[Editor’s Note: In recognition of Veterans Day, which falls on Nov. 11, the Zebra wanted to tell the story of a fascinating veteran, and was privileged to speak with Capt. Kellerman. We invite you to hear the stories of veterans you might know, too, and you may just find a unifying thread – that they’re all interesting! The millions of women and men who serve in the U.S. Armed Forces are tightly wound into the fabric of the country, and their experiences are often inspiring, captivating, and motivating.]
By James Cullum
ALEXANDRIA, VA – This one time in 1959, Don Kellerman was landing on an aircraft carrier in the Meditterenean at night and something went wrong. He was in the co-pilot’s seat of a four-man Grumman S-2 Tracker [an anti-submarine warfare aircraft], and just finished a mission looking for Soviet subs. But as his plane landed there was a malfunction with the tailhook, and Kellerman found himself barreling down the runway of the USS Lake Champlain toward a neat collection of parked naval aircraft.
“Don’t let anyone ever tell you they’re not scared to death of landing on a carrier at night,” Kellerman told The Zebra in a recent interview from his Alexandria home. “I remember how everything slowed down, and the skipper did exactly what you told me told us not to do. He got on the brakes, and we started the skid sideways, and I could see the pack of planes getting closer.”
Turned out that the shoe to the tailhook that catches the cable was cracked, and it fell to pieces once coming into contact with the wire. A bolt holding the device together ended up catching the wire and the plane came to a sudden jerking halt. It was an extraordinary ending to what was otherwise just another day at work at the beginning of the Naval aviator’s 30-year career.
The Academy and Beyond
Kellerman, now 86, grew up in Denver, Colorado, and was inspired to join the military at an early age. In 1943, his uncle, Navy aviator Capt. Ross Kellerman was enroute to the South Pacific to prepare for the invasion of Japanese-held islands in the South Pacific. The elder Kellerman had a profound impact on the young Eagle Scout, who saw his uncle win the Bronze Star for his efforts.
Eight years later, and with the Korean War in full swing, Kellerman competed with 400 other candidates vying for one of three appointments to a service academy by applying with their U.S. Senator, the then-Colorado Sen. Edwin C. Johnson. He was appointed to the U.S. Naval Academy in July of 1951 and graduated four years later. During that time, however, he met someone extra special – his future wife Nancy. There was only one problem. She was going out with this roommate.
“We were in church one day and I said, ‘Roger, that girl Nancy. I really like her. You mind if I date her?’ He said it was fine. He didn’t care. And three months later we were engaged,” Kellerman said.
That was 64 years ago, and Nancy Kellerman said she made the right choice. She was an elementary school teacher for decades, and spent a lot of time raising their two kids and working while her husband was deployed. Their most exotic deployment together, though, was in Gaeta, Italy, for two years.
“Some guys, you know, they’re just not interesting or they’re rude to you,” Nancy Kellerman said. “Don and I got along, and I’ve had a happy life. Sure, I’ve had a husband who was at sea a lot, but there are a lot of women like me, spouses like me. That’s America. That’s what the deal is, and that’s a positive situation.”
After graduating at the Academy, Kellerman’s career began as an ensign on the USS Stormes. A year-and-a-half later he was promoted as the Gunnery Department head – just in time for the Suez Canal Crisis. After returning home, he went to aviation school and got his wings in 1958. The following year, he was landing planes on aircraft carriers.
Kellermen spent a number of deployments in Italy, and steadily moved up in rank. He would continue tracking the Soviets from the air, and would be promoted to commander of the Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron 4, which was made up of 94 officers and 450 enlisted men. He later received a master’s degree from the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, and was promoted to Captain. He joined the faculty of ICAF, and then retired in 1980.
A Second Career
“One of the advantages of military career is that you have the opportunity for a second career at around the age of 50 to 55,” Kellerman said. “I looked up and interviewed with Dean Wittier and told them I’d like to be a stockbroker. They said, ‘Oh, really?’And I said, ‘Really,’ and the next thing I knew I was training there in New York City in Tower II of the World Trade Center. I came back and they gave me a phone, a phone book, and a computer in a small office to share with another guy named Carol.”
Kellerman made it work, and after 16 years made his son a partner in his company and retired comfortably. Now he’s a member of the Sons of the American Revolution, is involved with the Rotary Club of Alexandria, and regularly plays golf and shoots skeet.
Nancy Kellerman said that she raised her children to respect the military.
“I said to my children, ‘Your father is doing all these wonderful things for this country. Don’t you ever act rude. Always be respectful.”
Kellerman said that the most important lesson in leadership he learned throughout his career is to have resolve.
“Know what the heck you want done and how it should be done and and demand that it be done up to standard,” Kellerman said. “When I think about the leaders I most admired they are the ones who knew what the hell they were doing and then demanded that everybody does it. I mean, it’s good to be friendly, caring, and understanding, but to me that was far more important than all the other touchy feely stuff.”