The details of the heroism that will see Charles Kettles awarded the Medal of Honor at the White House come back clearly and quickly even five decades later.
Kettles finally receive the award from President Obama on July 18.
Kettles, 86, recalls the events of May 15, 1967: flying his UH-1 helicopter time after time after time into dizzying, withering fire to save the lives of dozens of soldiers ambushed by North Vietnamese troops in the Song Tau Cau river valley; nursing the shot-up, overloaded bird out of harm’s way with the final eight soldiers who’d been mistakenly left behind.
“With complete disregard for his own safety, ” the official narrative of that day reads. “Without gunship, artillery, or tactical aircraft support, the enemy concentrated all firepower on his lone aircraft… Without his courageous actions and superior flying skills, the last group of soldiers and his crew would never have made it off the battlefield.”
Kettles, born and bred and retired in Ypsilanti, Mich., remembers how he felt after he touched down nearly 50 years ago for the last time, finally safe, unrattled and hungry.
“I just walked away from the helicopter believing that’s what war is,” Kettles told USA TODAY. “It probably matched some of the movies I’d seen as a youngster. So be it. Let’s go have dinner.”
Kettles’ actions were documented and saluted long ago. He was awarded the second-highest award for bravery, the Distinguished Service Cross. And that, he thought, was that. Kettles completed another tour in Vietnam, retired from the Army as a lieutenant colonel and opened an auto dealership with his brother.
That’s where the story would end, if not for William Vollano, an amateur historian who was interviewing veterans for the Veterans History Project. Vollano’s prodding led the Army to reopen Kettles’ case and determine that his actions merited the Medal of Honor. Coincidentally, the military is also reviewing the actions of hundreds more troops in the post-9/11 era to see if they, too, should receive upgrades of their service crosses and Silver Stars.
May 15, 1967
On that May morning in Vietnam, Maj. Kettles’ and several other helicopter pilots ferried about 80 soldiers from the 1st Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division to a landing zone near the Song Tra Cau River. The river, just eight or 10 feet above sea level, drifted past a 1,500-foot hill.
“Very steep, which set them up for an ambush,” Kettles recalls. “Which did happen.”
Hundreds of North Vietnamese soldiers, dug into tunnels and bunkers, attacked the Americans with machine guns, mortars and recoilless rifles.
“Two or three hours after they were inserted, they had been mauled over and the battalion commander called for reinforcements,” Kettles says.
Kettles volunteered to fly in reinforcements and to retrieve the wounded and dead. As they swooped in to land, the North Vietnamese focused their fire on the helicopters. Soldiers were killed before they could leap from the aircraft, according to the official account of the fight.
Air Force jets dropped napalm on the machine gun positions overlooking the landing zone, but it had little effect. The attack continued, riddling the helicopters with bullets. Kettles refused to leave, however, until the fresh troops and supplies had been dropped off and the dead and wounded crowded aboard to be flown out.
Kettles ran the gantlet again, bringing more reinforcements amid mortar and machine gun fire that seriously wounded his gunner and tore into his helicopter. The crew from another helicopter reported to Kettles that fuel was pouring from his aircraft. Kettles wobbled back to the base.
“Kettles, by himself, without any guns and any crew, went back by himself,” said Roland Scheck, a crew member who had been injured on Kettles’ first trip to the landing zone that day. “Immediately, all the pilots and copilots in the company decided, ‘This is Medal of Honor material right there.'”
“I don’t know if there’s anyone who’s gotten an Medal of Honor who deserved it more,” he said. “There’s no better candidate as far as I’m concerned.”
The final run
At about 6 p.m., the infantry commander radioed for an immediate, emergency evacuation of 44 soldiers, including four from Kettles’ unit whose helicopter was destroyed at the river. Kettles volunteered to lead the flight of six evacuation helicopters, cobbled together from his and another unit.
“Chaotic,” Kettles says. “The troops simply went to the first helicopter available.”
Just one soldier scrambled into his helicopter. Told that all were safe and accounted for, Kettles signaled it was time to return to base.
“The artillery shut down, the gunships went back,” Kettles said. “No reason for them to stay anymore. The Air Force shut down. We climbed out to about 1,400 feet, a 180-degree turn back toward base camp and the hospital.”
That’s when word reached Kettles that eight soldiers had been left behind.
“They had been down in the river bed in a last ditch defensive effort before the helicopters loaded,” Kettles said. “I assured the commander I would go back in and pick them up.”
Kettles took control of the helicopter from the co-pilot and plummeted toward the stranded soldiers.
The North Vietnamese trained all their fire on Kettles. As he landed, a mortar round shattered the windshields and damaged the tail and main rotor blade. The eight soldiers piled on board, raked by rifle and machine-gun fire. Jammed beyond capacity, the helicopter “fishtailed” several times before Kettles took the controls again from his co-pilot. The only way out, Kettles recalls, was to skip along the ground, gaining enough speed to get the helicopter in the air.
“If not we were going to go down the road like a two-and-a-half ton truck with a rotor blade on it,” Kettles says.
After five or six tries, Kettles got off the ground. Just then, a second mortar round slammed into the tail.
“That caused the thing to lurch forward,” he says. “I don’t know if that helped much. I still had a clean panel, that is, the emergency panel. There weren’t any lights.
The helicopter was still doing what it was supposed to do even though it was, I guess, pretty badly (damaged). We got out of there.”
The Medal of Honor
Kettles acknowledges it was an extraordinary day, one that he thinks about but doesn’t dwell on. He and the other helicopter pilots and crew performed as they were trained, followed orders, completed their mission. Simple as that.
The Medal of Honor, he says, “belongs to them certainly as much as myself. I just happened to be the lead position where the decisions were mine, properly so.
“For them, unfortunately all they could do was follow. And they did. They did their jobs. They’re as deserving as I am certainly. That’s what it means to me.”
For dozens of soldiers, especially the last eight, Kettles’ decision kept their names from being etched on the black granite wall of the Vietnam War memorial here in Washington with the 58,000 others who died in the war.
“The eight who got out of there who aren’t on that wall,” Kettles says. “That’s what matters.”
By Tom Vanden Brook and Gregory Korte, USA TODAY
View the military history of actor:
Captain Roy Scheider, Jr
U.S. Air Force
Short Bio: Twenty years before actor Roy Scheider was chasing sharks in “Jaws,” as Police Chief Martin Brody, he was giving orders in the Air Force.
Scheider served as an active-duty Air Force Officer for three years in the mid-1950s and later was a Reservist, according to accounts of Scheider’s life.
From our archives. The story of our team of volunteers that work tirelessly to make sure that our fallen are not forgotten.
On Feb. 24, 1968, Don Skinner was in charge of maintaining bombing radars in Vietnam when his unit came under attack. The Air Force sergeant was critically wounded, spending three months in a Saigon hospital, before being air-lifted to the States where he says he spent nine more months at a hospital “being put back together.”
Three of his comrades were killed during that assault, and overall, 19 members from Skinner’s unit lost their lives during the war.
But the memories of those 19 men – and hundred of others spanning different wars – live on, thanks to Skinner’s efforts. Today, the 83-year-old sits in front of a computer at his Aiken, S.C. home working on remembrance profiles for fallen soldiers. The retired veteran is one of more than 200 volunteers who work around the clock building the Roll of Honor on TogetherWeServed.com, an online war memorial that claims 1.5 million members and has more than 100,000 pages honoring fallen service members.
For Skinner, who has personally completed more than 850 profiles, it’s about putting stories to names, bringing those killed in action from “obscurity back to reality.”
“They are now honored and remembered,” Skinner said. “These people are no longer forgotten or lost in the mist of history.”
Erasing that mist is not always an easy task. For example, there’s a dearth of information for many Korean War and World War II veterans, whose numbers are dwindling. Volunteers rely heavily on battle history archives, gravesite information and public records to glean information, but they often must track down surviving family members to fill in the holes.
One of those working to fill the gaps is Carl “Krusty” Elliott. During the Vietnam War, the Army staff sergeant worked at Walter Reed hospital, where he says the wounded soldiers “left a lasting impression” on him.
The 67-year-old Elliott, who has built more than 2,000 online memorials from his Rochester, New Hampshire home, says it was especially gratifying to complete the profile of 1st Lt. Verne Kelley, a 10-year Army veteran who was killed in action in Vietnam in 1969. Kelley grew up not far from Elliott’s hometown and was friends with his older brothers.
Diane Short, a Navy veteran who oversees operations and management of the website’s memorial teams, says the site hopes to complete unfinished profiles by year’s end but the task is daunting. The online memorial includes almost 48,000 fallen soldiers in the Army alone and TWS has completed about 65 percent of those remembrance profiles.
The veterans who add photos, medals and remembrances to the online memorials are giving an emotional lift to families of the fallen. Just ask Debra Booth, whose 23-year-old son Marine Lt. Joshua Booth was killed in Iraq in 2006 — just five weeks after deployment. She hadn’t seen any photos of her son in Iraq until she stumbled upon three images of Josh posted on Together We Served.
“What an amazing surprise that day,” said Booth, who added that she has since corresponded with Josh’s captain in Haditha and hopes to connect with more men who served with her son.
Josh left behind a daughter Grace, who is now 8 years old. Debra Booth says Grace recently asked Santa Claus to bring her pictures of her daddy. Thanks to the images posted to Together We Served, that wish was granted. “It’s an amazing gift,” Booth said of the online memorial.
Building the remembrance profiles is a healing process for the volunteer veterans, according to Short.
“A lot of these guys are dealing with PTSD,” Short said. “It is their way of getting into their head and dealing with their memories and putting pen to paper honoring those who they lost.”
Denny Eister, a 69-year old Vietnam War veteran who lives in Destin, Florida, says he suffers from PTSD and repressed his war memories for nearly four decades. One day, his kids uncovered some medals in his desk drawer and he says it triggered a renewed interest to track down his fellow soldiers. Eister, who works part time as an insurance agent, has since built nearly 1,000 remembrance profiles.
“You develop a bond that’s hard to explain to someone who hasn’t experienced combat in military,” Eister said. “It’s an honor to do it for the guys who didn’t come home.”
Eister said through his work he was able to track down his company commander at the time, Walter Dillard, who retired as a Colonel and now lives in Virginia. “We still communicate to this day,” he said.
Indeed, Together We Served has become a coveted social network for veterans. Barbara (Bobbe) Stuvengen served in the Navy in World War II as a WAVE (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). A few years ago, when the 89-year-old Wisconsin resident lost her husband (also a sailor) to Alzheimer’s disease, she credits the website for “preserving my sanity during some very stressful times.”
“It’s just kind of a way to keep in touch with the outside world,” said Stuvengen, who communicates regularly with other members. “It means a lot to me to have TWS to go into. … I begin to feel like they’re my family.”
As for Skinner, 65 years after enlisting in the Air Force, he is still devoting his time to serving his country. The author of several military books, he continues digging into databases, scouring archives and phoning families to piece together the lives of fallen service members. More than four decades after making it through that deadly assault in Vietnam, Skinner is battling cancer – but his doctors have declared him healthy and he remains focused on his work.
“I guess I’m a survivor in more ways than one,” he says.
By Stephen Smith CBS News
View the military service of funny man:
S1c Don Rickles
Short Bio: His ship departed Norfolk, Virginia 10 November 1944 transited the Panama Canal and arrived at Manus Province, in Papua New Guinea on 13 December to escort two squadrons of motor torpedo boats to Hollandia, New Guinea. She then sailed on convoy duty to Leyte Gulf, Phillipines, arriving 1 January 1945.
He has said of one deployment, “It was so hot and humid, the crew rotted.”
Read the service reflections of U.S Marine:
LtCol James L. Volkmar
U.S. Marine Corps (Ret)
If you served, join us today at http://togetherweserved.com to tell your story.
WHAT INFLUENCED YOUR DECISION TO JOIN THE MILITARY?
I was in college and was dumped by this little blond cheerleader. Crushed me. Caused me to drink heavily one night and break out the literature that I had pilfered from the post office. Suddenly, I could see myself returning from Marine boot camp in dress blues and profiling fortheÂ benefit of the cheerleader, causing her heart to throb at the possibility I would give her as second chance. In addition I saw the last guy I had a fight with cowering at the thought I would seek vengeance and thrash him within an inch of his life.
This Walter Mitty episode was compounded by my picture appearing in the paper as I proved to the policeman that I was of legal age following a recent raid at a nearby night spot. I knew this would probably cause me trouble at the small religious college I attended. Like all students attending, I had signed a pledge that I would not drink, dance or smoke while in attendance. I would like to say that my moral conscience came into play and I wanted to do the right thing but as a pre-med student I had discovered I was far better at playing Doctor than studying to become one.
Truth be told I was really bummed about the little blond cheerleader. Filled with new resolve from the alcohol and my mind’s eye picture of the steely eyed sartorially splendid killer Marine I was to become. I called the recruiter listed on the brochure the very next day. Alas as I went to search for a picture of the little blonde cheerleader my tears over the years had washed away the image. But to give you some idea, I have posted here a picture of my lifelong heart throb that could have been her twin had Ann-Margret’s hair been a bit more blonde!
WHAT WAS YOUR SERVICE CAREER PATH?
Boot camp in San Diego! A Hollywood Marine, fitting given my predilection for the drama of my planned triumphant return to woo the little blond cheerleader and crush my high school nemesis. It should be noted that half way through boot camp, I received a letter from the little blondcheerleader indicating that she was getting married to a friend of mine and wanted me to know she was proud I was serving my country. I was crushed. There was no real reason for me to be in boot camp any longer since my triumphant return was in ashes.
I tried to explain the mistake that had been made to my Drill Instructors. Candidly, they were less than sympathetic.
While in boot camp I went to an interview for Marines who would volunteer for Sea Duty. This time and without the benefit of alcohol, I saw myself in Dress Blues (all sea going Marines were issued them), cutlass in hand up in the riggings of an American ship of war. After all my life I had envisioned for myself was over. I think the Marine Staff Sergeant conducting the interview liked the fact I had some college and I had the presence of mind not to relate my real reasons for volunteering. I was accepted and after Sea School at MCRD San Diego I was assigned to be an Admiral’s Orderly in Commander Carrier Division One stationed at Coronado. Out of boot camp I carried an 03 MOS.
DID YOU PARTICIPATE IN COMBAT OPERATIONS? IF SO, COULD YOU DESCRIBE THOSE WHICH WERE SIGNIFICANT TO YOU?
As an enlisted Marine I did a WestPac tour on the staff of Rear Admiral E.C. Outlaw or as those of us serving as his orderlies referred to him “the bandit of the South China Sea.” Admiral Outlaw earned a Navy Cross for his actions as a pilotÂ in World War II.
His Chief of Staff was a Captain Swanson who I spent most of the time serving as I was the junior Marine of the six of us in the detachment. Captain Swanson had the voice of God and a real sense of humor. One day he sent me to the ships store to get him a bottle of Vitalis hair oil. The ships store was out and when I returned and informed him of same he said he didn’t care he wanted it so find him a bottle. After an extensive search I finally resorted to paging on the 1MC anyone aboard who had a bottle of Vitalis hair oil to report to the Admiral’s bridge immediately. A sailor showed up with three quarters of a bottle that I gave him two bucks for. Captain Swanson accepted it as being the only bottle on board and I was out two bucks.Â
As to Combat operation the pilots flew out daily bombing North Vietnam. I quickly became convinced that if you wanted to return you flew the propeller driven SPADS as I watched them come back with six of their twelve cylinders blown apart, gushing oil but still flying. The A4 and Phantoms could take a round in the wing somewhere and not return. As you can see by my citation from the Admiral that I was a major factor in winning the air war. LOL!
Years later as a 2ndLt., I would take part in combat operations of a much more personal nature. The most memorable was when the company Hotel 2/26 was set in along the river at Ga NoiIsland when we were attacked by NVA in a battle that raged for several hours. We had Spooky (Douglas AC-47D,) often referred to as “Puff the Magic Dragon,” sending down from the sky a wall of solid red tracers blowing the hell out of banana trees. As Spooky finished firing in front of my platoon’s perimeter, Lt. Tom Turner came up on the net requesting that he do the same for his platoon’s perimeter. I can remember that when the first round in front of Tom’s position hit, I said to my radio operator, “that was close”. Just then Turner came up in highly emotional tones shouting “Check Fire”, “Check Fire.” Seems Spooky had shot right down the line of Tom’s platoon, but the “Gods of War” were watching out for those Marines as there was only one Marine with what amounted to a flesh wound. Turner was really miffed though cause two bullets had gone through his pack and blew apart his last can of Turkey Loaf. He also had a round go through his last clean skivvy shirt. One bullet but when you unfolded it you had six holes in the shirt. I think he still tells the story that he was wearing the shirt at the time.
WHICH, OF THE DUTY STATIONS OR LOCATIONS YOU WERE ASSIGNED OR DEPLOYED TO, DO YOU HAVE THE FONDEST MEMORIES OF AND WHY?
As the Commanding Officer of Marine Security Guard Detachment Company “A” -Europe, I had the responsibility to travel to every country in Europe at least once every six months. I had one of my watch standers, who had come from an African Embassy, tell me late one night that I didn’t have to worry about him as he would never do anything to get in trouble. I was struck by his sincerity. He was assigned to Helsinki, Finland, which as any Marine will tell you who has been there it is about as close to Heaven as mortal man can get. Anyway as I questioned him further he said that after his last tour this was Heaven and to emphasize his belief he shared these immortal words with me. “Sir, I got to tell you some of the girls here are not just beautiful but they would suck the chrome off a trailer hitch just to practice their English.”
However, my fondest memories of a duty station are reserved for my stint as the OIC of the Northern Training area on Okinawa. I spent a year living in a tar paper shack surround by thousands of acres of jungle and roads so bad that it took 2.5 hours to get to Camp Hansen where I would occasionally go so that I could flush a commode and watch water swirl. It was here that I had to tell Sgt. Jones he could not bite the heads off of snakes during his class on Jungle survival after his third bout with some strange illness.
We had a Marine from one of the infantry companies collapse while out on patrol and we had to swim a river to get to him. He was unconscious so we put him on a stretcher and raced him to an LZ before the bad weather closed in and so the Medevac bird would not tarry. The LZ was about three miles from where we started and I swear it was uphill the entire way. Well that is not exactly true as once I was headed down this very steep incline only to hear Jones shout, “Captain, get off the trail”. As I made a prodigious leap to the side the unconscious Marine on his stretcher went hurtling past me bouncing to the bottom. A rather chagrined Sgt. Jones explained how the stretcher bearers in front had tripped. We did get him to the helicopter in time and they got him to the hospital with only minor cuts and bruises, not related to the strangulated hernia he received when he was dropped on the trail.
Then there is the time one of the Marines on patrol was bitten by a poisonous snake and after five or six really terrible painful days the snake died. I have attached this picture of where my little Floyd called home prior to his untimely demise.
FROM YOUR ENTIRE SERVICE CAREER WHAT PARTICULAR MEMORY STANDS OUT?
The day I checked into Second Recon Battalion, coming from my stint as the XO of the Marine Detachment on the USS Hornet. An assignment I got due to a profile from wounds suffered in Vietnam. Anyway I was there for the Apollo Twelve pick up and stayed until theyÂ decommissioned the Hornet. As I was walking to the Battalion HQTRS, as a really squared away 1stLt, I saw this elderly gentleman coming toward me whom I assumed to be the Battalion Commander based on the ribbons on his blouse but as the sun was in my eyes I couldn’t really see his rank. So I saluted and in my best parade ground voice rendered a “Good Morning, Sir”! As he returned my salute and passed me I recognized the 2ndLt bars on Howard V. Lovingood. A true recon legend, Howard was to become my best friend and my mentor for everything leadership and recon related.
I was the Casualty Assistance Officer for the Beirut bombing and called on a Marine I called that was in pretty sad shape from parts of a building falling on him. He was in and out (mostly out) of lucidity. I saw on his record that he had been in 2nd Recon and I asked if he knew a Captain Lovingood? It was like a window opened in his mind and the nurses said that he continued to improve from that point. I was at Howard retirement after spending 45 years in the Marine Corps.
WERE ANY OF THE MEDALS OR AWARDS YOU RECEIVED FOR VALOR? IF YES, COULD YOU DESCRIBE HOW THIS WAS EARNED?
Most of my time in combat was spent trying to get the buttons on my utility’s replaced with velcro so that I could get lower to the ground. Despite my best efforts I was awarded one, not for valor but I guess slow reflexes.
OF THE MEDALS, AWARDS AND QUALIFICATION BADGES OR DEVICES YOU RECEIVED, WHAT IS THE MOST MEANINGFUL TO YOU AND WHY?
My Scuba and Marine Gold Jump wings. I was fortunate that while a Lt and in Second Recon Battalion, I spend six month going through some tough training. It began in the Army Ranger School. Then to Scuba School or more precisely Navy Underwater Swimmer School in Key West, Florida. Having lost 30 pounds in Ranger School, I would lay in my rack at night and whimper until the Seals and UDT guys got a hold of me the next morning to further torture me, then back my battalion for two weeks and was sent to Army Airborne School.
I can remember years later when in Second Force Recon and pinning on my Gold Jump Wings thinking, “If only that little blond cheerleader could see me now!”
WHICH INDIVIDUAL PERSON FROM YOUR SERVICE STANDS OUT AS THE ONE WHO HAD THE BIGGEST IMPACT ON YOU AND WHY?
Col Howard V. Lovingood for the reasons previously cited.
CAN YOU RECOUNT A PARTICULAR INCIDENT FROM YOUR SERVICE THAT WAS FUNNY AT THE TIME AND STILL MAKES YOU LAUGH?
I came back from Vietnam the Medevac route. It isn’t that path that I recommend. I was tripping along on Ga Noi Island when some fool tried to kill me. Ruined my day. Actually, I and my radio operator, were felled by some explosive device that picked me up and launchedÂ me nearly ten feet in the air giving me a chance to perfect my one and a half gainer diving form. I like to think back and reflect on my panther like reflexes that let me shield my radio operator with my body as I bore the brunt of damage from the shrapnel but as the Corpsman pointed out it could have been that I was just closer to the explosion.
In any case the left side of my body got a healthy peppering of shrapnel and my face might have escaped but when the blast went off I turned to see what it was. A mistake, as a piece of shrapnel slid up my cheek into my left eyelid and a piece transited up the very center of my nose splitting it roughly in half. I submit it is to my credit that after hitting the ground I told the others not to come to my aid for fear there were other such devices around and I struggled up and limped back to my radio man who was standing rather rigidly upright but clutching his neck with blood streaming between his fingers. I laid him down and by then the corpsman was there and took over the triage.
I sat down and called the knucklehead who got himself and three others pinned down by a thirty caliber machine gun, that we were delayed. About five or ten minutes later, as the corpsman finished with my radioman and turned his attention to me, the four pinned down individuals came wandering into our position. Seems their desperate requests for help and their certainty of near death may have been a bit over dramatized. Our rescue was complete! Of course the circumstance was such that I would never receive my Navy Cross for heroism as I had earlier envisioned. In any case the Corpsman was on me about a Medevac for my radio operator, I started that process.
I had thought that my left eye was gone from the shrapnel but the Corpsman assured me that it was there just swollen shut from shrapnel in my eyelid and eyebrow. As I was in the process of calling for the Medevac every time I would bend forward to read the map for coordinates, I bled profusely on it. Mostly I had just a red smear covering the spot where we were located. Like all good grunts I had my towel around my neck and I could see what appeared to be mud on both sides of my nose and I kept scrubbing and trying to wipe the mud off my nose. As the Corpsman caught sight of my efforts he shouted at me as to what I was doing and I responded that I was getting the mud off my nose. He grabbed my hand and said for me to stop “that’s not mud, that is your nose!? ”
Above is the photo of what it looked like prior to the BOOM!
WHAT PROFESSION DID YOU FOLLOW AFTER THE SERVICE AND WHAT ARE YOU DOING NOW? IF CURRENTLY SERVING, WHAT IS YOUR CURRENT JOB?
I retired from the Marine Corps while serving as the Executive Assistant to the Vice Admiral who headed the Logistic Directorate of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. While in that job I was requested by the Commandant of the Marine Corps to be the Casualty Assistance Officer for the BeirutÂ Bombing.Shortly before my assignment to the Joint Chiefs of Staff I had been the Regional Marine Officer for Europe and it was felt my familiarity with the area would be of benefit. The Admiral agreed to my temporary assignment and I went off to Europe to deal with the all aspects of the casualties from that incident.
Dealing with the return of the remains of 241 Marines and the wounded set me on a path of questioning my humanity. So when I returned as my younger brother worked for Apple Computer he asked if I wanted to interview for a job at Apple. I agreed simply because I thought the experience would be good for me sometime in the future. Apple, for a corporation, was a wild and wooly place at that time and if they liked you they wanted to hire you. They liked me! Apple offered me a job at what at the time I thought was an obscene amount of money, my standards have since changed. I took the job and that led to a second career in technology. Pictured is the North American Sales Group at Apple in 1985. My hair is longer!
WHAT MILITARY ASSOCIATIONS ARE YOU A MEMBER OF, IF ANY? WHAT SPECIFIC BENEFITS DO YOU DERIVE FROM YOUR MEMBERSHIPS?
Marine Corps League
Together We Served
Force Recon Association
I enjoy the camaraderie!
HOW HAS MILITARY SERVICE INFLUENCED THE WAY YOU HAVE APPROACHED YOUR LIFE AND CAREER?
Challenge and more importantly “meeting the challenge” is the key.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU HAVE FOR THOSE THAT ARE STILL SERVING?
Fully enjoy the military opportunity but plan for what follows. For as one of my Commanding Officers once told me “it is not a life’s work” eventually they ask you to leave. Plan for that day.
IN WHAT WAYS HAS TOGETHERWESERVED.COM HELPED YOU MAINTAIN A BOND WITH YOUR SERVICE AND THOSE YOU SERVED WITH?
I have located two individual that were in the same boot camp platoon with me way, way back when. The years fall away when something like that happens and as fate would have it the best thing that ever happened was that little blond cheerleader dumping me because it was a catalyst to my life’s best experiences.
As you can see from the attached picture the good times were just beginning.
James Helms Kasler was born on May 2, 1926 in South Bend, Indiana and following 30-years of distinguished military service, retired as a U.S. Air Force Colonel. Three times he went off to war and three times returned home. During his career, he is the only person to be awarded three Air Force Crosses. He also was awarded two Silver Stars, Legion of Merit, nine Distinguished Flying Crosses, two Purple Hearts, eleven Air Medals and Bronze Star with V for valor. Setting aside recipients of the Medal of Honor, he is the 10th most decorated serviceman in U.S. history. For some, he is known as Indiana’s Sgt. Alvin York, the famous hero of World War I.
Shortly after graduating from Shortridge High School, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force in May 1944. He spent his two-year enlistment flying combat missions over Japan as a B-29 Superfortress tail gunner.
Following the war, Kasler attended Butler University in Indianapolis for three years before entering the U.S. Air Force pilot training program in January 1950 and received his wings on March 24, 1951 at Williams AFB, Arizona. Following a brief assignment to Presque Isle, Maine, in November 1951 he was sent to Korea and assigned to the 335th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron, 4th Fighter-Interceptor Group.
Flying the F-86 Sabrejet, Kasler was credited with his first aerial victory on April 1, 1952, downing one MiG-15 near Wongsong-dong and damaging a second east of Sinuiju. He shot down another MiG near Okkang-dong on April 21. Action picked up in May, and he was credited with four more MiG-15s – one on the 4th, two on the 15th. It was on April 25 when he got his 6th in MiG Alley.
He and his wingman, 1st Lt. Albert Smiley, caught several MiGs just as they were returning to their Communist air base. Kasler got behind the lead MiG, chasing it for about 50 miles on the deck, refusing flight commander Phil “Casey” Colman’s request to call it a day. On the MiGs tail, Kasler opened up, and his gunfire tore it apart. Its canopy gone, its pilot engulfed in fire, the MiG arched down in a flaming trail before it splattered in the mud flats just below. Kasler pulled back on the stick mightily, to avoid sharing his victim’s fate. He cleared and called triumphantly to Colman, “Casey, I’m an ace.”
MiGs were routinely piloted by Chinese and Soviet pilots and a U.S. intelligence officer later informed Kasler that the three MiGs he and Smiley killed were the only ones recorded that day.
The officer had another bit of information: One of those three planes had been piloted by the son of Mao Zedong, father of the Chinese revolution and principal founder of the People’s Republic of China.
Kasler returned to the United States in July 1952 and during the next 11 years served in Canada, Turner AFB, Georgia, Seymour Johnson AFB, North Carolina, and Breitburg Air Base, Germany, flying a variety of jet fighters. In 1963 he received his Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Nebraska.
In February 1966 he went to Tahkli Air Base, Thailand as the operations officer for the 354th Tactical Fighter Squadron of the 355th Wing. While mission were flying daily over both South and North Vietnam, Hanoi was at that time off-limits to U.S. warplanes. Fearing a wider conflict, Robert McNamara, secretary of defense during the Kennedy and Johnson presidential administrations, drew a 50-mile circle around it and a 30-mile ring around the principal harbor.
That restriction was eliminated in June 1966 as American defense chiefs were slowly escalating the war, and had recently decided to broaden the bombing of North Vietnam to include industrial targets like the Hanoi POL (petroleum, oil, & lubricant) facility.
On June 21, Kasler learned of the impending strike and began to select pilots, draw up the precise navigation plans, and studying Hanoi’s formidable aerial defenses. North Vietnam had the strongest anti-aircraft defenses in history: over 7,000 AA guns of 37mm or larger, and batteries of radar-controlled SAM’s ringing Hanoi.
By midnight on the 28th, their plans were complete, down to detailed route charts, folded accordion-style. Minutes before the 0830 mission briefing, Kasler was invited to lead the mission, much to his surprise, and to the discomfort of Col. Holt, who otherwise would have led the large raid. The briefing focused on weather (clear) and winds (light and variable) – both perfect for fighter operations. Both wings, the 355th and the 388th, would approach the target from the south, to minimize the chances of a bomb ending up in the city of Hanoi. Each Republic F-105 Thunderchief carried eight 750-pound bombs.
Kasler rolled down the runway and lifted off at 235 knots. Airborne, he headed north for the rendezvous with the aerial tankers. They refueled uneventfully and were three minutes ahead of schedule. Kasler led the Thuds in a circle to kill the 180 seconds. Twenty minutes later, they were over the Red River and Kasler began to lose altitude, until they were 300 feet off the ground, at the base of “Thud Ridge,” the landmark mountain range that ran east-west across North Vietnam’s mid-section.
As they dropped tanks, they could see smoke rising up from the POL tanks, already hit by Navy jets. Flak blossomed all around them, even at 300 feet. The NVA gunners must have had their 85mm and 100mm pieces at zero elevation. Amidst the smoke from the target and puffs of anti-aircraft fire, Kasler called for afterburners and went into his bomb run. Big fat oil tanks filled his view; he dropped his bombs and rolled away to the right. Turning back, he saw the fuel tanks erupting into huge billowing fireballs, thousands of feet high.
His flight crossed the Red River and the flak gunners switched to fighter-bombers behind him. Flying west, looking for targets of opportunity, he found a convoy of twenty-five trucks. The Thuds blasted them with 20mm cannon fire, destroying at least half of them. He glanced back at Hanoi, now 35 miles behind. A pillar of black smoke towered up, over six miles high.
The Hanoi POL strike was very successful. Over 90 percent of the facility was destroyed and the Vietnamese abandoned it altogether.
On August 8, 1966, on his 91st combat mission, he was leading the formation when his wingman, Fred Flom was shot down. Kasler dropped down and flew low-level cover while awaiting the arrival of a combat rescue patrol. Running low on fuel with just enough to return to base, he instead hooked up with a KC-135 midair refueler and return to look for Flom.
Kasler’s F-105 was also shot down over North Vietnam that same day and captured by the North Vietnamese. He was a POW until 4 March 1973. So began six years and seven months of imprisonment by an enemy who knew exactly who he was and why to hate him.
Oddly, it was Kasler’s notoriety that saved his life, but it also exposed him to unspeakable torture. His captors gloated. They singled him out. They almost immediately put Kasler on television, so they couldn’t kill him without losing face, but they were particularly eager to force a confession or any capitulation, so great would have been its propaganda value.
It was testimony to the ferocity of the air war that another of Kasler’s closest friends, Lewis Shattuck, was shot down and rescued on Aug 1st and was shot down again, and this time captured, on Aug 11th. And that his friend John Brodak went down Aug 14th.
That’s three buddies down within 35 days of one another and serving as POWs from 1966 until 1973.
At one point, during the fall of 1967, Kasler’s captors took his clothes and his mosquito net. For three days, they denied him food and water and they beat his back and buttocks with a truck fan belt, every hour on the hour, 6 a.m. until 10 or 11 p.m.
He was tortured repeatedly by his Communist captors, in an effort to get him to cooperate with their propaganda claims. In the early years, the prisoners were kept in isolation and rarely let out of their cells. The Vietnamese used isolation, sleep deprivation, starvation, as well as physical pain to try to break Kasler down. His worst session came in June 1968:
âThe Vietnamese were attempting to force me to meet a delegation and appear before TV cameras on the occasion of the supposed 30000th American airplane ever North Vietnam. I couldn’t say the things they were trying to force me to say. I was tortured for six weeks. I went through the ropes and irons ten times. I was denied sleep for five days and during three of these was beaten every hour on the hour with a fan belt. During the entire period I was on a starvation diet. I was very sick during this period. I had contacted osteomyelitis in early 1967 and had a massive bone infection in my right leg.
“They would wrap my leg before each torture session so I wouldn’t get pus or blood all over the floor of the interrogation room. During this time they beat my face to a pulp. I couldn’t get my teeth apart for five days. My ear drum was ruptured, one of my ribs broken and the pin in my right leg was broken loose and driven up into my hip.”
“I lay in agony for six months until I was given an operation in January of 1969.”
[Excerpted from pownetwork.org]
Kasler shared the infamous Room 7 of the “Hanoi Hilton” with other great heroes like Robinson Risner, James Stockdale, Bud Day, John McCain, Larry Guarino, and Jeremiah Denton. He never cooperated with the North Vietnamese and survived to return home in March, 1973, after six and one-half years in captivity.
For seven long years, his wife Martha, daughter Suzanne and twins Jim and Nanette awaited Kasler’s return from Vietnam. It came, joyfully and tearfully, on March 8, 1973 at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.
The twins were 12 when their father left for Vietnam. They were 19 when the family was reunited. Kasler momentarily mistook his son Jim for Suzanne’s husband, John Morris.
The confusion was understandable but short-lived. It is testimony to Kasler’s enormous strength, and that of Martha and the kids, that normalcy was incredibly, and almost immediately, restored.
In July 1974 Kasler was assigned as vice commander of the 366th Tactical Fighter Wing at Mountain Home AFB, Idaho and remained in that capacity until his retirement as aColonel on 1 May 1975, in spite of him being in line for an Air Wing command and a brigadier general’s star.
He spent the last 39 years of his life as a resident of Momence, an Illinois-Indiana border town where he owned South Shore Golf Course and had interests in banking and real estate, served on a number of boards and received a variety of civic and service awards.
He died on April 24, 2014, at the age of 87, in West Palm Beach, Florida. One obituary read, he joined what Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg called ‘our honored dead.’
Kasler’s former cell-mates at Hanoi Hilton, Lewis Shattuck and John Brodak, were in Indianapolis for the May 16, 2014 memorial service at Crown Hill Cemetery that saluted Kasler in death. It was a grim, gray day, but the rain eased and the sky brightened a bit for the F-15 Eagle flyover, when there was a lump in every throat and a tear in almost every eye. Kasler was more than a hero. He was a husband to Martha for 65 years, a father and grandfather.
At his funeral, John Brodak, his voice flush with feeling, said, ‘The colonel was my mentor and my hero, the most courageous man I’ve ever known. He was a fierce warriors and a patriot and I’m proud he called me his friend.’
Brodak is a retired Air Force colonel who flew with Kasler. And for 15 months of the six and a half years both were North Vietnamese prisoners of war, he was Kasler’s cellmate at ‘The Zoo’ and the infamous ‘Hanoi Hilton.’
Kasler’s happiest occupation was Grandpa. His six grandchildren served as greeters at his Crown Hill memorial celebration. Each spoke.
One, Ashley Hurley, recalled grandpa’s infectious sense of humor and how, when she was little, he would get down on the floor with her and laugh and laugh.
James Kasler was nicknamed “Stoneface” by his Air Force peers, testimony to his toughness, his seriousness of purpose and his mission commitment. But men like Brodak and Shattuck, his wife Martha, kids and grandkids