bullets came in fast and furious, a hail so thick it seemed like
rain with a fog of green tracers. The men of the 176th Aviation
Company were used to hot landings after months in the highlands of
Vietnam, but this, this was something else.
worth of fire -- small arms, mortars, grenades -- seemed to be
trained on the Hueys all at once, clipping rotors, windshields, fuel
lines. Still the pilots flew, their blades whirring and thunking as
they approached the landing zone. They had been flying back and
forth all day, bringing in fresh troops and ammunition, taking out
the wounded as the battle went from bad to worse. Forty-four
Soldiers were on the ground, outnumbered, outgunned and desperate.
It would take a hero -- several heroes, actually -- to rescue
them, to get them home safe to their parents, wives and children.
It would take daring, bravery and guts. It would take someone
like now-retired Lt. Col. Charles Kettles, who led the rescue -- and
then went back again -- and will receive the Medal of Honor for it
in a White House ceremony on Monday, July 18.
BORN TO FLY
Kettles was born to be a pilot. His Canadian-born father served
in the British Royal Air Force during World War I and the U.S. Army
Air Corps during World War II. He raised his son around planes, and
Kettles grew up assuming "everyone would want to fly."
when Kettles received a draft notice at the close of the Korean War,
he was excited. It was an escape from two full-time jobs and an
opportunity to "sleep in to as late as 6 in the morning." It was
also a chance to fly.
He served in post-war Korea, Japan and Thailand. He married and
had children, one of whom would eventually fly for the Navy. He
opened a Ford dealership back home in Michigan with his brother.
Then he volunteered for Vietnam.
"The Army was in need of
pilots," he explained. "They had spent a great deal training me. … I
think we all have an obligation in this country to respond where the
need may be. … It's your country. It's up to you to protect it."
Then-Maj. Kettles deployed to Vietnam in early
1967 as a platoon leader and aircraft commander with the 176th, part
of 14th Combat Aviation Battalion, Americal Division. "You
questioned why anyone would be at war," he remembered. "They had so
much territory that seemed to be unused. … It was an absolutely
Flying a helicopter was the best way to see it, too,
added Kettles' gunner, Spc. Roland Scheck. Up a thousand
feet or so, above the jungle canopy, the humidity decreased.
Crews flew their helicopters with the doors removed, a
weight-saving measure that also made for some free air
"It was wonderful, absolutely
wonderful," said Scheck. "It was like a motorcycle in the
sky, going 160 miles an hour. … It wasn't so gorgeous if you
were down there working in one of those rice paddies, but if
you flew over it, it was wonderful."
The war started
for the company in earnest a few months later when it was
assigned to support the 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry, 1st
Brigade, 101st Airborne Division. The infantry unit always
seemed to be in some sort of contact and it was the pilots'
job to transport and supply them.
"Whenever we were
told, 'tomorrow we're going to fly for the 101st,' all the
gunners and crew chiefs said, 'Oh s---,'" said Scheck. It
meant trouble was sure to follow.
Smith was in the weapons platoon of B Company. His unit
spent two, three, even four weeks straight in the field.
"Somebody in the brigade was continuously fighting each day,
and if you weren't in contact, then somebody was stepping on
a landmine," he said.
"They were always in action,"
said retired Lt. Col. Ronald Roy, then a pilot and warrant
officer. Pilots typically flew 10 hours a day, although 16
or 17 hours wouldn't be unusual. "Being shot at or having an
aircraft shot up was routine every day. That was one tough
unit and if they were there, we were there. … It was like
brothers taking care of each other."
By the second
week of May, things got "pretty hairy," near Duc Pho in the
highlands, said Smith. His platoon confronted more than 100
enemy soldiers on the May 13. Another company was overrun
the next day, while six other Soldiers found their
reconnaissance patrol compromised. Kettles and another pilot
managed to rescue them from a B52 bomb crater minutes before
another bomb strike.
Kettles earned the
Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions, an award that
would be overshadowed by events the very next day, May 15.
That's when the 176th inserted
another reconnaissance patrol in a valley Soldiers nicknamed
"'Chump Valley,' because someone said only a chump would go
there," Kettles remembered. The men soon confronted a large
enemy force, and Smith's weapons platoon and his company's
3rd platoon were called on as reinforcements.
enemy "really opened up on us. It was just continuous,"
Smith said. The battle seemed hopeless from the beginning:
80 versus a battalion-sized force with only a small, shallow
creek and a few trees and bushes between them. "I'm not
going to say that I was afraid, but I was extremely
The battle raged for hours, and even
heavy artillery and airstrikes couldn't dislodge the enemy,
who would simply duck into bunkers and wait for the
explosions to end.
Pilots from the 176th made
several trips, bringing in ammunition and reinforcements and
evacuating the wounded. There was only one direction they
could use to approach the landing zone, Roy recalled, and
North Vietnamese forces poured hellfire on them in what he
still believes was an ambush. It was certainly some of the
most dangerous flying he ever saw in either of his tours in
"It was like rain … coming straight up out of
the wood line," described Roy, who earned a Silver Star.
"Without hesitation, we flew through it. … We got shot at
every day, and you'd lose a rotor blade or whatever, but
never to this intensity."
"You saw those green
tracers coming at you," said Scheck. "They looked like each
of them was going to get you right between the eyes."
The fire was so withering, Roy continued, that Soldiers
couldn't even leave the limited safety of the trees to
deliver the wounded to his helicopter, which touched down in
the middle of the LZ. They would have been mowed down in
seconds. He maneuvered his helicopter closer, but a mortar
struck between the rotor blades, severely damaging the
aircraft, wounding Roy's copilot in the leg and turning the
four crewmembers into infantry Soldiers.
two wounded Soldiers had dived onto Kettles' helicopter just
as a volley of bullets sprayed the aircraft, leaving about
30 rounds throughout the Huey. They made it back to Duc Pho
trailing fuel, but Scheck was wounded in the arm, chest and
leg, which he ultimately lost above the knee. He would
receive the Distinguished Flying Cross in addition to the
"I was the first guy whose life he
saved," said Scheck.
afternoon, the 176th Aviation Company was down to one
working helicopter and 44 Soldiers who were fighting for
their lives in Chump Valley. Scheck and Roy both remember
hearing from multiple people that commanders ordered Kettles
to stand down.
Kettles ignored them.
coordinated with the 161st Aviation Company to obtain more
helicopters and crews, scraping together six helicopters. It
was another hot landing, but the gunships and the artillery
provided enough suppressive fire for the Soldiers to board.
The last pilot in the formation confirmed they had
all the Soldiers, and the helicopters took off. But he was
wrong, dead wrong, someone from the command and control
aircraft yelled over the radio. Eight Soldiers had been
fighting a bit of a rearguard action and had been left
From the ground, Smith
watched the last helicopter take off: "If it's possible for
your heart to fall into your boots, that's what mine did. I
had three rounds left in my rifle. … My first thought was
that I was going to have to start hauling boogy down the
side of the creek and try to lose myself in the brush to
start escape and evasion."
Horrified, Kettles turned
his helicopter around. He only had one "ground pounder"
aboard whereas the other Hueys were full. "You've got eight
troops there," he explained. "I happened to be there,
available, with the equipment to do it. If you left them for
10 minutes, 15 minutes, they would have been a statistic
somewhere, either dead or prisoner of war."
gunships were gone, the Air Force had been called off and
the artillery was silent. Armed only with two machine guns,
a couple of revolvers, a lot of nerve and the element of
surprise, Kettles "ratcheted up into a steep, left
descending turn. It falls like a rock, and touched down."
Smith thought for sure the helicopter would either be
shot down or be forced to turn around. The hail of
machine-gun tracers and mortars was that intense, but
Kettles never flinched, even when one "mortar round went off
almost immediately off of the nose and took out part of each
windshield and the chin bubble" and another damaged the
"The emergency panel was still cold, no red
lights," Kettles continued, joking that "the
air-conditioning was good, with ventilation through the
windshield and the chin bubbles."
The GIs sprinted to
the helicopter "pretty dog-on fast," Smith remembered with
relief. "All eight of us, we were hauling boogy. Nobody
wasted any time. It was quick, seconds."
still under fire, and now they were at least 600 pounds
overweight. The Huey fishtailed.
"I had to lower the
collective to get my rotor [revolutions per minute] back
up," said Kettles. "Leaving the nose of the skid on the
ground, I put the RPM back up again. I'm trading that RPM
for forward speed to put it in translation lift, which will
give me clean air. If it's going to go, it will go at that
point, or we're all 13 of us going to be infantry again.
"I didn't know whether we were going to get out of
there, but I was going to give it my best try. After about
five or six of those down the riverbed, it did fly -- like a
two-and-a-half ton truck."
men finally made it to safety, mechanics counted almost 40
holes in the aircraft. Smith was numb, so shell-shocked at
first that he didn't even recognize a buddy. For his part,
Kettles assumed, "That's just what war is. … We completed
the thing to the best of our ability, and we didn't leave
anyone out there. Let's go have dinner."
Aviation Company UH-1D model Huey helicopter pictured in Vietnam,
1967. This was the helicopter normally flown by Maj. Charles
Kettles, but it was undergoing maintenance, May 15, 1967, the day
Kettles and his fellow pilots were called on to perform a dangerous
Much to his disgust, Kettles' commander moved him into
flight operations, asking Kettles what they were supposed to
do without any helicopters. (In reality, the company managed
to get back in the air very quickly.) Then Kettles became
the brigade aviation officer, but he didn't want to be
behind a desk. He wanted to fly.
accepted a Distinguished Service Cross for actions he didn't
think were anything special and moved on with life. He
returned to Vietnam two years later, commanding the 121st
Assault Helicopter Company in the delta. He eventually found
his childhood sweetheart again and got remarried. He retired
from the Army, went back to school and helped found the
aviation management degree program at Eastern Michigan
And then a local historian came to
interview Kettles for the Veterans History Project. He
dragged the story out of Kettles. He wanted to know more. He
thought Kettles deserved more than the nation's
second-highest honor. He believed Kettles deserved the Medal
of Honor, and he started contacting Kettles' old battle
buddies for statements. He got Congress and the Army to
reopen Kettles' file.
"He definitely deserves the
Medal of Honor," said Smith, who left the Army as a staff
sergeant decorated for valor after three consecutive tours
in Vietnam. He noted his children, grandchildren and
great-grandchildren have Kettles to thank for their lives
too. "I really can't express how much respect I have for
him. I'm sure it had to take a lot of courage. He might have
been doing his job, but he did a hell of a good job."
Kettles, who credits the helicopter instead of his
flying skills, prefers to see the medal as recognition for
everyone who fought that May 15.
"The Medal of Honor
is not mine alone," he said. "You've got 74 crewmembers out
there. … It belongs to them as much as it belongs to me.
"The bottom line on the whole thing is simply that those
44 did get out of there and are not a statistic on the wall
in D.C. The rest of it is rather immaterial, frankly."
By Elizabeth Collins
Army News Service
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