Army Maj. Charles Kelly’s last day alive 48 years ago today thrust him into military history as the first medical helicopter pilot killed in action.
But Charles Kelly Jr., of Martinez, said he believes his father’s first day in Vietnam set in motion his path to greatness.
“After that day he would never leave anything undone again,” Kelly said. That day “set the tone.”
Maj. Kelly is credited with advancing the use of medical helicopters in Vietnam and pushing the boundaries of what medical crews can accomplish. His last words, “When I have your wounded,” are still the credo of military medical crews flying missions.
One of the enduring images of the war in Vietnam is the olive-green UH-1 “Huey” helicopter swooping into a firefight to rescue the wounded. Army statistics show that more than 850,000 military personnel and Vietnamese civilians were moved by air ambulances from May 1962 through March 1973.
When Kelly arrived in Vietnam in 1964 to start his command of the 57th Medical Detachment Company, however, there were only four choppers for the entire country and the commanding general wanted to fold them into a transportation unit. Kelly wouldn’t stand for it.
“(He) was a man of vision beyond the mission,” said Dan Gower, a retired Army colonel and the leader of an organization dedicated to the men and women in Army aeromedical evacuation programs. “He knew that the American soldier fights hard and fights harder when he knows someone is going to come get him.”
Kelly got his first look at the old way of performing medical evacuations on the day he arrived in Vietnam. He was riding co-pilot on a mission to pluck several soldiers out of the ocean after a helicopter crash. Kelly urged the pilot to put the skids on the water and volunteered to jump into the water to save them – even though he couldn’t swim. The pilot refused, and the soldiers drowned.
Kelly vowed that would never happen again, his son said.
Immediately on taking command, Kelly began logging 40 to 50 flight-hours a week to demonstrate how valuable the medical helicopters were. He also challenged the contemporary belief that night missions were too dangerous and broke tradition by flying into firefights to evacuate the wounded.
“He was shopping for business,” his son said.
On July 1, 1964, Kelly was landing on a medical evacuation mission when he came under heavy fire. Ground controllers told him to pull out, but Kelly refused, saying, “When I have your wounded.” Seconds later, a bullet came through the side door and passed through Kelly’s heart. The helicopter crashed. The rest of the crew survived and pulled Kelly’s body from the wreckage.
At the time, his son was only 4 years old, his daughters 12 and 13. Charles Kelly Jr. never really knew him as a father, but he became acquainted with him through a leather-bound scrapbook his mother kept on the coffee table. Leafing through the newspaper clippings, photos and commendations, Kelly formed a picture of a man who was quiet but bold, a man who was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the Silver Star.
As he grew older, Kelly sought out the members of the 57th Company, known as “dustoffs” for the plume of dust their Hueys raised. They told the stories he had only read about in books about Vietnam. He was skeptical at times, afraid they were creating a hero out of his father and embellishing a legend. Kelly found flaws in his father, including two courts-martial for alcohol use. But the collective picture shows Kelly was a very different person, his son said.
The term “dustoff” still refers to the medical ambulance crews that fly unarmed into heavy fire, disregarding their own safety. They’re battling against not just the bullets and rockets whizzing by their doors but also the “golden hour” that doctors give casualties to survive a trauma. They represent Kelly’s promise that when the dustoff crews are called, they will come as fast as possible, despite weather, darkness and the fire on the ground, Gower said.
“Kelly not only set the standard, he lived it and … executed it every day,” said Gower, the executive director of the Dustoff Association.
Kelly’s last words are the title of a new documentary commissioned by the Army and produced by Austin, Texas-based Arrowhead Films. His son is traveling to Texas next week to narrate the film.
Charles Kelly Jr. admits it’s hard at times living in his father’s shadow, but he’s also proud to bear a hero’s name. He draws strength from his example when facing hardships in life.
“I’m not him … but he will always be a part of me,” Kelly said.