Almost 50 years after he braved enemy fire to help rescue 44 of his fellow soldiers surrounded by an ambush, retired Army pilot Lt. Col. Charles Kettles was awarded the Medal of Honor on Monday for his acts of “conspicuous gallantry” during the Vietnam war.
President Barack Obama presented the military’s highest decoration for valor to Kettles at a White House ceremony attended by the retired officer’s family, a few of his Vietnam comrades and the last soldier he saved on that May evening in 1967.
“In a lot of ways, Chuck Kettles is America,” Obama said. “And to the dozens of American soldiers that he saved in Vietnam half a century ago, Chuck is the reason they lived and came home and had children and grandchildren – entire family trees made possible by the actions of this one man.”
4 The number of times Lt. Col. Charles Kettles voluntarily flew his Huey helicopter into enemy fire to save soldiers who were pinned down
Born and raised in eastern Michigan, the son of a World War I and World War II pilot, Kettles served active-duty tours in Korea, Japan and Thailand before fighting in Vietnam. But he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions during one battle in particular.
On the morning of May 15, 1967, after learning that a team of 101st Airborne Division troops was pinned by enemy fire in a rural riverbed near Duc Pho, Republic of Vietnam, Kettles volunteered to lead two flights of six UH-1D “Huey” helicopters to carry reinforcements to the embattled American soldiers and evacuate the wounded.
Hours later, according to the Army, Kettles once again returned to the valley with a squadron of helicopters to airlift the remaining 44 troops out of harm’s way.
“Death or injury was all but certain,” Obama said was the reaction of one of Kettles’ fellow airmen following the medal recipient’s actions that day. “And a lesser person would not return.”
But even then, Kettles went back: On the return flight to base, according to an Army description of the day’s events, Kettles learned that eight Americans who had been providing cover for the extraction had been left behind.
In Obama’s speech at Kettle’s ceremony Monday, the president described how, without hesitation, the pilot broke formation, made a sharp turn and descended back into the war zone he had so narrowly escaped.
With all due respect to John Wayne, he couldn’t do what Chuck Kettles did.
President Barack Obama
But this time, Kettles’ Huey was alone.
As his chopper was pounded by mortar blasts and gunfire, Obama said, Kettles remained calm, giving the remaining soldiers time to sprint to the aircraft.
Only after all were accounted for did he attempt to fly away, skipping and bouncing his grossly overweight and heavily damaged helicopter across the riverbed until it could pick up enough speed to take off.
Seated to Obama’s right, Kettles looked on as the president recounted how, just as it became airborne, the veteran airman’s helicopter took a direct hit to its tail from a powerful mortar, sending the craft spinning and throwing a passenger from its opened door. Still, Kettles was able to steady his chopper and fly it back to base as the soldier who was thrown clung to the helicopter’s skid.
“A soldier who was there said, ‘That day, Maj. Kettles became our John Wayne,’ ” Obama said. “With all due respect to John Wayne, he couldn’t do what Chuck Kettles did.”
According to the president, Monday’s ceremony was the result of a five-year effort pursued by Kettles’ son Mike and retired social worker Bill Vollano. During an interview Vollano conducted with the retired pilot a few years ago for the Veterans History Project, Kettles’ wife, Ann, overheard their conversation and reminded her husband to tell Vollano the story of his actions at Duc Pho.
According to Michigan Rep. Debbie Dingell’s office, the Ypsilanti, Michigan, Rotary Club brought the issue to the attention of then-Rep. John Dingell, who wrote the Army asking it to consider Kettles for the Medal of Honor. His wife and successor in office followed up on the matter and authored a bill to revoke the statute of limitations that would have prevented Kettles from receiving the award more than five years after his combat mission.
“And that’s one more reason this story is quintessentially American,” Obama said. “Looking out for one another. The belief that nobody should be left behind. This is – this shouldn’t just be a creed for our soldiers. This should be a creed for all of us.”
With “the humility that shaped him as a soldier,” as the president put it, Kettles downplayed the significance of his actions and the ceremony to honor him.
According to Obama, Kettles said of the entire event, “All this attention is a lot of hubbub. But I’ll survive.”
Kettles dedicated his award to the men he served with that day in Vietnam and said what mattered most was not the honor he received but that those he’d helped save were able to return home.
“We got the 44 out. None of those names appear on the (Vietnam Veterans Memorial) wall in Washington,” Kettles told the Army. “There’s nothing more important than that.”
According to Stars and Stripes, Kettles is the 260th Vietnam veteran to receive the Medal of Honor.
John Tompkins: 202-383-6041.