John P. Tilley: Carroll’s judge who went to war

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By Dave Taylor

Among those veterans expected to be present at tomorrow’s Veteran’s Day commemoration at Point Park is Major John P. Tilley (retired). Well-known among older generations of Carroll Countians as a very active figure in local political circles, Tilley now spends his days in retirement at his home on Deatherage Drive in Carrollton.


Tilley spent nearly all of his working career in public service. He joined the local U.S. Army National Guard unit at the age of 17 and remained active in the military until 1975.

“We were called to active duty during the Korean Conflict,” Tilley said of the Carrollton unit. “That was in May 1951. I didn’t go to Korea. Some of the Guard members did. I went to the west coast in preparation for going, but they decided I didn’t have sufficient time left” on his initial term of enlistment.

Tilley returned to Carrollton and remained active in the Guard, ultimately serving as commander of the local unit from 1953 to 1965. Then a captain, Tilley was transferred to the headquarters unit of the 138th Artillery in Louisville.

“It was the same batallion, but a different battery,” he explained in an interview on Monday. “There was the Carrollton unit, we had two units from Louisville, one unit from Elizabethtown and a unit from Bardstown.”

Tilley became active in local politics and was elected Carroll County sheriff in 1961. According to the law then existing in Kentucky, a sheriff could not succeed himself after completing a four-year term so Sheriff Tilley ran for and was elected Carroll County Judge. The term “judge-executive” did not come into play until 1976 when the state Constitution was changed, Tilley said.

“Back then we had responsibilities not only as the administrative office as it is now but we were also judicial officers,” Tilley recalled. “We tried misdemeanor cases that were brought before us, plus we had probate court and juvenile court—the same thing that the district court judges have now plus the administrative functions.”

On April 19, 1968, during Tilley’s first term as county judge, with a war escalating half a world away in the jungles of Vietnam, the 570 members of the U.S. Army’s 2nd Battalion, 138th Field Artillery of the Kentucky National Guard learned they were being ordered to active duty by President Lyndon B. Johnson. They were to report to Fort Hood, Texas for four months of training in preparation for deployment to Vietnam.

“I really wasn’t required to go by being a publicly-elected official,” Tilley said. “I was exempt. However, I had trained this unit and had commanded the unit previously and felt an obligation that if they were going, I had the responsibility to go with them.”

Tilley took a leave of absence from his post as county judge and appointed K.E. McDowell to serve as county judge pro tem.

After completing their training in Texas, the Carrollton Guardsmen were shipped overseas, arriving at Phu Bai-Hue Airport, in what was called I-Corps, the northernmost quadrant of South Vietnam, on Oct. 26, 1968.

The Kentucky men established headquarters at Gia Le Combat Base. Its firing batteries occupied such famous bases as Fire Base Bastogne, Tomahawk Hill, and Hamburger Hill. Its responsibility was to provide fire support for the Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne Division, whose home is Fort Campbell, Ky. Together they were to keep North Vietnamese regulars from destroying neighboring villages that were located along the China Sea. Tilley flew a number of air reconnaisance missions to pinpoint targets for the Kentucky battery of M109, self-propelled 155 mm howitzers.

In a letter to the editor of The News-Democrat, published in the Aug. 22, 1968 edition, Staff Sgt. Robert J. Caldwell reported that “Capt. John P. Tilley has been assigned to be Commander of Headquarters and Headquarters Battery of Louisville. He was Battalion Motor Officer. Let it be noted that he is a fine officer, gentleman and is very much respected by all.”

Tilley was promoted to major on Feb. 6, 1969 in Vietnam. While overseas he had little contact with the judge pro tem or other local government officials.

“That was his responsibility,” Tilley said. “Naturally, I stayed in contact with some people, my wife and various ones. That’s when I heard that the appointee decided he was going to run for the vacancy. That was his prerogative. The governor at that time which was Gov. (Louie) Nunn decided that the office was not vacant because I had appointed this person and I really didn’t vacate the office.”

McDowell announced on Jan. 23, 1969, his intention to run for county judge in the May primary. Less than a month later Tilley filed for re-election while serving in Vietnam.

“I actually ran for the office while I was in Vietnam and my wife and my friends and relatives did all the campaigning for me,” Tilley said, “and I was fortunate enough to be re-elected while I was in Vietnam.”

When the primary results showed Tilley the victor, he (while still in Vietnam) removed McDowell from the position of judge pro tem, effective at 12 a.m. the next morning, and appointed Mabel Shirley who had held the pro tem position for more than a year earlier.

Shortly after the primary election, Tilley returned to Carrollton briefly as the official military escort for the return of the body of Sgt. Luther Malcolm

Chappel, a Worthville resident who was killed in action on June 19, 1969 in Vietnam. Tilley immediately returned to his post in Vietnam.

When the Kentucky Guardsmen returned home in October 1969, Tilley picked up where he left and kept on going. He was defeated in his bid for a third term as judge. He worked for the Kentucky Planning and Regional Development Agency in Louisville for a few years before campaigning for county clerk.

“I was fortunate enough to get elected as county clerk and I served until I did retire after about 16 years as county clerk,” he said. He keeps up with the happenings of local government “but I don’t get involved in any of it. I don’t voice my opinion other than to my wife.”

Tilley attended a recent reunion in Frankfort of the 138th Artillery veterans who served in Vietnam.

“It was fairly well attended,” he said. “I understand that 24 percent of the unit members have passed on. We’re old! At times you think about (the war experiences) but you don’t dwell on it. It was just another experience. Sometimes you say, ‘Did that really happen?’ ”

He is pleased that the community will honor veterans with a special ceremony tomorrow.

“Freedom isn’t free,” he said. “We must be prepared to protect our freedom and I think that’s one of the major things that government is supposed to be doing. The people of Carroll County have been extremely good to me. I tried to perform my duties both in the military and as a civilian in an official capacity and time’s running out. I’ll be 79 next month, so I’ve been down the road.”