All morning the Army’s intermountain radio warned: “There’s enemy fire. It’s way too hot. You need to leave.”
Still, Maj. Charles Kelly continued into the highlands of northeast Vietnam on a medical evacuation mission in his UH-1 “Huey” helicopter, replying that he would leave only “when I have your wounded.”
A few seconds later – on July 1, 1964 – a bullet came through an open cargo door and pierced Kelly’s heart before he could save five soldiers. Kelly’s crew survived but the commander died, despite the efforts of his men to start an IV.
Fifty years later – with a coming rush of anniversaries of the Vietnam War – his five words carry significant meaning for an American war still seen by many as a mistake.
Army statistics show that more than 850,000 military personnel and Vietnamese civilians were rescued by air ambulances from 1962 to 1973, a figure that greatly outnumbers the 58,220 deaths and 303,645 injuries of American personnel in the war.
Such transports continue today under the legacy of Kelly’s call sign, “DUSTOFF,” and his last five words – “when I have your wounded.” It’s also the title of a documentary released in 2013 by the Pentagon and narrated by Kelly’s son, Charles Kelly Jr., a computer repairman from Martinez.
“I was 3½ when my father left for Vietnam,” Kelly said Monday in a small trailer behind his Washington Road business that’s packed with flight logs, diary entries and newspaper clippings documenting his father’s missions. “I didn’t know him, but I am fortunate to have met the men who flew with him and tried to rescue him. Their service makes me proud of my dad and the men and women who do medical evacuation missions every day.”
Kelly’s memory of his father consists of only two moments – Charles Sr. standing in his family’s kitchen in a white T-shirt, and giving Charles Jr. a 10-foot liftoff in a Huey outside his childhood home in Sylvania, Ga.
The rest is captured in thousands of photographs and articles that Kelly is working to upload onto a digital server to cement his father’s distinguished career.
According to The Illustrated History of the Vietnam War, Kelly is known as “the man who was Dust Off,” the term that still refers to the medical ambulance crews that fly unarmed into heavy fire, disregarding their own safety.
The phrase was derived from the plume of dust raised by the Hueys that Kelly’s 57th Medical Detachment flew, but the call sign might have never been if not for the commander’s “hypercritical” nature toward Army leadership, his son said.
A diary kept by Kelly in 1960 during his time in Korea stated that on Sept. 23 he “intended to make some changes” when he took control of the Army’s 50th Detachment three days later and that the company would not understand it because of the “high brass.”
The log goes on to describe compounds with no American flags and with supply shortages, the loss of his first patient and the first time he saw a Huey.
“He told his superior, ‘That’s what I want,’ ” Kelly said of his father, who up to that point was flying single-pilot H-13 helicopters. “He simply argued that ‘if you give me any enclosed helicopter, I will outperform any other unit.’ ”
Kelly’s conviction to advance the use of medical helicopters continued for four years into the Vietnam War when he took command of the 57th Medical Detachment Company. There, he not only persuaded his general not to fold his unit into a transportation company but also challenged the belief that night missions were too dangerous and broke tradition by flying into firefights to evacuate the wounded.
“He hated Army politics,” Kelly said of his father. “He believed in soldiers advancing through the ranks by doing their best service possible.”
From then on, the commander took in only soldiers straight out of flight school and immediately began logging 40 to 50 flight-hours a week to demonstrate how valuable the medical helicopters were.
He was soon nicknamed “Crazy Kelly” and “Mad Man,” but his tactics gained the respect of his crew, which used soccer field and canal lights to fly a daily route among 11 operating bases from Soc Trang to Tra Van Tra to check supplies and see whether a service member was in critical condition.
The trip was equivalent to flying from New York to Baltimore and Washington, and back.
“But he wasn’t crazy. He wasn’t taking wild risks,” his son said. “No one had ever been killed and he never wanted to see any of his men killed. That was his biggest fear.”
The life he rarely questioned was his own, his son said.
Kelly became the 149th American to die in Vietnam. A metal crucifix given to him by an Army nurse was recovered, and his son still wears it today.
A bullet was pulled from the frame of his helicopter. The day after his death, a general tossed the bullet onto his desk in front of Kelly’s successor, Capt. Patrick Henry Brady, and asked whether they were going to stop flying so aggressively. Brady picked up the bullet and replied, “We are going to keep flying exactly the way Kelly taught us to fly, without hesitation, anytime, anywhere.”
“That puts into perspective the trials of life,” Charles Kelly Jr. said of his father’s legacy. “I sometimes think I have a hard life, but then I can’t imagine the pressures he was under, with the people shooting at him while he was picking up wounded soldiers. When I think about that, everything seems a little easier.”