Del Toro, who was speaking to an audience at the annual Surface Navy Association conference held in Arlington, Virginia, paused at the end of his prepared remarks and said he had a "very special announcement."
With Kelley listening in via speakerphone, the Navy's top boss recounted the sailor's heroic actions in Vietnam in 1968 -- his voice cracking slightly at times -- before finally saying that "it is with great admiration and great pride ... I am announcing the naming of DDG-140 after Captain Thomas Gunning Kelley." The room erupted with applause and a standing ovation.
Kelley's citation says that the then-lieutenant was serving as commander of River Assault Division 152 and eight assault craft that were charged with extracting a company of Army infantry from a canal bank in Kien Hoa Province.
During the evacuation, the loading ramp on one of the troop carriers failed, just as Viet Cong forces opened fire.
According to the citation and Del Toro, Kelley sprang into action and boldly maneuvered the ship he was in to the exposed side of the protective cordon in "direct line with the enemy's fire, and ordered the monitor to commence firing."
An enemy rocket-propelled grenade managed to score a direct hit on Kelley's vessel, sending shrapnel in all directions. "Kelley is hurled to the deck with severe wounds to his head and his eyes," Del Toro said.
Despite his injuries, Del Toro said Kelley continued "to lead his people under the counterattack until the enemy is silenced and the boats [were] safe."
In a conversation with reporters after his speech, Del Toro said that he gets "hundreds, if not thousands" of recommendations and requests for ship names. "It's a responsibility that I take extremely seriously," he added.
Del Toro said he called Kelley on Tuesday night to tell him the news.
"I asked him to sort of keep it a secret until today, and he was thrilled. … He was in tears last night."
Kelley eventually retired from the Navy as a captain in 1990, but he continued to work around service members. He served as secretary of the Massachusetts Department of Veterans' Services from 2003 to 2011, and he was president of the Medal of Honor Society from 2015 to 2017.
The ship's construction is still likely several years away. The latest destroyer to begin construction is DDG-133, which was announced in December 2022.
-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.