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This Day in History: Jack Koelsch saves a Marine pilot

On this day in 1951, a Navy pilot works to save a downed Marine. John “Jack” Koelsch would later receive the Medal of Honor for his action: He was the first helicopter pilot to be so honored.


Lieutenant (j.g.) Koelsch was then serving with a Helicopter Squadron aboard USS Princeton. He’d already served one tour of duty in Korea and was due to rotate home. He didn’t want to go, though. He specialized in pilot rescues and was good at it.


He knew he was needed. He chose to stay.


Was he destined to be there on July 3, 1951? On that day, Marine Captain James V. Wilkins was shot down. Wilkins had bailed out of his plane, but he’d unfortunately landed near a known North Korean supply route.


It was getting dark. Any effort to save him would be extremely risky.


Perhaps you won’t be surprised to hear that Koelsch volunteered to go. He was accompanied by AD3 George M. Neal. Together, the two men left in an unarmed helicopter, without a fighter escort.


Shockingly brave!


They took one pass over the area where Wilkins had last been seen, but all they saw was Wilkins’s parachute—not Wilkins himself. Conditions were getting worse, and the overcast skies were forcing Koelsch to fly low. Worse, he was taking enemy fire. No one would have blamed him if he’d left; instead, he turned his helicopter, preparing to make a second sweep.


As it would turn out, Wilkins had been nearby, just out of sight, the whole time. He couldn’t believe his eyes.


“I figured he would surely back out,” Wilkins later explained. “Then, by the Lord, he made another turn back into the valley a second time. It was the greatest display of guts I’ve ever seen.”


On the second pass, Koelsch and Neal found Wilkins. They were working to hoist the badly burned man into the helicopter just as the enemy finally found its mark. The helicopter was sent crashing to the ground.


“The chopper’s door opened,” Wilkins described, “and I saw Jack Koelsch and George Neal hanging upside down in their belts. ‘Are you O.K.?’ I yelled at them. ‘Never mind that,’ Jack answered. ‘Are you O.K.?’”


The three fled on foot, amazingly evading the enemy for 9 days. Koelsch was doing his best to care for Wilkins, but the Marine pilot’s wounds were beginning to fester. Finally, the three men found an abandoned, bombed-out house. They clambered in, exhausted.


“Jack took the watch, and Neal and I sacked out,” Wilkins said. “We were there about three hours, and I was half-dozing, when suddenly I heard Jack say in a perfectly normal voice: ‘How do you do. Won’t you come in?’”


The enemy had found them. The three men had little choice. They surrendered, but Koelsch had no intention of going quietly. Wilkins needed immediate medical attention, and Koelsch would get it.  The enemy finally acquiesced and gave in to Koelsch’s persistent demands for help.


Wilkins received medical treatment that saved his life.


Koelsch was not so lucky. He spent the next several months as a prisoner of war, dying of malnutrition and dysentery in October 1951. When his fellow prisoners were eventually rescued, they reported that Koelsch shared his meager food rations. He’d also endured torture and solitary confinement. “Lt. (j.g.) Koelsch steadfastly refused to aid his captors in any manner,” his Medal citation concludes, “and served to inspire his fellow prisoners by his fortitude . . . .”


His friends were surely unsurprised that he’d acquitted himself so well.


“He was always ready for any rescue mission, no matter how dangerous, and he let this be known,” one of his fellow officers later said. “If anything happened, he wanted to be part of it.”


Rest in peace, Sir.

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