JAMES E. KYES, CDR, USN
James Kyes '30
Date of birth: April 16, 1906
Date of death: December 24, 1943
From the 1930 Lucky Bag:
James was lost on December 24, 1943 when USS Leary (DD 158) was torpedoed and sunk in the North Atlantic.
From The World, published December 24, 2010:
The sight arrests the eye as surely as the story moves the heart.
Deep in Washington's central Cascade Mountains lie the remnants of Monte Cristo, a flash-in-the-pan gold-mining town that flourished in the 1890s.
Only a few foundations, rusted mine machines and tumble-down shacks are left amid the berry brambles, except this:
A perfect cone of an alpine fir inside a freshly painted white picket fence.
Stumble closer through the brush and you notice a plaque in memory of the young man who grew up in 'Monty," climbed a nearby mountain, and brought home the sapling that grew into the lovely tree.
As the tree did, James E. Kyes grew up straight and tall.
The mines had played out years before, but the town survived as a summer tourist retreat surrounded by snow-cloaked peaks. Jimmy led visitors on mountain hikes from the hotel his father managed.
The lad was smart, with grades high enough for a U.S. Naval Academy appointment. His career led him around the globe and eventually to the U-boat-infested North Atlantic. Now a commander, he stood on the bridge of the destroyer USS Leary -- a refitted relic of the First World War -- on Christmas Eve 1943.
In a matter of months, he had been told, he would be promoted to captain and be given command of a newly commissioned heavy cruiser.
For now, the Leary, two more destroyers and an escort aircraft carrier made up a hunter/killer task group pursuing German submarines. That night, the hunters became the quarry when they steamed into a wolf pack on the surface.
While the other destroyers escorted the carrier out of torpedo range, the Leary attacked, only to be hit by one ... two ... three torpedoes. It broke two.
Kyes ordered his crew to abandon ship, then looked around him. A Filipino mess boy's life jacket had been blown off his body. Kyes doffed his life preserver, handed it to the mess boy and calmly stepped over the side into the frigid Atlantic.
And into immortality.
Eleven days before the war ended, a new Gearing-class destroyer was named the James E. Kyes. His widow christened the ship Aug. 4, 1945. A mountain in the Cascades that Jimmy had been among the first to climb was named Kyes Peak.
Still, in its eerie isolation, inside its white fence, the tree is the most enduring memorial to the young man -- Kyes was 37 when he died -- who had climbed many nights to the Leary's bridge and told shipmates about his adventures in Monty.
It was one of those shipmates who wrote to 'the old-timers" at Monte Cristo a brief account of Kyes' heroism. Signed only 'A mate," it bears the redactions of a Navy censor. Framed and fastened to the fence, it speaks simply and more eloquently than the bronze plaque placed nearby by the U.S. Naval Academy Alumni Association.
I stumbled onto it in the 1980s on a day trip to Monty. Intrigued, I sought out and talked to men with whom he had roamed the mountains, to his childhood sweetheart, even to a sailor who had served aboard the Leary. I wrote a series of columns about Kyes for the Everett Herald.
Searching for him on the Internet a few days ago, I discovered that the tree, the plaque and the letter all endure in Monte Cristo. They await other visitors who will stop, stare, read and wonder at the selfless actions of James E. Kyes.
And maybe, like I, they'll cast a thankful thought toward the heavens every Christmas Eve.
From Hall of Valor:
The President of the United States of America takes pride in presenting the Navy Cross (Posthumously) to Commander James Elsworth Kyes, United States Navy, for extraordinary heroism and distinguished service in the line of his profession as Commanding Officer of the Destroyer U.S.S. LEARY (DD-158), during action against a concentrated force of hostile submarines in the North Atlantic on the night of 23 December 1943. As Commander Kyes boldly maneuvered to close the range on four of the hostile pack, the enemy struck, mortally damaging the Leary with three torpedo hits and causing her to start sinking rapidly. After giving the order to abandon ship, Commander Kyes coolly and courageously made a personal inspection in order to assure himself that none of his men remained aboard. Preparing to abandon the stricken vessel and observing one of his crew whose lifejacket was torn and useless, Commander Kyes gallantly removed his own, gave it to the man and then calmly went over the side. Commander Kyes' inspiring leadership and the valiant devotion to duty of his command contributed in large measure to the outstanding success of these vital missions and reflect great credit upon the United States Naval Service.
General Orders: Bureau of Naval Personnel Information Bulletin No. 325 (April 1944)
USS James E. Kyes (DD 787) was named for James; the ship was sponsored by his widow.
Kyes Peak, in the Cascade Range in Washington, is named for James. He was one of two people who first climbed it, in 1920. He was 14 at the time of the ascent and a member of the Everett Boy Scouts.
James is listed on the Class of 1930 panel as if he was lost in December 1944; as he was listed as missing, this was the standard official date of death (year + 1 day).