Vietnam Helicopter Pilot to Receive Medal of Honor After 50 Years

Retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Charles S. Kettles, 86, is receiving the Medal of Honor in for “conspicuous gallantry” which he showed when ambushed in Vietnam, according to the White House.

On May 15th, 1967, Kettles was a major and a flight commander leading a platoon of UH-1D “Huey” helicopters to support a 101st Airborne unit that was ambushed near Duc Pho in Vietnam.

A battalion of North Vietnamese soldiers pinned down the American troops. Kettles volunteered to lead an effort to rescue the American soldiers. He flew back with reinforcements and carried out the wounded and dead. In all, he made four trips into the hot landing zone. The final run to evacuate the last soldiers was made alone, with no other helicopters to support him.

It is rare for an aircraft to fly alone in a combat situation because it draws concentrated enemy fire. Typically, the AH-64 Apache helicopter flies in pairs.

“We were already 15 feet in the air, but we decided to go back and get the others,” Kettles said when interviewed. “The helicopter was already overweight, and it flew like a two-ton truck, but we were able to get up in the air and get everyone to safety.”

Kettles was given credit for saving 40 soldiers on that day, plus four of his crew members. He has already been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his efforts.

Lawmakers in Michigan, where Kettles lives, pushed for the Medal of Honor for Kettles. They also petitioned the U.S. Congress to waive the five-year statute of limitations on awarding the medal. Only Congress can waive that requirement.

Ash Carter, the Secretary of Defense, agreed that Kettles’ actions were worthy of the medal. A bill passed last December and signed by President Barrack Obama allowed the approval process to continue.

The president will present Kettles with the Medal of Honor on July 18th.

The Medal of Honor is the highest award given to U.S. troops. Kettles will be the 260th recipient and the 54th living recipient. The last service member to receive the award was Chief Edward C. Byers, Jr., a Navy SEAL, who helped in a hostage rescue in 2012.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE