Major Charles L. Kelly
Distinguished Service Cross
Vietnam, July 1, 1964
Dustoff. The very term conjures images of unarmed helicopter ambulances swooping down into hotly contested landing zones (LZs) under intense enemy fire to pluck the wounded from certain death. Thanks to Dustoff, or aeromedical evacuation, American and Allied seriously wounded during the Vietnam War had the highest survival rates among wounded soldiers from any conflict in history to that time. If you weren’t killed outright, Dustoff almost always got you to an aid station in time.
Dust Off (two words) originated as a radio call sign for the 57th Medical Detachment (Helicopter Ambulance), but all aeromedical evacuation units in Vietnam ultimately adopted the term. Major Charles L. Kelly, the third commander of the 57th in Vietnam, is universally acknowledged as the father of Dustoff and foremost exponent of aeromedical evacuation. During his six-month command he trained his pilots and instilled them with his personal philosophy: “No compromise. No rationalization. No hesitation. Fly the mission. Now!” The patient came first, and that applied to all wounded— Americans, South Vietnamese (ARVN), even Viet Cong (VC).
With only five aging UH-1B helicopters and nine pilots at his disposal, Kelly himself set the example, flying a punishing schedule of missions in all weather and pioneering new techniques for evacuations at night and under other hazardous conditions. Although Korean War pilots had experimented with medevac, it remained a nascent concept in Vietnam, with no established operating doctrine. Kelly and his pilots made it up as they went along—under fire. During one of Kelly’s missions, while he was taking aboard wounded, an enemy round struck his helicopter’s fuel line. With JP-4 spewing from the ruptured line, Kelly chose to complete the mission. The Huey’s engine quit on landing, its tank dry.
The VC were not the only problem. Kelly also fought two running bureaucratic battles to prove the efficacy of Dustoff. First, he had to haggle constantly with staff officers in the Army Surgeon General’s Aviation Branch, who deflected Kelly’s requests for more pilots because they didn’t understand the rigors of flying medevac in combat. Second, Brig. Gen. Joseph W. Stilwell Jr., commander of the U.S. Army Support Group, wanted to use the 57th’s helicopters for general-purpose missions when they were not flying medevac. Kelly won the latter battle, but didn’t live to see vindication in the first.
Born in Georgia in 1925, Kelly joined the U.S. Army at 15, lying about his age. Vietnam was his third war. By 1964 he was generally regarded as the only American soldier authorized to wear both the Combat Infantryman Badge and the Combat Medical Badge, as well as Army aviator and parachutist wings. Along the way he also earned a Silver Star.
Near Vinh Long on July 1, 1964, Kelly came into a hot LZ to retrieve ARVN wounded. When American advisers on the ground radioed him to get out immediately, Kelly’s calm and now iconic reply was, “When I have your wounded.” Maintaining a low hover as bullets struck his Huey from all sides, Kelly ultimately caught a round that pierced his heart. He muttered, “My God!” and died at the controls. The helicopter pitched up, rolled and crashed, but his crew managed to survive. The United States posthumously awarded Kelly the Distinguished Service Cross, while the South Vietnamese gave him the Cross of Gallantry and the National Order of Vietnam, their highest decoration.
Pilots of the 57th were stunned by their commander’s death, but determined to keep his legacy alive. When the commander of the 13th Aviation Battalion confronted Kelly’s protégé, Capt. Patrick H. Brady, and asked him if Dustoff would start using more conservative tactics, Brady replied that the 57th would continue flying missions exactly as Kelly had taught them to fly—“without hesitation, anytime, anywhere.” Brady meant what he said; during a second Vietnam tour as a Dustoff pilot, he was awarded the Medal of Honor.
Originally published in the May 2009 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.