It took almost 50 years for Lt. Col. Charles S. Kettles to receive the Medal of Honor for his actions on May 15, 1967, but President Barack Obama remedied that at an awards ceremony performed Monday at the White House.
“As many who know him have said, nobody deserves it more than Charles Kettles of Ypsilanti, Mich.,” Obama said. “Many believe that— except for Chuck. As he says, this ‘seems like a hell of a fuss over something that happened 50 years ago.’”
During the early morning of May 15, soldiers from the Army’s 101st Airborne Division were attacked in a riverbed near Duc Pho, Vietnam. A heavily armed battalion of North Vietnamese regulars attacked with mortars, machine guns and recoilless rifles from a series of entrenchments, which included bunkers and tunnels. Then a major, Kettles volunteered to fly in reinforcements on the six Huey helicopters under his command. Many of the men on the helicopters were shot before even exiting the aircraft, and Kettles loaded up casualties to return to base.
At the staging base, Kettles off-loaded the casualties, and more reinforcements boarded his helicopter to go back into the fight.
“A second time, Chuck went back into the valley,” noted the president. “He dropped off more soldiers and supplies, picked up more wounded. Once more, machine gun bullets and mortar rounds came screaming after them. As he took off a second time, rounds pierced the arm and leg of Chuck’s door gunner, Roland Scheck. Chuck’s Huey was hit. Fuel was pouring out as he flew away. But Chuck had wounded men aboard and decided to take his chances. He landed, found another helicopter, and flew Roland to the field hospital.”
Kettles once again got into aircraft and returned to the carnage for a third time to try to get a last group of 44 soldiers still pinned down. As the six helicopters again descended, they came under severe enemy fire, but waited until Kettles was told that all men were accounted for. Midair it was discovered that in their haste, eight men had been left behind. Already overloaded, and without air cover, Kettles nonetheless went back in to rescue the stranded men.
“Chuck’s helo, now badly damaged, was carrying 13 souls and was 600 pounds over limit,” Obama said. “It felt, he said, like flying a two-and-a-half-ton truck.”
Taking off one last time, a mortar shell hit the tail of Kettles' helicopter, but even overweight and damaged he managed to get the aircraft up and safely extract the last men.
Present at the ceremony was not only door-gunner Scheck, but Dewey Smith, the last man to board the Huey before it took off, and who was thrown out onto the skid of the aircraft when the mortar hit. Also in attendance were numerous military officials and politicians, along with social worker Bill Vollano. who had heard Kettles story of bravery many years ago. The ceremony marked the capstone of a long campaign by Vollano and Kettle’s son Mike to see the originally awarded Distinguished Service Cross upgraded to the Medal of Honor. Kettle’s congressional representative, Debbie Dingell, and her husband, former Congressman John Dingell, had passed legislation to get the Department of Defense to look into the upgrade.
Also present were eight of the Kettles' 10 children, and three grandchildren.
The president stressed the personal story of Kettles' life. “His life is as American as they come,” he said. “He’s the son of an immigrant. His father signed up to fly for the United States the day after Pearl Harbor and filled his five boys with a deep sense of duty to their country. For a time, even as he served in the Army Reserve, Chuck ran a Ford dealership with his brother. And to families who drove a new car off that lot, he’s the salesman who helped put an American icon in their driveway.”
In addition to his service in Vietnam, Kettles had earlier served in the Korean War. Kettles earned his bachelor’s degree in San Antonio, and later got a master’s degree from Eastern Michigan University. Following his retirement from the military, Kettles taught aviation and worked at Chrysler Aviation. He resides with his wife of nearly 60 years, Ann, in Ypsilanti, Mich.
The president noted that Kettles had told him that the attention was “a lot of hubbub, but I’ll survive.”
“There were some 74 helicopter crewmembers involved in that total operation that day,” said Kettles in typically humble remarks after the ceremony. “Making an emergency extraction of the last 44 that were in that landing zone made the whole mission worth it simply if for nothing else than to get those 44 men out of there. It was successful in that regard to minimize the losses and that’s the only thing that really matters out of all the details.”