Retired Army Lt. Col. Charles Kettles will be awarded the Medal of Honor on July 18 for saving the lives of 40 soldiers and four members of his own unit while serving as a helicopter pilot during a Vietnam War ambush.
“It’s certainly a great honor, but nothing will upstage the fact that we got 44 men out of there,” Kettles told reporters inside a Michigan National Guard building in his hometown of Ypsilanti, reports the Army Times. “That award belongs to some 74 helicopter crew members each of which were requested to do their job. They did that and then some.”
The retired colonel indicated that he did not have qualms about volunteering to lead an airborne rescue mission that saved the lives of dozens of service members despite the potential for intense enemy fire.
“There wasn’t any decision to be made. We simply were going to go and pick them up,” declared the 86-year-old retired UH-1D Huey helicopter commander from the 176th Assault Helicopter Company, 14th Combat Aviation Battalion.
He was referring to the May 15, 1967, operation to evacuate injured personnel of the 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division who had been “ambushed in the Song Tra Cau riverbed by an estimated battalion-sized force of the North Vietnamese army with numerous automatic weapons, machine guns, mortars and recoilless rifles,” notes the Army in a statement.
“The enemy force fired from a fortified complex of deeply embedded tunnels and bunkers, and was shielded from suppressive fire,” it also says, noting that the mission also involved carrying reinforcements to the besieged forces.
“As the flight approached the landing zone, it came under heavy enemy attack,” adds the statement. “Deadly fire was received from multiple directions and Soldiers were hit and killed before they could leave the arriving lift helicopters.”
Fully aware of the dire situation, Kettle flew to the deadly landing area for a third time to extract the remaining 40 troops there and four members of his unit.
Once in the air, Kettle learned that the enemy fire had prevented eight of the soldiers he was supposed to pick up from boarding the rescue helicopter.
The Army notes:
With complete disregard for his own safety, Kettles passed the lead to another helicopter and returned to the landing zone to rescue the remaining troops. Without gunship, artillery, or tactical aircraft support, the enemy concentrated all firepower on his lone aircraft, which was immediately damaged by a mortar round that damaged the tail boom, a main rotor blade, shattered both front windshields and the chin bubble and was further raked by small arms and machine gun fire.
Despite the intense enemy fire, Kettles maintained control of the aircraft and situation, allowing time for the remaining eight Soldiers to board the aircraft. In spite of the severe damage to his helicopter, Kettles once more skillfully guided his heavily damaged aircraft to safety.
Earlier this week, it was announced that President Barack Obama will bestow the nation’s highest military honor for valor on Col. Kettles.
Col. Kettle, who was 37-years-old at the time of the rescue mission, was born in Michigan to a pilot who served in the World War I Royal Air Force (Canadian) and World War II Air Transport Command (U.S. Army Air Corps).
The Vietnam veteran also served in Korea, Japan, and Thailand, according to a White House statement announcing him as an upcoming Medal of Honor recipient.
He was deployed to Vietnam twice. The flight commander still lives in his hometown of Ypsilanti with his wife Ann.
“Next month’s ceremony is the culmination of an effort that began in 2012 when the Veterans History Project launched a campaign to upgrade Kettles’ Distinguished Service Cross to the Medal of Honor,” reports the Army Times.
“Several men from Kettles’ company and the 101st Airborne Division sent letters validating Kettles’ actions,” it adds. “Lawmakers also got involved.”