Early on the morning of May 15, 1967, a familiar drone returned to the skies over Vietnam. A flock of American UH-1D “Huey” helicopters, including one piloted by Major Charles Kettles, roared overhead on a rescue mission. Earlier that day, the U.S. Army pilots from the 176th Aviation Company had shuttled 80 soldiers from the 101st Airborne to a drop zone in the Song Tra Cau river valley—and as it turned out, right into an ambush.
From a fortified position atop a steep 1,500-foot-hill, a battalion of North Vietnamese troops barraged the Americans for hours with fire from automatic weapons, machine guns, mortars and rifles. The clouds of napalm and bombs that rained down from American aircraft did little to dislodge the hundreds of North Vietnamese troops deeply embedded inside a warren of tunnels and bunkers.
By afternoon, the situation was dire. When word arrived that his comrades were trapped behind enemy lines, Kettles volunteered to lead six Huey helicopters to ferry reinforcements and medical supplies, evacuate the wounded and recover the dead. The 37-year-old flight commander, three months into his first voluntary tour of duty, settled into the cockpit behind the distinctive rounded nose of his chopper and took off from his staging area near Duc Pho.
When Kettles arrived at the hot landing zone in the central highlands, the North Vietnamese manning the machine gun positions high above focused all their fire on the helicopter platoon. Bullets from small arms and automatic weapons raked the helicopters and pierced their skins. Soldiers were killed even before they could leap out of the aircraft. Kettles, however, refused to leave until all supplies and reinforcements were off-loaded and the wounded taken aboard.
After flying his pockmarked helicopter back to base, Kettles, even knowing the severe danger that awaited him, returned to the battlefield with additional reinforcements. On the second trip, mortar and automatic weapons fire severely damaged his aircraft and seriously wounded his gunner as well. Even though he had fuel streaming out of his chopper, Kettles managed to coax his limping aircraft back to safety.
Later that day, word arrived at the staging area that 40 troops and four members of the 176th Aviation Company who were stranded after enemy fire destroyed their aircraft needed to be evacuated from the battlefield immediately. Kettles volunteered to return for a third time with the only one of his platoon’s Huey helicopters still capable of flying.
Kettles led five other helicopters to the evacuation zone where the American soldiers scurried aboard. Told that all 44 soldiers had been accounted for, Kettles flew off from the battlefield along with all the Army gunships providing support. Suddenly word crackled over the radio that eight American soldiers had failed to reach the evacuation zone and remained pinned down on the ground. The relentless Kettles immediately turned around his helicopter, which carried one rescued soldier and a crew of four. “We were already 15 feet in the air, but we decided to go back and get the others,” Kettles told the Detroit News in November 2015.
Without any gunship, artillery or tactical aircraft support, it was an incredibly risky mission. Back in the teeth of danger, the lone helicopter received the full brunt of the North Vietnamese firepower. Bullets sprayed the flying machine. Mortar rounds damaged the copter’s tail boom and main rotor blade. The withering assault shattered its windshield.
The eight stranded soldiers dove into the heavily damaged helicopter, but the co-pilot could not launch the chopper, now 600 pounds overweight, into the skies. The helicopter fishtailed several times before Kettles grabbed the controls, repeatedly adjusting the revolutions per minute. “I didn’t know if we were going to get out of there,” Kettles recalled, “but I was just going to give it my best try.” Kettles skipped his Huey along the ground until it finally gained enough speed to become airborne just as a mortar round slammed into the tail and lurched the helicopter forward. “It flew like a two-ton truck, but we were able to get up in the air and get everyone to safety,” Kettles told the Detroit News.
Nearly a half-century after Kettles displayed such valor on the battlefield, the White House announced that the 86-year-old will receive the Medal of Honor, the country’s highest award for valor, from President Barack Obama on July 18. Since the Medal of Honor must normally be awarded within five years of combat, the recognition required a special act of Congress.
“Kettles’ actions on that day, nearly 50 years ago, represent the best qualities of a soldier and leader—selfless service, personal courage and a dedication to duty,” said Army Chief of Staff General Mark A. Milley. “He was fully engaged until all soldiers were out of harm’s way and he lived the ‘Soldier’s Creed’ to never leave a fallen comrade.”
A native of Ypsilanti, Michigan, Kettles completed his first tour of duty in Vietnam in November 1967 and served a second prior to his retirement from the U.S. Army in 1978 as a lieutenant colonel. He has already received the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest award for valor, for helping to rescue the 44 soldiers on that day in May 1967 along with the Distinguished Flying Cross and 27 air medals for the more than 600 missions he flew during the Vietnam War.
While Kettles is looking forward to the ceremony at the White House, his thoughts are also focused on another Washington, D.C., landmark less than a mile away—the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. He said that no medal can compete with the fact that the names of the soldiers he assisted in rescuing did not get carved into the memorial’s polished black granite walls. “The rest of it is rather immaterial, frankly,” he said.