Vietnam veteran who saved 44 in destroyed chopper receives Medal of Honor

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An Ypsilanti veteran received an honor that was long overdue: the Medal of Honor for rescuing more than 40 soldiers in the Vietnam war. His story isn't just one of heroism and bravery in the face of enemy fire. No, it's much more than that. He's a real life John Wayne, perhaps even better.

Lt. Col. Charles Kettles was honored on Monday with the highest medal of valor in combat in Washington D.C. by President Barack Obama. His story is one of true heroism in the face of enemy fire.

It was May 15, 1967. The United States was deeply involved in the Vietnam War and men and women were dying in an unpopular fight. That day, an infantry unit was ambushed on a riverbed in Vietnam by the North Vietnamese Army. Kettles, then a Major in the United States Army, led three different flights into hostile territory to deliver supplies, reinforcements, and evacuate the wounded and trapped.

He made multiple trips and during his final evacuation effort, he learned there were eight soldiers who did not reach the helicopters. The Military has a motto they've followed for centuries: leave no man behind. Kettles certainly lived up to that standard.

So, with no artillery or tactical aircraft support, Kettles flew back into the warzone to rescue the remaining soldiers. During this trip, his helicopter was hit by a mortar round that damaged the main rotor blade and shattered both front windshields. Small arms and machine gun fire also raked the helicopter.

"In spite of the severe damage to his helicopter, Kettles once more skillfully guided his heavily damaged aircraft to safety," the Army said in describing his actions. "Without his courageous actions and superior flying skills, the last group of soldiers and his crew would never have made it off the battlefield."

President Obama recounted Kettles' story of heroism when he presented the highest honor. The President walked through the entire day that started at 9 that morning as the soldiers were rescued from 'Chump Valley'. The valley is on the other side of a 1500 foot tall hill and was the perfect spot for an ambush.

In his four flights, he encountered heavy gunfire and artillery but never turned away. Along the way, his Huey was hit and leaking fuel, so Kettles found another one and flew back. By evening, the 44 were still pinned down.

"The air was thick with gunpowder, smelled of burning metal, and they heard a faint sound. The sun was setting and they saw six American helicopters rising over the horizon," President Obama said.

The Hueys were returning to get the men, one of whom said it was 'as beautiful as could be'. It was hell on earth when they landed. The enemy unloaded all they had on them as they loaded the soldiers into the choppers. When Kettles was told everyone was accounted for, he took off. Midair, he learned that there were still eight men behind. They had been providing cover for the others and when the choppers took off, all they could do was watch them fly away.

So Kettles broke off from formation and took his chopper full of men back to get the rest. This time, there was no coverage from the ground. His chopper was the only target for the enemy fire and it's no wonder that one of the soldiers who was there said Kettles became 'our John Wayne'.

He came in to Chump Valley hot and bounced several hundred feet. Once he did land, a mortar shattered his windshield, another hit his rotor blade, and shrapnel tore through the cockpit.

The 8 made a mad dash.

Now, with 13 men on board, the Huey was 600 lbs overweight and he compared it flying a 2 1/2 ton truck. With the shattered windshield and a cabin full of smoke, they tried to take off. It was too heavy so Kettles had to hop it across the ground to gain enough speed.

It worked and he finally got airborne but they weren't in the clear yet. The enemy kept firing at their only target and hit the tail with a mortar. A soldier went flying from the chopper but somehow was able to cling to a skid as Kettles navigated the destroyed helicopter out of the battlefield.

Kettles received the Distinguished Service Cross in 1968 and in 2012, the Veterans History Project launched a formal campaign to upgrade Kettles' Distinguished Service Cross for his actions that day to the Medal of Honor. After the Pentagon agreed his actions merited an upgrade, Congress passed legislation waiving a time limitation for the award, and paving the way for Obama's action.

"I didn't do it by myself. There were some 74 pilots and crew members involved in this whole mission that day, so it's not just me," Kettles says in a video on the Army's website. "The medal is not mine. It's theirs."

Kettles studied engineering at Michigan State Normal College (now Eastern Michigan University) for two years before being drafted in the Army in 1951. He spent five years serving and returned home in 1956 and started a Ford dealership in Dewitt, Michigan. In 1963, he was called to serve again to help fight in the Vietnam War.

In 1964, he learned to fly the UH-1D "Huey". Two years later, he reported to Fort Benning to join a new helicopter unit and was assigned to the 176th Assault Helicopter Company, 14th Combat Aviation Battalion. He was deployed in 1967 and served two tours in Vietnam.

Kettles' awards and decorations include the Distinguished Service Cross, the Legion of Merit, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star Medal with one bronze oak leaf cluster, Air Medal with Numeral "27", the Army Commendation Medal with one bronze oak leaf cluster, the National Defense Service Medal with one bronze service star, the Korean Service Medal, the Vietnam Service Medal with one silver service star and one bronze service star, the Korea Defense Service Medal, the Armed Forces Reserve Medal with bronze hourglass device, the Master Aviator Badge, Marksman Badge with carbine bar, the Valorous Unit Citation, the Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross with bronze star, the United Nations Service Medal, the Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal with "60" Device, and the Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross Unit Citation with palm device.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.