Nearly half a century ago, Army Maj. Charles S. Kettles flew his helicopter multiple times into withering fire from North Vietnamese troops to deliver medical supplies and help save dozens of trapped U.S. troops.
Now, members of Michigan’s congressional delegation are trying to get Kettles, 85, of Ypsilanti, awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military recognition.
“I had to do what I thought was necessary,” he said. “I couldn’t leave anyone behind.”
Legislation introduced last week by U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, and Sens. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, and Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, would waive a time limitation and allow President Barack Obama to award Kettles the medal for his heroics in the Song Tra Cau riverbed on May 15, 1967. Normally, the Medal of Honor must be awarded within five years.
“Major Kettles went above and beyond the call of duty and saved a significant number of American lives,” Dingell said. “This legislation will ensure that 48 years after his service, his contributions to our country are properly honored.”
Kettles can still recall the day’s harrowing events with jarring clarity.
North Vietnamese troops had ambushed soldiers and crew members from the 176th Aviation Company, destroying their helicopter and trapping them behind enemy lines.
Three times, he took off and landed in the combat zone, ferrying supplies and reinforcements, and rescuing wounded servicemen.
Finishing his third trip, Kettles received a radio transmission that eight soldiers were still trapped on the ground.
“We were already 15 feet in the air, but we decided to go back and get the others,” Kettles said. “The helicopter was already overweight and it flew like a two-ton truck, but we were able to get up in the air and get everyone to safety.”
Altogether, Kettles is credited with helping to save 40 troops and four helicopter crewmen.
Kettles was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in 1968, the second-highest military honor for servicemen exemplifying courage and for extreme gallantry and risk of life in combat.
It appeared that would cap a military career that stretched back to October 1951, when Kettles was drafted into the Army after attending Michigan State Normal College, now Eastern Michigan University.
After two tours in Vietnam, Kettles returned to Ypsilanti, finished his bachelor’s degree at EMU, and earned a master’s degree, both in aviation. He ended his service as a lieutenant colonel.
He went on to teach aviation classes at EMU and established an aviation management degree program at the school. He also worked for Chrysler Pentastar Aviation.
It wasn’t until 2012 that a local campaign was launched by William Vollano, a coordinator with the Veterans History Project, for Kettles to receive the Medal of Honor, according to Peters’ office.
“I was so impressed by Major Kettles’ story and wondered why he wasn’t awarded the Medal of Honor,” said Vallano, who lives in Ann Arbor. “It was a lot of channels that we had to go through, but we are confident that the bill will pass. You wouldn’t believe all the things he has done and yet he is one of the most low-key veterans you will ever meet.”
Last year, then-Rep. John Dingell, D-Dearborn, asked the Defense Department to consider Kettles’ case for the award and gained the support of Defense Secretary Ashton Carter.
Peters and other supporters say it’s past time for Kettles to be upgraded to the military’s highest honor.
“Under heavy enemy fire, Major Kettles selflessly put his life on the line to save his fellow service members, leaving no one behind,” Peters said. “Major Kettles’ actions exemplified the valor, grit and honor that makes our military the best in the world.”
The Medal of Honor
The Medal of Honor is the highest award given by the U.S. Armed Forces and is personally presented by the president. Awarded for valor in combat, the medal has been given to more than 3,400 U.S. service members since being authorized in 1861.
According to the Army, “Medals of Honor are awarded sparingly and are bestowed only to the bravest of the brave; and that courage must be well documented.”