Vietnam Helicopter Pilot Awarded Medal of Honor Almost 50 Years Later

Charles Kettles’ act of heroism in May 1967 receives the nation’s highest award.

U.S. Army Maj. Charles Kettles, posing in front of a 121st Aviation Company UH-1H, during his second Vietnam tour of duty, 1969. (U.S. Army)
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Lt. Col. Charles S. Kettles, an Army helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War, will be awarded the Medal of Honor in a ceremony later this month for an act of heroism almost 50 years ago. At the time he was given the Distinguished Service Cross, but a dedicated amateur historian finally talked the Department of Defense into reviewing the matter. Following an act of Congress and a Presidential signature (required for Medal of Honor awards), Kettles will receive his new medal in a July 18 ceremony at the White House.

Kettles was born in 1930 in Ypsilanti, Michigan, where he still resides. His father had flown for the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War I, and as a young man Charles learned how to fly an Ercoupe through a program at Michigan State Normal College, dividing his time between school and a job as a baggage handler for American Airlines at Detroit’s Willow Run Airport. In 1951, with the Korean War under way, Kettles was drafted into the Army, where he trained to fly helicopters. The war ended by the time he finished training in 1954, after which he was assigned to fly helicopters in post-war Korea, Japan and Thailand. After leaving the Army in 1956, he returned to Michigan and started a car dealership with his brother.

In 1963 Kettles rejoined the Army, which was in need of helicopter pilots for the growing war in Vietnam. He was taught to fly the UH-1D Huey, assigned to the 176th Assault Helicopter Company, and eventually sent to the small airfield at Duc Pho on South Vietnam’s central coast.

On May 14, 1967, not long after he arrived in Vietnam, then-Major Kettles’ unit dropped off 80 men from the 101st Infantry Division at Song Tra Cau. The next day, a large North Vietnamese Army force ambushed the troops, who quickly called for reinforcements. Kettles led a flight of eight Hueys back to Song Tra Cau, where, despite Air Force gunship and bomb runs as well as Army artillery support, they were blasted by Vietnamese mortar and heavy machine gun fire. Several helicopters were badly damaged, but they managed to drop off the reinforcements, load wounded troops, and fly home. There they picked up more reinforcements and, despite heavy resistance, flew back to the valley. According to the Army’s citation letter, Kettles “landed in the midst of enemy mortar and automatic weapons fire that seriously wounded his gunner and severely damaged his aircraft.” Leaking fuel, Kettles successfully brought the Huey back to the airfield. By the time he landed, only one of the eight helicopters that started the day was able to fly.

And his Medal of Honor-winning act was yet to come.

As the sun set, the remaining healthy ground troops—now down to 44—called for urgent extraction. Kettles took his lone flyable Huey, borrowed five more from another unit, and flew back to the valley. They landed under withering fire, got all the troops aboard, then lifted off to fly home.

It quickly became apparent that eight men were still on the ground, having been pinned by enemy fire when the helicopters landed. Kettles instructed the rest of his flight to proceed back to base, while he and his crew rejoined the battle. As the only helicopter in the air, unsupported by air or ground fire, Kettle’s Huey made an easy target. A mortar round perforated the tail, damaged one of the two main rotor blades, and shattered both the front windshields and chin bubbles. More fire poured in, but all eight soldiers made it safely to the helicopter—which was now a good 600 pounds too heavy to take off.

Heavy helicopters need extra air over the rotor to get enough translational lift for takeoff, and it’s not uncommon for pilots to just barely lift off the ground and fly forwards in ground effect, gaining speed until the rotor can generate enough lift for real flight. Here was an extreme case: The helicopter was so damaged that it fishtailed wildly, and too overweight to lift off even into ground effect. So in an act that would likely horrify any instructor pilot, Kettles “skipped” across the ground, gaining speed with each hop, and after five or six hops finally reached 40 knots, with enough lift to fly. The soldiers and crew made it home safely, and Kettles was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his heroism.

He served out the rest of his tour of duty, then returned to Vietnam for another (less dramatic) tour in the Mekong Delta. After the war Kettles flew for the National Guard for a while, then earned a Master’s degree and taught aviation management at Eastern Michigan University. He never flew professionally again, though he owned a Beech Travelair for personal use. He had ten children from two marriages.

An interviewer from the Veteran’s History Project interviewed Kettles about his service, and after that started the campaign to upgrade Kettles’ DSC to the highest possible award, the Medal of Honor. Several crewmembers and soldiers involved in the action wrote letters in support of the upgrade.

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