This Day in History: Charles Kettles performs a stunning helicopter rescue

On this day in 1930, a future Medal of Honor recipient is born. Charles Kettles was the son of a man who’d served as a pilot in both World Wars. Kettles must have had flying in his genes! He would soon follow in his father’s footsteps, serving in the Korean War, then answering the call to duty when America needed pilots in Vietnam.

The day that Kettles experienced on May 15, 1967 was difficult, from beginning to end. Our soldiers were in an intense firefight. They needed reinforcements—and they needed someone to get the wounded out. Kettles volunteered to lead a team of helicopters into the area.

Those Hueys were greeted by a horrific scene. “Enemy small arms, automatic weapons, and mortar fire raked the landing zone,” Kettles’ citation describes. The Hueys had brought soldiers to reinforce the Americans on the ground, but some of these soldiers were killed, even before the helicopters could land. Despite the intense firefight, Kettles kept his team on the ground until they were filled to capacity.

They flew the wounded back to safety, then returned to repeat the process. It was like returning to the depths of hell for more punishment.

During this second trip, Kettles’s helicopter began leaking fuel, but Kettles had a helo full of wounded men. He didn’t hesitate. “Despite the risk posed by the leaking fuel,” Kettles’s citation reports, “he nursed the damaged aircraft back to base.”

He had a new helicopter by the time the last of the troops called for an immediate, emergency extraction. Once again, the team of Hueys flew into hell. Once again, they waited as American soldiers ran for the helos. It was thought that everyone was aboard, and the team took off.

Unfortunately, eight men had been left behind. Those soldiers had been providing cover for the others; they hadn’t made it to the extraction location in time. “We all figured we were done for,” one of those eight later said.

They needn’t have worried. Kettles wasn’t one to leave men behind.

He put one of the other pilots in charge of leading the team home. He was going back. He had no cover. Anyone that could have helped him was out of ammunition or low on fuel. It didn’t matter. He had to go. “I don’t think it took any thought,” Kettles later said, “there were eight troops down there that didn’t want to be there.”

He was the only target for the enemy when he arrived, and he immediately took a mortar round that shattered his windshield. Unbelievably, he survived the incoming fire and landed, waiting for the last soldiers to climb aboard. The additions made the helicopter 600 pounds over limit. It was too heavy to take off! Worse, the helicopter was heavily damaged: even its main rotor blade had taken a hit.

Kettles’s flying genes chose that moment to shine! He hopped and skipped that helicopter down the riverbed, working up enough speed to get the heavy aircraft into the air. A soldier was thrown out and hung to a skid for safety. But everyone managed to get out.

Kettles was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions, but would you believe that it took nearly 50 years before he was recognized?!

“Chuck is the reason [dozens] lived and came home and had children and grandchildren,” President Barack Obama observed as he awarded the Medal. “Entire family trees, made possible by the actions of this one man.”

Kettles sees it differently. “It’s more a recognition of the entire 74 helicopter crew members, as far as I am concerned,” he said, “it belongs to them. Not to me. I was simply leading the pack.”