It’s been nearly 50 years since Lt. Col. Charles Kettles dropped his helicopter into a narrow valley where the Viet Cong had ambushed dozens of his fellow soldiers and led a rescue mission that brought 44 of them to safety. The enemy gunfire was so intense that five of the six helicopters involved never flew again.
For his actions that day, Colonel Kettles was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, which is the nation’s second-highest award for bravery.
But then William Vollano, an amateur historian interviewing vets for his Veterans History Project, began digging into the battle, and the Pentagon this year made the decision to upgrade his medal to the nation’s highest award for valor.
President Obama awarded Kettles with the Medal of Honor Monday, holding him up as a sterling example of American character after “a couple of tough weeks” for the nation.
“For us to remember the goodness and decency of the American people in a way that we can all look out for each other even when times are tough, even when the odds are against us, what a wonderful inspiration, what a great gift for us to be able to celebrate something like this,” Mr. Obama said. “This shouldn’t just be a creed for our soldiers. This should be a creed for all of us.”
Feeling abandoned – then a faint sound in the distance
In May 1967, near Duc Pho, Vietnam, the US military had dropped napalm bombs on the ridge lines dotted with enemy machine guns. But it barely put a dent in the barrage of gunfire aimed at the infantry soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division, who were fighting below in what American troops had dubbed “Chump Valley,” because only fools would willingly go into such an exposed place.
The infantry soldiers were being ambushed by hundreds of Viet Cong troops bunkered into deeply dug tunnels along the mountain.
Yet the American helicopters kept coming into the valley, bringing in US troop reinforcements during the early morning hours of May 15.
“We picked up the troops and put them in amidst a hail of machine gun, rifle and mortar fire,” recalls retired Lt. Col. Donald Long. “Many were being shot a short distance away from the helicopter.” Some were shot before they could even jump from the aircraft.
At the same time, full loads of wounded were being brought out amidst a barrage of gunfire for evacuation. “Those of the wounded who were able were urging us with their hands, eyes, and voices to ‘Go, go, go,’ ” says Mr. Long, a pilot that day and one of a half-dozen buddies who joined Kettles for a get-together in Washington over the weekend.
The fire was so intense that American soldiers were loath to run from the tree line to the helicopter landing zone. “They couldn’t be blamed due to the heavy fire,” Long says. So his helicopter hovered near the tree line, to minimize soldiers’ exposure, while maximizing their own. The helicopter was soon hit by an enemy mortar and destroyed.
The crew was stranded, along with dozens of other infantry soldier still fighting on the ground. The rest of the helicopters, taking heavy fire and full of wounded, had left. For a time, it was eerily silent.
“Everyone knew what it meant to have been left in that area overnight with most people on the ground wounded and badly outnumbered,” Long says.
Then, around 6:30 in the evening, came a faint sound in the distance.
180-degree turn – into intense fire
Half an hour before, an infantry commander had radioed for the emergency evacuation of 44 soldiers, including Long’s crew.
Kettles, who had run the gantlet during the day, taking fire and ferrying soldiers and troops before tottering back to base with his helicopter leaking fuel, volunteered. He led a team of six evacuation helicopters, which he had to cobble together from another unit.
It was not necessarily a popular decision with the crew.
“I was terribly disappointed when the colonel said, ‘I’ll go back in.’ I thought he had lost his mind,” says then-Specialist John Osborne, the crew chief at the time. “I thought, ‘I’m going to die or get captured.’ At that particular moment, I was not concerned about those guys.”
Despite his fear, however, he joined the mission. “Your training kicks in,” Mr. Osborne says, “and we were well-trained.”
For the third time that day, Kettles led the team back into the “chaotic” gunfire.
Long recalls looking up as he heard that faint sound in the distance. “We looked to the east and there in the sky, as beautiful as could be, were six Hueys on approach to our LZ to get us all out,” he says.
Kettles and his team picked up what they thought were the remaining soldiers. But after climbing to a safe altitude of 1,400 feet, he got word that eight soldiers still remained down at the combat zone, in a river bed, making a “last-ditch defensive effort.”
“When I first saw that helicopter coming in, it was a real relief, but the volume of fire that I could hear coming from enemy positions – the amount of tracers I could see in the air – I knew in my heart that that pilot was going to pull out and not come in,” says retired Staff Sgt. Dewey Smith, who was one of the eight soldiers left behind that day
But Kettles, with full knowledge of the intense enemy fire awaiting him, passed off command of the remaining five helicopters, which continued on to the base, and made a 180-degree turn, returning to the battle to rescue the eight remaining troops, his fourth trip to what President Obama in a White House ceremony called a “hell on earth.”
“Without gunship, artillery, or tactical aircraft support, the enemy concentrated all firepower on his lone aircraft, which was immediately damaged by a mortar round,” according to the official Army report. It damaged the tail boom, a main rotor blade, shattered both front windshields. His Huey was also raked by machine-gun fire.
“It just amazed me that he could maneuver that helo through that fire, in such a way that we could get on it,” recalls Mr. Smith.
Bouncing ‘like a jackrabbit’ on takeoff
During these interminable minutes, Kettles demonstrated not only bravery, but remarkable piloting skills, his fellow soldiers say. “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,” the Army report notes.
In order to take off, the helicopter bounced and skipped “like a jackrabbit” before eventually taking off. A soldier who had almost fallen out of the helicopter was hanging to the skids as the Huey finally took to the air.
“Without his courageous actions and superior flying skills, the last group of soldiers and his crew would never have made it off the battlefield,” the report says.
Obama framed Monday's Medal of Honor ceremony as part of an ongoing process to fully honor those who served in Vietnam, and who were often blamed by their fellow citizens when they returned to the United States for the actions they took on their government's behalf.
"It might take time, but having failed to give our veterans who fought in the Vietnam War the full measure of thanks and respect that they had earned, we acknowledge that our failure to do so was a shame,” said the president. “We resolve that it will never happen again."
Kettles is the 54th living recipient to earn the Medal of Honor, bringing the total number of MOHs for the Vietnam War to 206. The Pentagon is currently reviewing hundreds of soldiers’ achievements to consider upgrading their awards.
At the Washington get-together this weekend, Kettles spoke about what the nation’s highest honor for valor means to him.
“Foremost in everyone’s mind, I think, is the importance of that mission being concluded with the emergency extraction of the last 44 men,” the colonel said. “At least their names do not appear on the wall down the street.”