Retired U.S. Army Capt. Gary M. Rose was presented with the military’s highest honor for heroism by President Donald Trump at an Oct. 23rd ceremony at the White House.
Congress authorized the Medal of Honor for Rose, who will turned 70 on Oct. 17th, last summer after years of lobbying by the military on the California native’s behalf for his actions in saving and caring for dozens of fellow Soldiers during the so-called “Secret War in Laos.”
Researcher and Army veteran Neil Thorne, who has drafted a number of medal applications for members of the secret Studies and Observations Group in which Rose served, told the New York Times last year that his was the first Medal of Honor to expressly acknowledge the heroics of a Soldier on the ground in Operation Tailwind, which played out from Sept. 11-14, 1970, in Chavane, Laos.
At the time, President Richard M. Nixon was denying that American troops were even in the South East Asian country bordering Vietnam. The secrecy surrounding America’s classified operations during the Vietnam War continues to this day; the White House announcement about next month’s medal presentation does not mention that Rose was ever in Laos, in describing his heroics on the battlefield.
The statement says Rose “received the Medal of Honor for voluntarily risking his life on multiple occasions during combat operations while serving as a Medic with the 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne). From Sept. 11 through September 14, 1970, while his unit was engaged with a much larger force deep in enemy-controlled territory, then-Sergeant Rose repeatedly ran into the line of enemy fire to provide critical medical aid to his comrades, using his own body on one occasion to shield a wounded American from harm.
On the final day of the mission, although wounded himself, Sergeant Rose voluntarily exposed himself to enemy fire while moving wounded personnel to the extraction point, loading them into helicopters, and helping to repel an enemy assault on the American position. As he boarded the final extraction helicopter, intense enemy fire hit the helicopter, causing it to crash shortly after takeoff. Again, ignoring his own injuries, Sergeant Rose pulled the helicopter crew and members of his unit from the burning wreckage and provided medical aid until another extraction helicopter arrived.”
On his second day in Laos, Rose was aiding a wounded Soldier when he “had a hole blown through my foot about the size of your thumb,” he told USA TODAY. “That night I took my boot off to see how bad it was. My index finger, my whole finger, slipped into the hole. So I took my finger out. I remember putting my sock back on. I remember thinking, I’ll worry about that later.”
The meritorious conduct “must involve great personal bravery or self-sacrifice so conspicuous as to clearly distinguish the individual above his or her comrades and must have involved risk of life. There must be incontestable proof of the performance of the meritorious conduct, and each recommendation for the award must be considered on the standard of extraordinary merit.”
Rose, previously was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the country’s second-highest award for valor.
After 20 years in the Army, he worked as a technical consultant in the defense and auto industries, developing user and maintenance manuals and training programs and materials.
The father of three and grandfather of two is now retired and lives with his wife, Margaret, in Huntsville, Alabama, where he is active in a number of charitable organizations.
By LtCol Mike Christy – TWS Dispatches
He wanted to join the Marines, but he was too short. The paratroopers wouldn’t have him either. Reluctantly, he settled on the infantry, enlisting to become nothing less than one of the most-decorated heroes of World War II. He was Audie Murphy, the baby-faced Texas farm boy who became an American Legend.
The sixth of twelve children, Audie Murphy was born in Kingston, Hunt County, TX, on June 20, 1925. The son of poor sharecroppers, Emmett and Josie Murphy, he grew up on a rundown farm and attended school in Celeste. His education was cut short in 1936 when his father abandoned the family. Left with only a fifth grade education, Murphy began working on local farms as a laborer to help support his family. A gifted hunter, he was also able to feed his siblings from game animals he shot.
Though he attempted to support the family on his own by working various jobs, Murphy was ultimately forced to place his three youngest siblings in an orphanage when their mother died in May, 1941. This was done with the blessing of his older, married sister Corrine. Long believing that the military offered a chance to escape poverty, he attempted to enlist following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. As he was only 16 years old, he was rejected for being underage. Six month later, in June 1942, shortly after his seventeenth birthday, Corrine adjusted Murphy’s birth certificate to make it appear that he was eighteen.
He first went to a U.S. Marine Corps recruiting office but was rejected due to his small stature (5’5″, 110 lbs.). Next he tried the U.S. Army Airborne but was again rejected. He was similarly rejected by the U.S. Navy. Pressing on, he ultimately achieved success with the U.S. Army and enlisted at Greenville, TX. on June 30, 1942. Ordered to Camp Wolters, TX., Murphy began basic training. Murphy completed basic training and transferred to Fort Meade, MD for infantry training.
Finishing his infantry training, Murphy was assigned to 3rd Platoon, Baker Company, 1st Battalion 15th Infantry Regiment 3rd Infantry Division in Casablanca, Morocco. Arriving in early 1943, he began training for the invasion of Sicily.
On July 10, 1943, the division made an assault landing on Sicily at a beach town called Licata. In one of the initial contacts, Murphy used his marksmanship skills to kill two Italian Officers attempting to escape on horseback. Five days later he was promoted to Corporal. Over the coming weeks, the 3rd Infantry Division fought its way into Palermo and raced on to capture Messina, thus ending the Sicilian campaign, where the 3rd had a short rest to take on replacements.
With the conclusion of the campaign on Sicily, Murphy and the Division shifted into training for the invasion of Italy. Coming ashore at Salerno on September 18th, nine days after the initial Allied landings, the 3rd Division immediately went into action and began an advance to and across the Volturno River before reaching Cassino. In the course of the fighting, Murphy led a night patrol that was ambushed. Remaining calm, he directed his men in turning back the German attack and captured several prisoners. This action resulted in a promotion to Sergeant on December 13, 1943.
Pulled from the front near Cassino, the 3rd Division took part in the landings at Anzio on January 22, 1944. During the course of the fighting around Anzio, Murphy, now a Staff Sergeant, earned two Bronze Stars for heroism in action. The first was awarded for his actions on March 2nd and the second for destroying a German tank on May 8th. With the fall of Rome in June, the 3rd Division was withdrawn and began preparing to land in Southern France as part of Operation Dragoon. Embarking, the division landed near St. Tropez on August 15, 1944.
On the day he came ashore, Murphy’s good friend Lattie Tipton was killed by a German Soldier who was feigning surrender. Incensed, Murphy stormed forward and single-handedly wiped out the enemy machine gun nest before using the German weapon to clear several adjacent German positions. For his heroism he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
As the 3rd Division drove north into France, Murphy continued his outstanding performance in combat. On October 2, 1944, he earned a Silver Star for clearing a machine gun position near Cleurie Quarry. This was followed by second Silver Star for advancing to direct artillery near Le Tholy. Recognizing Murphy’s competence as a combat leader, he was given a battlefield commission of 2nd Lieutenant and command of a rifle company.
On January 26, 1945, Audie Murphy and some 40 U.S. troops were tasked with holding a frigid snow-covered clearing around a roadway near the Alsatian town of Holtzwihr, awaiting promised reinforcements that were late in arriving. Just after mid-day, enemy artillery announced the arrival of at least 250 German troops and six Panzer tanks as they emerged from the woods.
Murphy had to once again quell a familiar sense of panic as the Germans lined up to attack, a mastery he had learned at the ripe young age of 19 during 18 months of bitter fighting across Italy and France. With two Silver Stars and the Distinguished Service Cross under his belt already, the baby-faced young Infantry Officer was leading men 10 years his senior into battle. Once the shooting began, though, he knew his instincts would take over. “The nerves will relax,” he later wrote, “the heart, stop its thumping. The brain will turn to animal cunning. The job is directly before us: destroy and survive.”
Knowing that his men stood no chance against so large a force, he instructed them back to pre-prepared defensive positions along a nearby tree line. As they ran for cover, he stayed behind and used his field telephone to call in an artillery strike. He had just enough time to radio in his coordinates before German tank fire began delivering devastation around him, and hit a nearby tank destroyer which began burning.
As the assault advanced, Murphy held his ground and continued calling in the Allied artillery. As his position became more precarious, he grabbed his field telephone and took cover atop the burning tank destroyer. Over the radio, he could hear the artillery commander asking how close the Germans were to his position. “Just hold the phone and I’ll let you talk to one of the bastards!” he yelled back.
As the tank destroyer was slowly being engulfed in flames, Murphy saw that its .50-caliber machine gun turret was still operational and quickly seized the gun and began spraying the nearest German troops with withering fire. “My numbed brain is intent only on destroying,” Murphy later wrote in his autobiography. “I am conscious only that the smoke and the turret afford a good screen, and that, for the first time in three days, my feet are warm.” He continued firing burst after burst, mowing down Nazi troopers by the dozens and keeping the tanks at bay. All the while, he remained on the phone, directing artillery fire ever closer to his own position and dealing catastrophic damage to the advancing infantry.
Murphy’s troops watched in shock from their cover among the trees. “I expected to see the whole damn tank destroyer blow up under him any minute,” Private Anthony Abramski later wrote. In fact, the blaze provided a veil of smoke and flames that prevented the Germans from closing on his position out of fear that the vehicle was about to explode. In spite of this, continuous waves of German Infantrymen inched toward Murphy’s position. A flanking maneuver on his right side was met with a hail of pinpoint fire from his .50-caliber gun. German gunners riddled his smoldering tank destroyer with small arms and tank fire. One blast nearly threw him out and sent razor sharp shrapnel flying into his leg, but he ignored the wound and kept fighting. It was only when he ran out of ammunition that he finally withdrew. Dazed and bloodied, he jumped from the still-burning tank destroyer and limped back to his men. He later wrote that as he walked away, one thought in particular kept racing through his mind: “How come I’m not dead?”
It was the “greatest display of guts and courage I have ever seen,” a stunned Abramski later wrote. “For an hour he held off the enemy force singlehanded, fighting against impossible odds.” Murphy had personally killed or wounded some 50 enemy troops and directed artillery against dozens more. Even after reaching safety, he refused to be evacuated from the field and instead rallied his men in a counterattack that drove the Germans back into the woods.
Audie Murphy was hailed a national hero and awarded the Medal of Honor for his superhuman exploits at Holtzwihr. Not wanting to risk the life of its newest celebrity Soldier, the Army reassigned him as a Liaison Officer and removed him from combat. By the end of the war a few months later, the battle-hardened G.I. had endured three wounds, a nasty case of malaria, gangrene and more dead friends than he cared to remember. “There is VE-Day without,” he wrote of his mixed feelings at the war’s end, “but no peace within.”
In recognition of his overall performance between January 22, 1944 to February 18, 1945, Murphy also received the Legion of Merit. In May 1945, when victory was declared in Europe, he had still not reached his 21st birthday. Yet he had earned every military combat award for valor available from the U.S. Army, as well as French and Belgian awards for heroism.
Hailed as the most-decorated American Soldier of World War II, Murphy returned home a hero and was greeted with parades and elaborate banquets. LIFE magazine honored the brave, baby-faced soldier by putting him on the cover of its July 16, 1945 issue. That photograph inspired actor James Cagney to call Murphy and invite him to Hollywood to begin an acting career. The two men, one a heroic actor and the other an acting hero, both short in stature but large in presence, hit it off.
Removing his younger siblings from the orphanage, he took Cagney up on his offer, arriving in Hollywood with only his boyish good looks. However, despite his celebrity, for the next several years he struggled to make it as an actor. Jobs were few, and he was only able to land just two bit parts: “Beyond Glory” (1948), and “Texas, Brooklyn & Heaven” (1948). He finally got a lead role in “Bad Boy” (1949), and earned critical acclaim for his starring role in Stephen Crane’s Civil War epic, “The Red Badge of Courage” (1951), directed by John Huston.
In between movies, Murphy published his autobiography, “To Hell and Back.” The book quickly became a national bestseller, and in 1955, after much inner debate, he decided to portray himself in the film version of his book. The movie was a huge hit, setting a box-office record for Universal that wasn’t broken for 20 years until it was finally surpassed by “Jaws” (1975). One of his better pictures was “Night Passage” (1957), a Western in which he played the kid brother of James Stewart. He worked for Huston again on “The Unforgiven” (1960).
During his rise to fame, Murphy met and married 21-year-old actress Wanda Hendrix in 1949. Their marriage appeared rocky from the start, ending with divorce in 1950. He then married former airline stewardess Pamela Archer, and they had two children: Terrance Michael “Terry” Murphy (born 1952) and James Shannon “Skipper” Murphy (born 1954).
In the 25 years that Audie spent in Hollywood, he made a total of 44 feature films. He also filmed a 26 episode western television series, known as “Whispering Smith” which aired on NBC in 1961. Although the series earned good reviews, it was also characterized as unusually violent. Only 20 episodes were aired before the series was cancelled.
Audie Murphy also wrote some poetry and was quite successful as a songwriter. One of his better-known poems is “The Crosses Grow on Anzio” which appears in his autobiographical movie “To Hell and Back.” He also wrote a poem titled “Freedom Flies in Your Heart like an Eagle” which was part of a speech he gave at the July 20, 1968 dedication of the Alabama War Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama.
His songwriting talents were notable, as his penchant for country music and his poetic skill with rhyming and pentameter (a rhythmic syllabic pattern) resulted in many popular recordings. He usually teamed up with talented artists and composers such as Guy Mitchell, Jimmy Bryant, Scott Turner, Coy Ziegler, or Terri Eddleman. Dozens of Audie Murphy’s songs were recorded and released by such great performers as Dean Martin, Eddy Arnold, Charley Pride, Jimmy Bryant, Porter Waggoner, Jerry Wallace, Roy Clark, Harry Nilsson and many, many others. His two biggest hits, both written in 1962 in collaboration with Scott Turner, were “Shutters and Boards,” which by the early ’70s was recorded in multiple languages by over 60 vocalists, and “When the Wind Blows in Chicago,” recorded by multiple artists including country artist Eddy Arnold on his 1993 RCA album “Last of the Love Song Singers.”
Despite his success in Hollywood, Audie never forgot his rural Texas roots. He returned frequently to the Dallas area where he owned a small ranch for a while. He also had ranches in Perris, California and near Tucson, Arizona. He was a successful Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse racehorse owner and breeder, having interests in such great horses as “Depth Charge.”
Always an advocate for the needs of veterans, he broke the taboo about discussing war related mental problems after his experience. In an effort to draw attention to the problems of returning Korean and Vietnam War veterans, Audie Murphy was outspoken and candid about his personal problems with PTSD, then known as “Battle Fatigue”. He publicly called for the United States government to give more consideration and study to the emotional impact war has on veterans and to extend health care benefits to address PTSD and other mental health problems of returning war vets.
Murphy earned a great deal of money in his life as an actor and as part owner of the Great Western Arms Company, but also had a major gambling habit which meant his finances were in a poor state for the last years of his life. One friend estimated Murphy lost $3 million through gambling. In 1968 his film career had dried up, and he declared bankruptcy. When he filed for bankruptcy, he stated that he lost $260,000 in an Algerian oil deal and was dealing with the Internal Revenue Service over unpaid taxes.
On May 28, 1971, Murphy was killed when the private plane in which he was a passenger crashed into Brush Mountain, near Catawba, Virginia, 20 miles west of Roanoke in conditions of rain, clouds, fog and zero visibility. The pilot and four other passengers were also killed. The aircraft was a twin-engine Aero Commander 680 flown by a pilot who had a private-pilot license and a reported 8,000 hours of flying time, but who held no instrument rating. The aircraft was recovered on May 31, 1971.
At the time of his death, major television news networks ABC, CBS, and NBC only gave him a combined total of 1 minute and 30 seconds of news.
In 1975, a court awarded Murphy’s widow and two children $2.5 million in damages due to the accident.
He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, just across Memorial Drive from the Memorial Amphitheater. A special flagstone walkway has been constructed to accommodate the large number of people who stop to pay their respects to this hero. At the end of a row of graves, his tomb is marked by a simple, white, government-issue tombstone, which lists only a few of his many military decorations. The stone is, as he was, too small.
According to cemetery records, the only grave visited by more people than Murphy’s is that of assassinated President John F. Kennedy.
His widow, Pam Murphy, established her own distinctive thirty-five-year career working as a patient liaison at the Sepulveda Veteran’s Administration Hospital, treating every veteran who visited the facility as if they were a VIP. She remained working full time at the VA until 2007 when she was eighty-seven. She died peacefully at the age of 90 in her home in Canoga Park on April 8, 2010.
During Audie Murphy’s three years of active service as a combat Soldier in World War II, he became one of the best fighting men of this or any other century, earning 33 awards and decorations. What he accomplished during this period is most significant and probably will never be repeated by another soldier given today’s high-tech, stand-off type of warfare. The U.S. Army has always declared that there will never be another Audie Murphy.
During the early morning hours of May 15, 1967, personnel of the 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, were ambushed in the Song Tra Cau riverbed near the Duc Pho District in the South Central Coast of Vietnam by an estimated battalion-sized force of the North Vietnamese Army. The NVA attacked with numerous automatic weapons, machine guns, mortars, and recoilless rifles from a fortified complex of deeply embedded tunnels and bunkers that were effectively shielded from counter fire. Upon learning that the 1st Brigade had suffered casualties during an intense firefight with the enemy, then-Maj. Charles S. Kettles volunteered to lead a flight of six UH-1D helicopters to carry reinforcements to the embattled forces and to evacuate wounded personnel. As the flight approached the landing zone, it came under witheringly deadly enemy fire from multiple directions, with reinforcements hit and killed before they could even leave the helicopters.
Jets dropped napalm and bombs on the enemy machine guns on the ridges overlooking the landing zone, with minimal effect. Small arms and automatic weapons fire continued to rake the landing zone, inflicting heavy damage to the helicopters. However, Kettles refused to depart until all reinforcements and supplies were off-loaded and the helicopters were loaded to capacity with wounded personnel. Kettles led the flight out of the battle area and back to the staging area to deliver the casualties and pick up additional reinforcements.
Kettles then returned to the battlefield, with full knowledge of the intense enemy fire awaiting his arrival. Bringing reinforcements, he landed in the midst of enemy mortar and automatic weapons fire that seriously wounded his gunner and severely damaged his aircraft. Upon departing, Kettles was advised by another helicopter crew that he had fuel streaming out of his aircraft. Despite the risk posed by the leaking fuel, he nursed the damaged aircraft back to base.
Later that day, the infantry battalion commander requested immediate, emergency extraction of the remaining 40 troops, and four members of Kettles’ unit who were stranded when their helicopter was destroyed by enemy fire. With only one flyable UH-1 helicopter remaining, Kettles volunteered to return to the deadly landing zone for a third time, leading a flight of six evacuation helicopters, five of which were from the 161st Aviation Company. During the extraction, Kettles was informed by the last helicopter that all personnel were aboard, and departed the landing zone accordingly. Army gunships supporting the evacuation also departed the area.
When they were airborne, Kettles learned eight men had been unable to reach the evacuation helicopters due to the intense enemy fire and had been left on the ground.
With one of the rescued Soldiers on board in addition to his crew of four, Kettles immediately turned his unarmed Huey around and headed back to the landing zone to rescue the remaining troops. Without gunship, artillery, or tactical aircraft support, the enemy concentrated all firepower on his lone aircraft, which was immediately damaged by a mortar round that damaged the tail boom, a main rotor blade, shattered both front windshields and the chin bubble and was further raked by small arms and machine gun fire.
Coming in low over the treetops, he skillfully guided his helicopter onto the ground where the eight Soldiers dove into the helicopter, but there was another problem: it was now about three men, or 600 pounds, too heavy. “I didn’t know if we were going to get out of there,” Kettles remembered, “but I was just going to give it my best try.”
In spite of the severe damage to his helicopter, Kettles repeatedly adjusted the revolutions per minute until the heavily damaged aircraft lurched upward, stayed close to the tree tops and limped home to Duc Pho. Without his courageous actions and superior flying skills, the last group of Soldiers and his crew would never have made it off the battlefield.
For his heroic efforts, Kettles was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC), the nation’s second highest medal for gallantry.
Charles S. Kettles was born in Ypsilanti, Mich., Jan. 9, 1930. The son of a World War I Royal Air Force (Canadian) and World War II Air Transport Command (U.S. Army Air Corps) pilot, Kettles had aviation in his blood. While attending the Edison Institute High School in Dearborn, Michigan, Kettles honed his love of flying on the Ford Motor Company Flight Department simulator.
Following high school graduation, Kettles enrolled in Michigan State Normal College (now Eastern Michigan University), where he studied engineering. Two years later, Kettles was drafted into the Army at age 21. Upon completion of basic training he attended Officer Candidate School at Fort Knox, Kentucky, and earned his commission as an armor officer in the U.S. Army Reserve, Feb. 28, 1953. Kettles graduated from the Army Aviation School in 1953, before serving active duty tours in Korea, Japan and Thailand.
Kettles returned in 1956 and established a Ford Dealership in Dewitt, Mich., with his brother, and continued his service with the Army Reserve as a member of the 4th Battalion, 20th Field Artillery.
He answered the call to serve again in 1963, when the United States was engaged in the Vietnam War and needed pilots. Fixed-wing-qualified, Kettles volunteered for Active Duty and attended Helicopter Transition Training at Fort Wolters, Texas in 1964. During a tour in France the following year, Kettles was cross-trained to fly the famed UH-1D “Huey.”
Kettles reported to Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1966 to join a new helicopter unit. He was assigned as a flight commander with the 176th Assault Helicopter Company, 14th Combat Aviation Battalion, and deployed to Vietnam from February through November 1967. His second tour of duty in Vietnam lasted from October 1969 through October 1970.
In 1970, Kettles went to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, where he served as an aviation team chief and readiness coordinator supporting the Army Reserve. He remained in San Antonio until his retirement from the Army in 1978.
Kettles completed his bachelor’s degree at Our Lady of the Lake University, San Antonio, Texas, and earned his master’s degree at Eastern Michigan University, College of Technology, in commercial construction. He went on to develop the Aviation Management Program at the College of Technology and taught both disciplines. He later worked for Chrysler Pentastar Aviation until his retirement in 1993. Kettles currently resides in Ypsilanti, Mich., with his wife Ann.
Many who were present for or had heard of Kettles remarkable act of heroism wondered why he never received the Medal of Honor instead of the Distinguished Service Cross. Numerous attempts to get his DSC upgraded to a Medal of Honor were made, but all such efforts failed. Eventually, the tenuous efforts paid off, and his DSC was upgraded to a Medal of Honor.
On Monday, July 18, 2016, President Barack Obama awarded retired Army Lt. Col. Charles Kettles the Medal of Honor during a White House Ceremony.
“You couldn’t make this up. It’s like a bad Rambo movie,” Obama said, describing the harrowing exploits of then-Major Kettles on that fateful day, May 15, 1967, in “Chump Valley,” South Vietnam.
As commander of the 176th Aviation Company, Kettles’ mission was to fly in reinforcements and evacuate wounded Soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division, who were outgunned and outnumbered by the North Vietnamese in a rural riverbed near Duc Pho. “They needed support fast,” the President said.
Towering above Chump Valley was a 1,500-foot-high hill where the enemy was entrenched in an extensive series of tunnels and bunkers. It was “the ideal spot for an ambush,” Obama said.
Despite the dangers that they all were aware of, Kettles and his fellow company of Soldiers took off in their Hueys. As they approached the landing zone, they met a “solid wall of enemy tracers coming right at them,” Obama said. “None of them had ever seen fire that intense. Soldiers in the helos were hit and killed before they could even leap off.”
Despite the withering fire, Kettles landed his helicopter and kept it there exposed so the wounded could board.
“Once more, machine-gun bullets and mortar rounds came screaming after them. Rounds pierced the arm and leg of Chuck’s door gunner, Roland Scheck,” Obama said. His Huey was hit. Fuel was pouring out as he flew away. His helicopter was so badly damaged that he couldn’t make it to the field hospital so Kettles found another helicopter and took them to safety, the President said.
By then it was near evening. Back in the riverbed, 44 American Soldiers were still pinned down. “The air was thick with gunpowder, the smell of burning metal,” the President described. “Then they heard a faint sound. As the sun started to set, they saw something rise over the horizon – six American helicopters, one of them said, “as beautiful as could be.'”
For a third time, Chuck and his unit “headed into that hell on earth,” Obama said. “Death or injury was all but certain,” a fellow pilot had said, “and a lesser person would not return,” the President related.
Once again, the enemy unloaded everything they had on Kettles as he landed: small arms, automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, Obama said. Soldiers ran to the helicopters as they had before. When Kettles was told all were accounted for, he took off, the President said.
On the return flight, Kettles received a radio call informing him that eight men had not made it aboard. “They’d been providing cover for the others,” the President said. They “could only watch as the helicopters floated away. “We all figured we were done for,'” one later said. Kettles came to the same conclusion, the commander in chief said, conveying his words: “If we’d left them for 10 minutes, they’d become POWs or dead.”
Kettles couldn’t shake from his mind the idea of leaving the eight behind, so “he broke off from formation, took a steep, sharp descending turn back toward the valley, this time with no aerial or artillery support, a lone helicopter heading back in,” Obama said.
“Chuck’s Huey was the only target for the enemy to attack. And they did,” he continued. “Tracers lit up the sky once more. Chuck came in so hot his chopper bounced for several hundred feet before coming to a stop,” the President said.
As soon as he landed, a mortar round shattered his windshield. Another hit the main rotor blade. Shrapnel tore through the cockpit and Kettles’ chair. Yet, Obama said, those eight Soldiers sprinted to the Huey through the firestorm.
The President described what happened next: “Chuck’s helo, now badly damaged, was carrying 13 souls and was 600 pounds over the weight limit. He said “it felt like flying a two-and-a-half-ton truck.” He couldn’t hover long enough to take off, but the cool customer that he is, he saw his shattered windshield and thought, ‘that’s pretty good air conditioning.’
“The cabin filled with black smoke as Chuck hopped and skipped the helo across the ground to pick up enough speed to take off, ‘like a jackrabbit bouncing across the riverbed,'” the President said, relating Kettle’s analogy.
The instant he got airborne, another mortar ripped into the tail and the Huey fishtailed violently. A Soldier was tossed from the helicopter, but managed to grab a skid, hanging on as Kettles flew them to safety,” Obama said.
“The Army’s Warrior Ethos is based on a simple principle: A Soldier never leaves his comrades behind,” Obama said. “Chuck Kettles honored that creed. Not with a single act of heroism, but over and over and over and over. And, because of that heroism, 44 American Soldiers made it out that day.”
The most gratifying part of this whole story “is that Dewey’s name and Roland’s name and the names of 42 other Americans he saved are not etched in the solemn granite wall not far from here that memorializes the fallen in the Vietnam War,” the President remarked.
“A Soldier who was there said, ‘That day, Major Kettles became our John Wayne,'” Mr. Obama said. “With all due respect to John Wayne, he couldn’t do what Chuck Kettles did.”
“To the dozens of American Soldiers that he saved in Vietnam half a century ago, Chuck is the reason they lived and came home and had children and grandchildren. Entire family trees, made possible by the actions of this one man,” the President concluded.
Kettles, 86, was joined at the ceremony by his wife, Anne. They will celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary in March. With them were eight of their 10 children and three grandchildren.
When the ceremony concluded, America’s newest national hero said, “We got the 44 out. None of those names appear on the wall in Washington. There’s nothing more important than that.”
Also attending were some of the Soldiers Kettles served with that day, including Scheck, Dewey Smith, who was among the last eight Soldiers rescued that day, and a number of other Soldiers who fought in that battle. Past Medal of Honor recipients attended as well.
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
Lloyd L. “Scooter” Burke – the most highly decorated soldier in Arkansas’ history – was born in Tichnor (Arkansas County) on September 29, 1924, one of five children of A. D. Burke, a foreman at a lumber mill in Clarendon (Monroe County) and his wife, Belly Burke. In 1942,Lloyd Burke graduated from Stuttgart High School and enrolled at Henderson State Teachers College, now Henderson State University.
In 1943 when Burke was 18-years-old, he dropped out of Henderson State College and joined the United States Army. He served two years during World War II as a sergeant with combat engineers in Italy.
After the war, he returned to school at Henderson, where he participated in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program, which is now named “Burke’s Raiders” in his memory. He was also a member of the Phi Sigma Epsilon fraternity. In 1950, he graduated as a Distinguished Military Graduate.
After graduation, Burke was commissioned a second lieutenant in June 1950. That same month, on June 25, 1950 at 4 a.m. on a rainy Sunday morning, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Army (DPRK – North Korea) artillery and mortars open fire on Republic of Korea (ROK – South Korea) Army positions south of the 38th Parallel, the line then serving as the border between the two countries. The opening barrage is followed shortly by tank/infantry attacks at all points along the Parallel. At 11 a.m. North Korea announced a formal declaration of war and what is now known as “The Korean War” officially began.
This invasion was the first military action of the Cold War. By July, American troops had entered the war on South Korea’s behalf. As far as American officials were concerned, it was a war against the forces of international communism itself.
In November 1950, five months after the war began, Burke was shipped to Korea where he was commander of Company G, 2nd Battalion 5th Cavalry Regiment. That same month, Chinese forces crossed the Yalu River. In response, Gen. Douglas MacArthur ordered the 1st Cavalry Division to participate in a massive counteroffensive that began on November 24, 1950 with Burke’s regiment playing a major role.
On November 26, 1950, Burke’s Company F was moving toward Sunchon, Korea, when contact was made with a strong enemy force that had infiltrated friendly lines and established a roadblock. His battalion commander ordered him to secure a commanding ridge defended by a well-entrenched enemy force. Burke quickly organized his men, moved to the head of the column and personally led an attack against the enemy position. But blazing fire from the enemy forced Burke’s company to fall back. Determined to accomplish the mission given him by his battalion commander, Burke refused to give up. He repeatedly rallied his men and led them against the death-spitting ridge, but each time they were forced to fall back because of the withering fire that was killing and wounding his men. Burke reassessed the enemy situation and began looking for the enemy machine-gun position that was the major stumbling block in the attack. Once he determined the gun’s location, he crawled forward, heedless of the heavy volume of enemy fire which chewed and churned the dirt around him until he was within grenade range. Despite the murderous fire now being directed at him, he accurately lobbed several grenades into the machine-gun nest, completely obliterating it. Having eliminated this obstacle, he dauntlessly arose and valiantly led his inspired men in a fifth furious assault on the ridge and successfully secured it.
For his gallantry, aggressive leadership, and unwavering courage and determination Burke received the Distinguished Service Cross, America’s second highest award for heroism.
For the next 10 months, the 5th Regiments and Burke’s company participated in many battles, some small, others large. During these battles Burke again showed extraordinary heroism in which he was awarded a Silver Star, two Bronze Stars for valor and four Purple Hearts.
Burke’s tour of duty was almost over in October 1951. At the time, Burke was found at the rear of his regiment. He had a plane ticket in his pocket and was eager to see his wife and infant son. Two miles away, Burke’s company was attempting to cross the Yokkok-chon River. The company was hindered by a large and well-entrenched Chinese force on Hill 200. The battle enraged for days as the 2nd Battalion’s attacks were constantly being repelled. At first, Burke kept up with the reports. Eventually, he no longer tolerated what was going on and decided to enter the front lines. As he himself stated, “I couldn’t see leaving my guys up there without trying to do something.”
When Burke was at the base of Hill 200, he was shocked to witness his company’s strength mitigated to thirty-five traumatized survivors. Burke described the condition of his company clearly: “These men were completely beat. They lay huddled in foxholes, unable to move. They all had the thousand-yard stare of men who’d seen too much fighting, too much death.” Burke dragged up a 57 mm recoilless rifle and shot three rounds at the closest enemy bunker. The bunker itself was a wooden-fronted structure covering a cave, which was dug into the overall hillside. The Chinese attacked American troops by hurling grenades from their trenches. Burke aimed his M1 rifle at the trench line and shot at every Chinese soldier that rose to throw a grenade. Unfortunately, the grenades were still being thrown. After having used an eight-round clip, Burke decided to take more drastic measures. As he recalled, “I considered myself a pretty fair shot, but this was getting ridiculous. I had to do something.”
After laying down his rifle, Burke took a grenade and ran approximately thirty yards to the Chinese trench line. He avoided enemy fire by hurling himself at the base of a dirt berm that was two feet high. When the Chinese momentarily stopped firing, Burke jumped into one of the trenches with a pistol in one hand and a grenade in the other. He shot five or six Chinese soldiers in the forehead. Burke also fired at two Chinese soldiers from further down the trench. Afterwards, he threw his grenade in their direction, jumped out of the trench, and placed himself against the dirt berm. The Chinese were aware of Burke’s location and began throwing grenades at his position. Most of the grenades thrown rolled down the hill and harmlessly exploded. Some of the grenades, however, did explode nearby Burke’s position. Burke himself managed to catch three grenades and tossed them back at the Chinese. At the same time, troops from Burke’s company threw grenades, some of which did not reach their Chinese targets and exploded in close proximity to Burke’s position. Burke abandoned the dirt berm by crawling off to the side where he found cover in a gully. The gully itself ended further up Hill 200 at a Korean burial mound.
After having edged his way up the hill, Burke peeked over the top of the burial mound. He witnessed the main Chinese trench, which was approximately 100 yards away from his position. The trench was covered in enfilade, was curved around the hill and contained a myriad of Chinese troops. Surprisingly, the Chinese were in a state of ease as some of the soldiers talked, sat, and laughed while other units were throwing grenades and firing mortars. Burke went down the gully to Company G’s position and told Sergeant Arthur Foster, the senior NCO, “Get’em ready to attack when I give you the signal!”
Burke then dragged the last functioning machine gun along with three cans of ammunition back up the hill. On top of the burial mound, he set up his tripod, mounted his machine gun, set the screw to free traverse, and prepared his 250-round ammunition box. He began firing at the nearest part of the Chinese trench where the mortars were located. After Burke shot at all of the Chinese mortar squads, he then fired upon a machine gun emplacement. Afterwards, Burke fired up and down the trench with the Chinese too shocked to react. Eventually, the Chinese fled down the trench in a panic. Burke continued to fire until his Browning was jammed. While he attempted to clear his weapon, an enemy started throwing grenades at his position. Burke not only ignored the enemy unit, but he also ignored the grenade fragments that tore open the back of his hand. Eventually, Burke was able to clear his weapon and kill the Chinese grenadier.
Meanwhile, Sergeant Foster was leading a small group to Burke’s location and was summoned by Burke to provide extra firepower. Burke and company were convinced that they were under siege from a full-sized force instead of a few adamant skirmishers. As the Chinese retreated, Burke wrapped his field jacket around the machine gun’s hot barrel sleeve and tore the 31-pound weapon off its tripod. He then wrapped the ammunition belt around his body, walked towards the trench, and fired upon retreating units. Naturally, Sergeant Foster and his men followed Burke. When Burke depleted his ammunition, he used his .45 automatic and grenades in order to clear out bunkers.
At Hill 200, Burke managed to kill over one-hundred men, decimate two mortar emplacements, and three machine-gun nests. For his actions, he was awarded the Medal of Honor at a White House ceremony on April 11, 1952.
Burke also served during the Vietnam War until a helicopter he was flying in was shot down. This, in turn, forced him to return to the United States and undergo hospitalization for a long period of time. Overall, he spent thirty-five years in the US Armed Forces, served as the Army’s Liaison Officer to the United States Congress, and retired with the rank of full Colonel in 1978.
Burke first marriage to Virginia Fletcher Burke ended in divorce. They had three children. His second wife Maxine preceded him in death.
Burke suffered a massive heart attack and died at his home on June 1st 1999. He is buried at the Arlington National Cemetery Plot: Section 7A, Grave 155, and Map Grid U-23.5