Less than 24 hours before receiving the Medal of Honor for his role in a Vietnam helicopter rescue in a ceremony Monday at the White House, retired Lt. Col. Charles Kettles sat with friends, crew members and some of the soldiers he saved to share stories of survival from nearly half a century ago.
Kettles led a team of six UH-1D helicopters during rescue operations in the Song Tra Cau riverbed May 15, 1967, where members of 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, had been ambushed by North Vietnamese guerrillas. A flight commander with 176th Assault Helicopter Company, 14th Combat Aviation Battalion, he brought reinforcements to the battlefield while also evacuating casualties.
"That mission, that day … some 160 troops were inserted into that [landing zone]," Kettles said during a media roundtable event Sunday. "Of greatest importance, some 74 helicopter crew members were involved in the whole mission that day."
Despite a seemingly desperate situation, the soldiers kept faith in their air support.
"I cannot ever recall anyone doubting, when needed, there would be a helicopter," said former Staff Sgt. Dewey Smith, one of the soldiers on the ground, during Sunday's roundtable. "Knew no matter what the situation was … they would be there."
Leading another flight of six helicopters, five of which were from the 161st Aviation Company, Kettles returned to the conflict to rescue the remaining 44 soldiers.
While the other five helicopter crews managed to board 36 of the 44 stranded men, enemy fire obstructed the last eight from reaching the landing zone in time.
Without any support, Kettles set down in the midst of heavy enemy fire to rescue the last eight men.
"The gunships had gone back home from lack of fuel and ammunition, artillery shut down for same reason … and the Air Force had gone back home," Kettles said. "I don't think it took any thought, there were eight troops down there that didn't want to be there."
Kettles' Huey was struck with a mortar round and barraged with machine gun fire, damaging the main rotor blade, the tail, and shattering the front windshields.
A gun platoon commander with the 176th Aviation at the time, retired Army Col. Matt McGuire recalled the heavy concentration of enemy fire that day left only one of his gunships fully operational.
"It was unbelievable he was able to bring it in considering the amount of fire he was receiving," Smith said.
With 13 people now occupying the helicopter, the load was well overweight by about "600 to 700 pounds," Kettles estimated. The Huey was still taking enemy fire, its main rotor blade and tail damaged and its front windshields shattered.
Kettles and his co-pilot Ray Seacrest began bouncing the helicopter off the ground to gain the speed necessary to lift off. It took several tries before building up the power needed to leave the landing zone.
"Terrain wasn't that desirable," Kettles said. "[The helicopter began] looking like a jackrabbit."
The pilot "skillfully guided his heavily damaged ship to safety," according to his Distinguished Service Cross citation.
The upgrade to a Medal of Honor came after a five-year campaign by former Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., and his wife, Debbie, who took over her husband's seat in 2015.
At least one of Kettles' fellow soldiers never understood the wait.
"He should have been upgraded 40 years ago," said former Spc. Roland Scheck, who served as Kettles' door gunner during the rescue. "On May 16, , Kettles should have had that Medal of Honor."
Former Spc. Roland Scheck holds a picture of the "chicken plate" vest that saved his life during a May 1967 helicopter rescue mission in Vietnam. Scheck served as a gunner for now-retired Lt. Col. Charles Kettles, who received the Medal of Honor on Monday for his actions during the rescue.
Photo Credit: Luke Carberry Mogan/Staff
Scheck lost his left leg after being hit by machine gun fire targeting Kettles’ helicopter. He nearly lost much more: Kettles told him minutes before to put on his armored vest, nicknamed "chicken plate," which would save Scheck’s life after a bullet hit pierced his chest.
President Obama awarded Kettles the Medal of Honor in a Monday morning White House ceremony, calling the honor "richly deserved." Citing recent news events, Obama called on Americans, both in and out of uniform, to take Kettles' heroism to heart.
"At a time when, let's face it, we've had a couple of tough weeks, for us to remember the goodness and decency of the American people, and the way 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."
Kettles is scheduled to be inducted into the Pentagon's Hall of Heroes on Tuesday.