On July 18, 2016, President Barack Obama awarded the Medal of Honor to retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Charles Kettles, whose actions in the Vietnam War saved dozens of American lives.
Three Trips Through Hell
The morning of May 15, 1967, soldiers from the 101st airborne, 1st Brigade, were ambushed while patrolling the Song Tra Crau riverbed by a battalion-sized force of the North Vietnamese army. Then-Major Charles Kettles did not hesitate when he volunteered to lead a formation of six Huey UH-1s to lift wounded personnel out of harms way.
Landing at the site would not be easy. The ambush area was known as “Chump Valley” by the men of Kettles’ outfit: it was heavily fortified with tunnels and bunkers, bristling with machine-guns, mortars and RPGs. Kettles would be leading his helicopters into a storm of bullets. It was unlikely that any of them would leave alive.
Nevertheless, Kettles braved enemy fire, landing on the hot LZ, to rescue the wounded and bring them back to base. He would make this journey again, knowing full well the volume of fire that awaited him, exchanging three wounded men of the 101st for the fresh reinforcements and supplies he had brought with him.
Returning to base would be even tougher this time. A round had wounded his gunner, and his Huey has sustained heavy damage as it absorbed enemy machine-gun rounds. Leaking fuel, Kettles limped his helicopter and its injured passengers out of harms way.
In the evening, Kettles led a third formation of helicopters to relieve the remaining 44 troops from the 101st. The helicopters had all left the LZ when Kettles heard on the radio that the eight soldiers providing cover fire on the ground were unaccounted for. Kettles immediately swung away, breaking formation, and headed back to the LZ. Under mortar and machine-gun fire, Kettles kept calm and waited for the eight remaining troops to climb on board, then lifted off his overweight, heavily damaged Huey and headed back to base.
Receiving the Highest Military Honor
Kettles is no stranger to awards. He has earned the Distinguished Service Cross, the Legion of Merit, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star Medal with one bronze oak leaf cluster and many more.
The Medal of Honor has been issued to over 3,400 service members before him; Kettles will be the 260th service member to have received the medal for actions during the Vietnam War. Kettles’ award is an uncommon case, where the award is received significantly after the end of the war. 235 of the Medals of Honor received for actions in Vietnam were given during the war, or within 12 months of its conclusion.
Like many before him, Lt. Col. Kettles was humbled by the honor. As the President recalled: “Of course, Chuck says all this attention is ‘a lot of hubbub, but I’ll survive.'”.
In honor of Kettles’ heroism, the U.S. Army has prepared on their website a fascinating, in depth look at the man, the battle, and the selfless act that saved so many on that day in 1967 in Vietnam. You can find this page by clicking here. You can also watch the full 21-minute long award presentation by the president here, or read the full transcript here.
You can find more stories of Medal of Honor recipients here on Warfare History Network.