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Kettles receives Medal of Honor for daring Vietnam War mission

By Travis J. Tritten
Stars and Stripes
Published: July 18, 2016

WASHINGTON – Vietnam helicopter pilot Charles “Chuck” Kettles saved dozens of soldiers’ lives during a daring rescue mission in 1967, setting an example of selflessness for the country as it now struggles with divisions and violence, President Barack Obama said Monday.

Kettles, 86, of Michigan became the latest recipient of the Medal of Honor – the nation’s highest military award for heroism – during a ceremony with Obama at the White House.

The retired lieutenant colonel was an Army flight commander who helped evacuate 44 fellow soldiers who were ambushed by larger North Vietnamese forces. During the rescue, Kettles piloted the lone Huey helicopter that returned to save eight more troops who had been stranded, despite enemy fire and a high probability of his overloaded aircraft being grounded on the battlefield.

“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,” Obama said. “Entire family trees [were] made possible by the actions of this one man.”

He said that after a couple of tough weeks in the United States, Kettles’ heroism can show how Americans look out for each other “even when times are tough, even when the odds are against us.”

The country is struggling with grief and deep divisions over race following ambushes and killings of police in Dallas and Baton Rouge. The murders coincided with police shootings of black men that triggered nationwide protests charging racism in law enforcement.

“We have to remember everyone on our team just like Chuck Kettles,” Obama said, echoing his earlier calls for national unity. “Sometimes we have to turn around and head back and help those who need a lift.”

Kettles, a former Republican councilman and car dealer in Ypsilanti, spoke to news reporters briefly about the award, saying the focus should be on the 74 Army helicopter crew members who worked with him that day in 1967 to save the 44 infantry soldiers.

“That’s the only thing that really matters, out of all the details,” said Kettles, who wore his dress blue uniform at a bank of microphones.

In his speech, Obama kidded Kettles about his modesty when recounting the mission in Vietnam.

“As he says, ‘This seems like a hell of a fuss over something that happened 50 years ago,’” Obama said. “Even now, all these years later, Chuck is still defined by the humility that shaped him as a soldier.”

Kettles volunteered his helicopters for the mission to assist soldiers who had been ambushed by the North Vietnamese from a network of tunnels and bunkers in a place nicknamed “Chump Valley” for its danger, Obama said.

The soldiers were fighting from a dry riverbed as the enemy attacked from a 1,500-foot overlook. Kettles and the UH-1D “Huey” helicopters came up on the scene and immediately drew massive fire.

“They should have seen a stand of green trees, instead they saw a solid wall of green enemy tracers coming right at them,” Obama said. “None of them had ever seen fire that intense.”

Kettles made trips to river bed, bringing reinforcements and ferrying soldiers from the fight. Flying out for the second time, his door gunner was wounded and his helicopter was limping from damage.

“Chuck’s Huey was hit, fuel was pouring out as he flew away,” Obama said.

Kettles managed to get his gunner to a field hospital but 44 soldiers were still engaged with the North Vietnamese in the dry riverbed. As night approached, they were waiting for evacuation.

“The air was thick with gun powder and smelled of burning metal, and then they heard a faint sound,” Obama said. “As the sun started to set, they saw something rise over the horizon -- six American helicopters, as one of them said, as beautiful as could be.”

A fellow pilot said death or injury was almost certain as Kettles and the other helicopters came in to rescue the remaining forces, Obama said. The enemy unloaded their weapons as the soldiers ran for the aircraft and climbed aboard as all of the Hueys took off.

But Kettles got a radio call as they headed back to base – troops had been stranded in the riverbed.

“They had been providing cover for the others,” Obama said. “Those eight soldiers had run for the choppers but could only watch as they floated away.”

The stranded troops were faced with being quickly captured or killed as the helicopters, U.S. gunships and other air power disappeared from the sky. Kettles, realizing the stakes, broke from the flying formation and took a steep descending turn back to the valley.

“Chuck’s Huey was the only target for the enemy to attack and they did,” Obama said. “Tracers lit up the sky once more. Chuck came in so hot that his chopper bounced for several hundred feet before coming to a stop.”

After he landed, a mortar round shattered the Huey’s windscreen and part of its nosecone, sending shrapnel into the cockpit. The eight soldiers sprinted though the enemy firestorm of bullets and artillery, Obama said.

Kettles’ helicopter was carrying 13 soldiers and was 600 pounds over its weight limit, meaning takeoff – especially with a damaged rotor – might be impossible.

“It felt, he said, like trying to fly a two-and-a-half ton truck,” Obama said. “He couldn’t hover long enough to take off but, the cool customer that he is, he saw his shattered windshield and thought, ‘That is pretty good air conditioning’.”

Kettles had to execute a running takeoff, flying slow and bumping along the riverbed.

“The instant he got airborne another mortar ripped into the tail,” Obama said. “The Huey fishtailed violently and a soldier was thrown out of the helicopter hanging onto a skid as Chuck flew them to safety.”

Obama said Kettles’ heroics and the dangers faced that day were almost beyond belief.

“It’s like a bad Rambo movie,” Obama joked. “You listen to this and you can’t believe it.”

Kettles, who was 37 years old at the time, was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. The upgrade came after a push from a local historian in Michigan and Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich.

He is the 260th recipient from the Vietnam War, and only its 54th living recipient, according to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.

Vietnam veterans last received the medal in September 2014, when it was awarded Army Sgt. 1st Class Bennie Adkins and posthumously to Specialist Donald Sloat, an Army rifleman.

 

View a video of the ceremony here.

tritten.travis@stripes.com
Twitter: @Travis_Tritten