‘Our John Wayne’

Lt. Col. Chuck Kettles Earns The Medal of Honor 50 Years After a Heroic Rescue in Vietnam


Lt. Col. (ret.) Charles Kettles prepares to give a press briefing prior to being awarded the Medal of Honor in Washington D.C., July 17, 2016. Gathered behind him are crew members he had flown with during the Vietnam Conflict as well as Dewy Smith, one of the last Soldiers to be saved by Kettles, during the Vietnam Conflict.

(This article was reprinted with permission from the Winter 2017 edition of  “The Officer” magazine.)

Former Staff Sgt. Dewey Smith was among eight infantrymen laying down suppressive fire for dozens of Soldiers as they scrambled onto helicopters under a barrage of incoming mortar and machine gun fire. He called watching them take off heartbreaking, not knowing whether there would be a final rescue. But then, he didn’t know Lt. Col. Charles “Chuck” Kettles.

Kettles is credited with saving 44 lives that day, Smith stated. For his heroism, members of congress upgraded a Distinguished Service Cross to the Medal of Honor. He was presented the award during a ceremony at the White House, July 18, 2016.

“I’ve thought about that day a lot over the years,” said Smith. “I’ve thought a lot about those who died there. I’ve thought a lot about those who got out of there alive and I’ve tried to live my life to honor all of them.”

Someone’s Hero

The son of a war pilot, Kettles was drafted into the Army in 1951 to support the Korean War effort. By the time he completed flight training and shipped to Korea, the war was over.

“I stayed there about five months before they moved the entire unit over to Japan. I stayed there another five or six months and then I volunteered to work with a unit doing an engineer project in Thailand.”

Lt. Col. Charles Kettles sits alongside his wife of 40 years, Ann, during a ceremony honoring him and his service at the Pentagon, July 19, 2016. Kettles was awarded the Medal of Honor during a ceremony at the White House July 18, 2016 for his efforts in saving 44 Soldiers and Airmen during the Vietnam Conflict.

Having fulfilled his obligation to the Army, Kettles returned the United States in 1956, and enlisted in the Army Reserve’s 4th Battalion, 20th Field Artillery Regiment.

In his civilian life. Kettles was in business with his brother selling cars at a Ford Dealership in Dewitt, Michigan when the call to duty came again in 1963.

“You know how reliable a used car salesman can be,” he said.

An experienced fixed-wing aircraft pilot, he volunteered for active duty service in support of America’s efforts in the Vietnam War. Having attended Helicopter Transition Training in 1964, he was cross-trained to fly the UH-1D “Huey” in France a year later.

In February 1967 while assigned to the 176th Assault Helicopter Company, 14th Combat Aviation Battalion out of Fort Benning, Georgia, Kettles deployed to Vietnam for the first of his two tours.

It was May 15th when he received orders to take a group of Soldiers about 25 kilometers northwest of Duc Pho, or “Chump Valley” as it became known, because as Kettles put it, only a “chump” would be crazy enough to land in the direct line of the enemy’s mortar registration point.

“We were really just bus drivers back then,” he recalled.

Dodging a wall of mortars and green tracer fire from machine guns, Kettles and his team of six helicopters touched down on the landing zone, offloaded reinforcements and took on wounded Soldiers for evacuation.

As the wounded Soldiers piled into the chopper, shouting “Go! Go! Go!” the crew realized the Soldiers they had just let off were being hit by a dizzying volley of machine gun fire before they could reach the cover of the wood line, according to Kettles. With former Spc. Roland Scheck serving as his door gunner, Kettles successfully maneuvered the aircraft out of enemy fire.

Despite nearly half of the aircraft sustaining significant damage, the pilots who remained operational returned for a second run. As Kettles lifted a second load of wounded Soldiers to safety, Scheck received life-threatening wounds to his arm, torso and left leg.

With his helicopter now massively damaged itself, Kettles unloaded the wounded, including Scheck, at the base camp, jumped in another helicopter and returned to the fight.

“I’m not counted as part of those 44 paratroopers and four helicopter crewmembers he saved that day, but he saved me too. It was 49.” Scheck said.

“I was the first guy he had to haul away and he’s been my hero ever since.”

With so many of his assets out of commission, Kettles and the remaining pilots went searching for replacements.

An American flag decorates the front of section 20E of the Wall that Heals at the National Mall in Washington D.C. LT. Col. (ret.) Charles Kettles is credited for saving the lives of 44 Soldiers and Airmen during the Vietnam Conflict and was awarded the Medal of Honor at a ceremony at the White House July 18, 2016.

“I only had one operational aircraft by this time, so we went down the street looking for some at the 161st.  We borrowed five helicopters from them with crews and went out again,” Kettles said.

A Final Pass

They were returning from the third run, thought to be the last, when they received word of the eight Soldiers – Smith among them – still on the ground.

Kettles, who was leading the formation at the time, radioed for someone else to take the lead and returned to the landing zone, still ablaze with incoming mortars and small arms and machine gun fire.

As the final eight scrambled onto the helicopter it took a direct hit from what was later believed to have been a rocket propelled grenade. With a huge hole in the windshield and a damaged main rotor, Kettles, who received wounds from shrapnel that went through his torso and seat, managed to keep the Huey under control.

“It seemed a lot cooler without the windshield anyway,” he quipped.

According to Smith, the eight Soldiers on the ground, who had gone straight into escape and evade mode, began running toward the rescue chopper the moment it came into sight.

“When I saw that helicopter coming back in, a big sigh of relief swept over us,” said Smith. “The tracer fire was ahead of me when I first started running but I was running so fast that I swear I could see it behind me by the time I got to the bird.”

Smith, who like the others, dove into the helicopter head first, said he never knew who the pilot was, nor did he care at the time.

“The only thing I could see was the back of his (Kettles) head and the big hole in the bubble (windshield). All I knew was that we were getting out of there.”

Lt. Col. (ret.) Charles Kettles prepares to take the stage prior to being inducted into the Medal of Honor Hall of Fame at the Pentagon July 19, 2016. Kettles was awarded the Medal of Honor during a ceremony at the White House July 18, 2016 for his efforts in saving 44 Soldiers and Airmen during the Vietnam Conflict..

As for Kettles, the thought of not returning for those eight Soldiers never once crossed his mind.

“It didn’t take a lot of thought for me to decide what to do,” Kettles said. “There were another eight troops down there on the ground and I know they sure as hell didn’t want to be there!”

It wasn’t until nearly 50 years later Smith finally learned who had saved him that day along with so many others.

Legacy Honored

After serving three tours in Vietnam, Smith went on to work with Commercial Motor Freight until 1985 and Metekote Corp. until he retired in 2005. Together with his wife Dianne, he has six children.  “I really did get a second chance on life,” Smith said.

As a result of his injuries, Scheck’s leg was amputated. He spent a year recovering from his wounds at Walter Reed Hospital and was later hired by the U.S. Postal Service in Salisbury, Maryland. He stayed 38 years with the U.S.P.S. finally reaching the position as Chief Steward and President of the American Postal Worker Union. He has three children with his wife Miriam Huebschmann and is still active in labor activities today.

After his second stint in Vietnam, Kettles returned stateside in 1970, where he continued serving in the Army Reserve at Fort Sam Houston, in San Antonio until his retirement in 1978.

He was originally awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions that day.

A nearly five year effort by the Veterans History Project finally led to the upgrade of his original award to the Medal of Honor by members of congress. It was presented to him by the President of the United States, President Barak Obama, during a ceremony at the White House, July 18, 2016.

During the ceremony, Obama remarked “with all due respect to John Wayne, he couldn’t do what Chuck Kettles did.”

He and his wife, Ann, will soon celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary. Together, they have 10 children.

Inducted into the Hall of Heroes at the Pentagon on May 19, 2016, Kettles is the 3,496th recipient of the Medal of Honor and the 206th service member to receive the award from the Vietnam War era.

Kettles recently toured the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. There, etched in stone, are the names of more than 58,000 service members.

“I know there can only be one recipient of the award, but this is for all of the aviators and infantrymen in the valley that day. The names of those 44 don’t appear on the wall in Washington D.C.,” he said. “That’s the bottom line. That’s what matters.”



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