This Day in History: Patrick Henry Brady’s “Dust Off” missions in Vietnam

On this day in 1968, a United States Army helicopter pilot engages in an action that would ultimately earn him the Medal of Honor.

Patrick Henry Brady was an unlikely candidate for the Medal. Surely no one would have expected it? Brady had participated in ROTC during college, but only because he was required to do so. In fact, when he first heard about the ROTC requirement, he thought it sounded a bit like “communism.”

Fortunately for Brady, he ended up in flight school. He volunteered for Vietnam, and he learned to evacuate wounded soldiers in helicopter ambulance operations known as “Dust Off.”

“The missions that we flew were the most dangerous kind of flying,” Brady later described, “because we were required to land on the battlefield.” Maybe so, but Brady become quite good at it. And he had the benefit of serving under a legendary rescue pilot, Major Charles Kelly.

When Kelly was killed in action, Brady took over. Mere days later, he was asked if the unit would stop flying so aggressively now that Kelly was gone. “We are going to keep flying exactly the way Kelly taught us to fly,” he reportedly declared, “without hesitation, anytime, anywhere.”

And that is exactly what Brady was doing on January 6, 1968, during his second tour of duty in Vietnam. On that day, he undertook four dangerous rescue missions. He went through three helicopters in a single day. Four hundred bullet holes were found in those helicopters. But he’d rescued 51 seriously wounded men.

The first rescue required him to descend into enemy territory in the midst of heavy fog and smoke. He turned his helicopter sideways so the backwash from his rotor blades would blow away the fog. He found the wounded and got them out.

It was just the beginning of Brady’s long day.

His next task was to find some Americans who were wounded, lying in a valley under more of the heavy fog and smoke. “They weren’t going to let me go in initially,” Brady later remembered, “I had to land on the fire support base and talk the brigade commander into letting me go in. He actually went to my co-pilot and said to my co-pilot: ‘Can he do that?’ My co-pilot said, ‘We’ve been doing it; we just did it this morning.”

Brady went into this dangerous zone and conducted rescues not once, but four times!

During a third mission, Brady attempted to retrieve some wounded, but the Americans on the ground hadn’t been able to secure a landing area. Brady took fire and his controls were shot out, but it didn’t stop him from coming back around to get the wounded on another attempt.

Brady’s fourth rescue of the day was made in a minefield. He located one spot that he thought was reasonably certain to be free of mines. He landed, but then he faced a problem. No one in the minefield wanted to move! How could he get the patients? Two of his crew jumped out and ran for the wounded.

“These were the great heroes in that mission,” Brady later said. Unfortunately, the crew set off a mine as they tried to get the last of the patients. Shrapnel hit the helicopter, but everyone still managed to get on the aircraft. Brady had no idea if the helicopter was flyable at that point, but he took off anyway—and he made it back with his patients.

Wouldn’t you know that he found a new, undamaged helicopter and kept working?!

“For me, it was a matter of my faith,” Brady later said. “My faith was a substitute for fear. And I just knew that if I died doing what I was doing, what better way to die? I mean, what better way for a soldier to die than to be saving the lives of his fellow soldiers?”

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