After nearly 50 years, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel from Fort Sam Houston will finally be paid the recognition for extraordinary bravery under fire in the Vietnam War, thanks to a dogged collector of oral histories who brought the officer's story back to life.
On May 15, 1967, Maj. Charles Kettles completed an against-all-odds rescue mission in a UH-1D “Huey” helicopter, piloting his badly damaged chopper through enemy fire to rescue eight infantrymen mistakenly left behind after a Viet Cong ambush near Duc Pho.
Kettles gathered his comrades in a helicopter barely able to lift off and maintain altitude. The tail boom and main rotor blade were severely damaged, the windshield was shattered, the fuel tank punctured and leaking. Overloaded with passengers, the Huey fishtailed violently during takeoff. Kettles skipped the helicopter along a dry riverbed barely above the treeline until he managed to get it airborne. Despite shrapnel and a fusillade of bullets piercing the craft – 30 holes were counted later – Kettles ferried the men to safety.
That evacuation followed yet another in which Kettles helped deliver 40 soldiers and four crew members from withering fire to a safe landing zone. For his bravery, Kettles earned the Distinguished Service Cross, the military’s second-highest honor. But 49 years after his “No Man Left Behind” gallantry, Kettles will be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor by President Obama in a July 18 ceremony at The White House.
About 3,500 servicemen and one woman have been awarded the Medal of Honor since its inception after the U.S. Civil War, when nearly half of the medals were awarded.
“The award is certainly nice,” said Kettles, 86, a native of Ypsilanti, Mich. and a 1978 graduate of Our Lady of the Lake University. “But to have been directly responsible for all those who survived – who did not become prisoners of war or deceased – that’s the important reward.”
The improbability of Kettles’ heroism – flying without gunship, artillery or tactical aircraft support into and out of a barrage of ground fire – is matched only by the story behind his belated recognition. By law, individuals must be nominated for the Medal of Honor within three years of their acts of bravery. In Kettles' case, Congress had to pass a law waiving the time restriction and President Obama had to sign it, a process that took five years.
The catalyst for the Medal of Honor campaign was Bill Vollano, 86, a collector of war stories for the Veterans History Project in Ypsilanti and a first lieutenant at Brooke Army Medical Center in the 1950s. Interviews with Kettles and members of the pilot’s unit left Vollano in awe.
What impressed him even more was the way Kettles ended the war story. “After he told me the whole thing,” Vollano said, “I just sat there with my mouth open. And then he said, ‘Piece of cake.’ That’s the way Charley is. He’s about as low-key as you can get.”
Kettles did not expect the campaign to succeed. Congress had to amend a law. The President had to sign. The Army had to make certain the rescue was worthy of the Medal of Honor. Then there was this: Kettles did not consider himself heroic. He did what he had to do in war. After the rescue, Kettles remembers feeling hungry. His reaction: “Let’s go eat.”
Humility and aviation are in his DNA. Kettles is the son of a World War I and World War II pilot. He studied engineering at Eastern Michigan University and was drafted into the Army at 21. He completed tours in Korea, Japan and Thailand, attended helicopter training in Fort Walters where he learned to fly the UH-1D “Huey.”
He was deployed to Vietnam in February 1967. Three months later, boom: Soldiers with the 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division launched an assault and fell into an enemy ambush. A flight commander with the 176th Aviation Company, 14th Combat Aviation Battalion, Kettles flew into the battle zone, rescuing dozens of soldiers all together on two round trips.
More than 40 years later, Vollano began collecting stories, then started his campaign. Last year, the House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers (R-KY) inserted the Medal of Honor provision in a spending bill. In December, President Obama signed it. The Army approved. From the fog of a long ago war, another Medal of Honor winner with San Antonio connections has emerged.
Kettles may now belong to Michigan, where he resides, but his heroism will be marked in San Antonio forever. His name will join 32 others on the Medal of Honor River Portal, a bronze memorial at Auditorium Circle outside the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, recognizing the valor of those with a connection to this city.
(Read more: A Medal of Honor River Portal Worthy of its Heroes)
Kettles spent eight years at Fort Sam Houston, where he retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1978. He earned a bachelor’s in business administration from Our Lady of the Lake University. He used his degree to pursue a graduate degree at Eastern Michigan in Lansing, MI, and to become a professor in aviation management in the university's College of Technology.
When Kettles flew over that battlefield in 1967, his helicopter was the lone target in the sky. It never occurred to him, he says, that he or the soldiers he plucked to safety might perish. And it never occurred to him that he might deserve the nation’s highest military honor.
“The medal belongs to everyone” who participated in the rescue, he now says, “not just me.”
Vollano, the collector of war stories, respectfully disagrees. Kettles, he said, is a rare hero. So rare it took 49 years, an act of Congress, the approval of the Army and the signature of the President to give him his due next month.
Top image: Kettles will be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor by President Obama on a July 18 at The White House. Photo courtesy of Michigan Guard.