were celebrated – to the extent that a frigate named for him was in Naval service from 1968-1989.

But in their earliest years, George Neal was not so much Kelley and her brother Van’s hero as he was a father missing in action.

He and Barbara Trimble married in 1954, just two years after his release in a prisoner of war exchange but divorced when Kelley was just six months old (my previous column mistakenly said 6 years) and her brother 2 1/2 years (again, not 8).

He soon moved to California to reunite with three brothers and sisters he had been largely separated from after all the children were orphaned by first their father’s, then their mother’s deaths, just a few years apart when George was 10.

“We didn’t get much time with him at all when we were kids,” Gray said. “We can probably count on one hand” the visits before they were teens.

Their first extended times together were awkward on both sides.

Intending a longer visit, Kelley went to see her father in California at age 16 and came home within a week. That was only in part because it was her first time away from home.

“I went out there, he lived in a beautiful home looking over the Hollywood Hills.”

“He was living the life that I was wondering why we weren’t. My mom, she was a single mom, hard-working.”

Van’s impression was much the same.

“He would send pictures from on the beach, and my mom’s working two jobs,” he said, especially when I was young.

Despite a lack of child support payments, he added, “My mom, she never ever, ever spoke ill of my dad.”

Perhaps that and a natural desire for a better relationship led Van at accept his father’s invitation to relocate to California in the mid 1970s after Van’s service in the U.S. Air Force.

“I didn’t stay with him but about four or five months, our relationship was really rocky.”

Still, there were positives. He got to know his stepbrothers and -sisters better, and as time passed so did Van’s rancor.

“The older I got, the more I realized that sometimes because a couple gets married, it doesn’t mean they should be married forever … Sometimes things just don’t work out the way you want them to work out.”

He also began to think of the effects of what in the time of the Korean War originally was called shell shock and is now known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Said Van, “There’s no way you could be a prisoner of war for that length of time (a year) … not get any psychological help” and emerge healthy.

For his sister, the story is much the same.

“It took (for) me to kind of step back and not just think about his service, but his childhood,” Gray said. “He had lost his father, then his mother, and his three siblings had to fend for themselves. The youngest, Thomas … was officially adopted by another family and actually had his name changed.”

“When they all could get back together, they went and looked for Thomas, changed his name back, and ended up going to California.”

Eventually there were more visits and contact for Van and Kelley, and their father, an avid equestrian by then, even moved back to Springfield to operate an electronics business just south of town.

But not until Kelley and her husband, Eric, had children of her own did she find a way to free herself from the rock and the hard place she’d been wedged between.

Unwilling or unable to terminate the relationship with her father, “I put myself in a situation where I wanted to move forward with it” — to rebuild it.

“I wanted my kids to have a relationship with him,” she added, “and he was always willing.”

Much as her father and his siblings reclaimed their brother, named Thomas, Gray and her brother reclaimed their father – and he, them.

In those later years, “that was my guy,” said Van, who lives only a few minutes’ drive from Kelley in Columbus and sees her regularly. In the end, he said, “It was such a big blessing that Kelley and I were out there (in California) the night he passed.”

The reconnection also allowed his sister to be heartfelt when she said “it was so good” to have their stepbrother, Richard Egan at the ceremony. To her, it recognized the 25 years her father was married to Richard’s mother, who would have had her initials etched into the keel Dec. 15 had it not been for her untimely death.

So, it fell to Gray to utter the ceremonial words “The keel has been truly and fairly laid” on Dec. 15 after a welder etched K.E.N.G on to the keel.

Those are initials fully represent both the wholeness of Kelley Elaine Neal Gray and the human potential to move forward and heal.

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