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Briarcliff Honors Fallen Korean War Hero

John Kelvin Koelsch, a former Briarcliff Manor resident who died heroically during the Korean War, will be honored with a plaque and ceremony on Veterans' Day, Friday, Nov. 11.
John Kelvin Koelsch, a former Briarcliff Manor resident who died heroically during the Korean War, will be honored with a plaque and ceremony on Veterans' Day, Friday, Nov. 11. Photo Credit: U.S. Navy via Wikipedia
A bronze plaque honoring John Kelvin Koelsch will be formally unveiled on Veterans Day in Walter W. Law Memorial Park in Briarcliff Manor.
A bronze plaque honoring John Kelvin Koelsch will be formally unveiled on Veterans Day in Walter W. Law Memorial Park in Briarcliff Manor. Photo Credit: Briarcliff Manor-Scarborough Historical Society

BRIARCLIFF MANOR, N.Y. --  It’s been 65 years since Briarcliff Manor’s John Kelvin Koelsch died, but the village is finally giving the Korean War hero his due.

The U.S. Navy officer, was born in London, but attended the Scarborough School with his two brothers, Peter and Philip, in the early 1930s, according to local historian Karen Kotter Smith.

The school, built by financier and assistant secretary of the treasury Frank A. Vanderlip for his own children and the children of his friends, is now The Clear View School.

Koelsch’s father, Henry, was a protégé of Vanderlip’s, and they were apparently so close that he gave his youngest son the middle name “Kelvin” in honor of one of Vanderlip’s boys.

The younger Koelsch went on to attend Choate, a prep school in Connecticut, and Princeton University in 1941, but then joined the Navy as a torpedo bomber pilot during World War II.

Eventually, he returned to Princeton and graduated in 1949.

Before getting called up for the Korean War, Koelsch had plans to attend law school.

While in Korea, he flew a two-man helicopter off the aircraft carrier USS Princeton and later specialized in pilot rescue.

On July 3, 1951, the call went out for rescue crews after a Corsair fighter piloted by Marine Capt. James Wilkins was shot down over North Korea.

Koelsch volunteered for the dangerous mission and he and enlisted man George Neal flew a chopper into North Korea without a fighter escort.

Despite being targeted by enemy fire, Koelsch and Neal were able to locate Wilkins, who had been badly burned in the first crash.

As they were taking him aboard the helicopter, it was shot down.

The three men survived and managed to evade enemy troops for nine days before they were captured.

In the POW camp, Koelsch was said to have displayed courage and leadership by sharing his rations with others and demanding medical care for the wounded.

He died from malnutrition and illness in October, 1951. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

In 1955, Koelsch was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry, the first helicopter pilot to receive the award.

Smith said the village has had a long tradition of naming streets after its war dead, but, for complicated reasons, had never named one for Koelsch.

Now his name will be front and center for all to see, she said.

On Veterans’ Day, Friday, Nov. 11, the village, along with the Briarcliff Manor – Scarborough Historical Society will unveil a bronze plaque honoring Koelsch in Walter W. Law Memorial Park.

The ceremony starts at 11:30 a.m. at the village’s Community Center. The plaque will be formally unveiled at 12 noon.

Expected to speak at the ceremony is former U.S. ambassador to Korea Donald P. Gregg. Now retired, the Armonk resident worked for the Central Intelligence Agency for 31 years.

Also set to speak is a former classmate of Koelsch’s at Princeton, Warren W. Eginton, now a U.S. federal judge in Connecticut.

Village Mayor Lori Sullivan, Village Manager Philip E. Zegarelli, members of the board of trustees, and members of the historical society will also attend the ceremony.

There will also be a military honor guard and taps will be played, Smith said.

The event is open to the public.

For more information, call the historical society at (914)-941-4393, or email them at mail@briarcliffhistory.org.

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