Together in war, and now in old age
WWII captain, corporal end up in same adult home
By Erica Noonan, Globe Staff | December 20, 2009
NATICK - It was a 68-year-old photo on a nursing home bulletin board salute to Veterans Day that caught John Kelley’s eye as he maneuvered his wheelchair through the reception area of his nursing home.
In the upper right-hand corner of the poster was a black-and-white portrait taken in 1941 of Army Captain Robert Fulton.
Kelley, himself a World War II vet, took a closer look.
Then, nearly shaking in disbelief, the 87-year-old called over a staffer to share his incredible news: The man in the photo had been his commanding officer for more than a year in the South Pacific.
"I thought, ‘He’s alive!’ I really thought I was the only one left," recalled Kelley, who was a Cambridge boy from a family of a dozen children sent to fight in New Caledonia, a key Allied base in the battle against the Japanese in the wake of their attack on Pearl Harbor.
"They said, ‘Yes. He’s upstairs."’
Robert Fulton was indeed alive. At 93, he is partially deaf and walks slowly with a cane. But his memory is good, and he was stunned to learn another member of the 221st Field Artillery Battalion was living in the same complex.
Kelley’s daughter, visiting from her home in Hyannis, asked Whitney Place receptionist Ellen Goodman whether a reunion could be arranged. "She said, ‘Dad really, really wants to see Mr. Fulton,’ " said Goodman.
A day later, Fulton gingerly made his way downstairs from his assisted living apartment to Room 203 in the facility’s intensive-care nursing unit to visit the man he commanded a lifetime ago.
Since that first meeting two weeks ago, the men are slowly reaching across the decades and the distinctions of rank to form a late-in-life friendship.
"He just wanted to get together so he could call me names," joked Fulton during his second visit with Kelley last week.
The two now swap memories of early-morning rev eille, mosquitoes "the size of bombers," the threat of malaria, scarlet and dengue fever, powdered food in their K-rations, long-dead comrades from their battalion, and the terror of the frequent Japanese raids on their outpost.
"We used to say, "Charlie’s coming," said Fulton. "You’d wait, listen for the [sound of a whistle]. Everything shakes, and then you’d get covered in dirt if you were in a hole."
"Anyone who didn’t think there was a God certainly thought about it differently while that was going on," said Fulton, a Belmont native who attended Harvard University on the ROTC program, then was starting law school at Boston University when he was called up to serve in 1940.
The two men were on the same slow boat from New York, via Fiji and Bougainville Island, including a slow passage through the Panama Canal, where, Kelley recalled, monkeys jumped onto the ship’s deck.
They built watchtowers in the giant palm trees of New Caledonia, a former French colony off the coast of Australia, and waited for the US government, still scrambling to prepare for a world war, to outfit them with proper gear and firearms.
As an officer and an enlisted man, Fulton and Kelley didn’t mix much socially during the war.
In fact, Fulton heard for the first time last week about Kelley’s hijinks trying to procure liquor on their tiny tropical island, nearly seven decades after it happened.
"It was mostly ‘Good morning, sir,’ ‘Good morning, corporal,’ " said Kelley, who left high school to sign up for the military at age 17. "He was quiet and fair," he said of Fulton. "But when he said no, he meant no."
As for Kelley’s wartime behavior, Fulton said: "He kept his nose out of trouble."
"I got three good conduct medals," Kelley, who was eventually promoted to staff sergeant, told his former captain.
"How did you get those?" Fulton joked.
Kelley came home on a break and married his childhood sweetheart, Catherine, in their home parish, St. Mary’s in Cambridge.
He returned to Camp Edwards for duty, but became ill for several months and was later discharged from the service.
He became a jeweler at E.B. Horn in Downtown Crossing, and then manager of the jewelry department at Jordan Marsh across the street. He and Catherine raised four children and later moved to Framingham.
Fulton remained in the service and was sent to Leyte in the Philippines, where the war was reaching a feverish pitch.
He was discharged in 1944, just 10 days before his unit would make a dangerous foray into the Philippines province of Cebu to seize the region from Japanese control.
He met his future wife, Mary Carraher, another Belmont native, at a USO dance in downtown Boston, and they married in 1947.
He worked as a judge advocate general and a lawyer in private practice for many years, and the couple raised four children in Wellesley.
In 2004, his wife was hospitalized at Whitney Place, and eventually died in the second-floor room next door to where Kelley now lives.
Fulton, who retired from the Army as a lieutenant colonel, said he found the staff so kind during his wife’s six-month-long decline that he decided to spend his later years at the facility as well.
His youngest son, 52-year-old Bob Fulton Jr. of Natick, said last week that he had enjoyed his father’s war stories growing up. "I’m very proud to be his son," said the younger Fulton. And very glad he made it home"
Although they both worked most of their lives in downtown Boston, the men’s paths crossed again only tangentially after the war; Kelley recalls running into Fulton once at Jordan Marsh, and another time with their families on Nantasket Beach, a half-century ago.
"Chances are 1 in 10 million that the two of us would wind up in the same place," said Kelley.
The notion of reconnecting with a war buddy in the assisted living center never even occurred to Fulton. "I didn’t think there were any of us left," he said.
Of the approximately 160 men from their battalion, most of them Boston-area natives, neither Kelley nor Fulton has seen any others in the past 25 years, nor do they know of any others still alive.
The numbers of World War II-era soldiers are indeed rapidly dwindling. In a study conducted last year, the US Department of Veterans Affairs estimated they were dying at a rate of approximately 1,000 per day.
Just 2 million of the 16 million American men and women who served during the war are still alive, the agency estimated.
John Kelley came to live permanently in the nursing home unit at Whitney Place about 16 months ago. His wife died in 2005, and he has suffered a series of strokes and heart attacks.
His health has improved recently, however, and he can proudly still recite his Army serial number, as well as his brother Eddie’s number, from memory. "Sometimes it’s easier to remember the old stuff than what you had for breakfast," Kelley said.
"We," he said, nodding with affection in Fulton’s direction, "are just a couple of old boys."