The Song Tra Cau riverbed near Duc Pho, South Vietnam, was dubbed Chump Valley. Only a chump, it was said, would venture there.
On May 15, 1967, amid punishing fire from the North Vietnamese, then-Army Maj. Charles S. Kettles piloted his helicopter in once, twice, a third time and then a fourth to deliver reinforcements to the outnumbered members of the 101st Airborne Division, and to evacuate the wounded and the dead.
He made the final trip alone after learning that eight men remained behind, having been unable to board helicopters in the previous round. “If we left them for 10 minutes,” Mr. Kettles later said, “they’d be POWs or dead.”
Mr. Kettles was credited with saving the lives of 44 men and received the Distinguished Service Cross, the military’s second-highest award for valor, for his actions. Nearly half a century later, the award was upgraded to the Medal of Honor.
President Barack Obama, bestowing the medal on Mr. Kettles in 2016, recalled a comrade who called Mr. Kettles “our John Wayne.”
“With all due respect to John Wayne,” the president said, “he couldn’t do what Chuck Kettles did.”
Mr. Kettles, who retired from the Army in 1978 at the rank of lieutenant colonel, was 89 when he died Jan. 21 at his home in Ypsilanti, Mich. The cause was lung cancer, said his son Mike Kettles.
Mr. Kettles insisted that the Medal of Honor belonged not to him, but to the other men who joined him in the mission that Monday in 1967. He was their flight commander, an aviation buff since his boyhood days in Michigan experimenting on a Ford Motor Co. flight simulator.
He volunteered for the first flight into the river valley during the morning of May 15, braving an enemy battalion that had the advantage of tunnels and bunkers, as well as a placement on a 1,500-foot hill. Approaching the landing zone, Obama said, Mr. Kettles and the other helicopter crews “should have seen a stand of green trees; instead, they saw a solid wall of green enemy tracers coming right at them.” Never, Obama added, had they experienced such heavy fire.
According to an Army account of the events, some soldiers arriving with Mr. Kettles were killed even before they could disembark. Napalm dropped on the surrounding hills brought little reprieve from the enemy fire. For the return trip, Mr. Kettles refused to leave until the helicopters were loaded with as many wounded as they could carry.
On his second trip, his gunner suffered wounds that would result in the amputation of his leg. Mr. Kettles flew him and other wounded back to the base, even as their aircraft was leaking fuel.
When the infantry battalion commander requested the evacuation of the 40 men remaining in the valley, Mr. Kettles volunteered to go back for them, as well as four more from his unit. He was leading a group of evacuation helicopters away and believed all men to be accounted for when he received a radio communication that eight had been unable to board. He left the formation, going back alone.
At that point, according to the Army account, the North Vietnamese “concentrated all firepower on his lone aircraft.” Yet the eight men managed to board his dangerously damaged helicopter. To pick up enough speed for liftoff, Mr. Kettles bounced the craft along the ground like a “jack rabbit,” he later recalled.
The drama of the scene, Obama said during his remarks at the award ceremony, resembled “a bad ‘Rambo’ movie.” Mr. Kettles, for his part, told USA Today that he “walked away from the helicopter believing that’s what war is.”
“So be it,” he said. “Let’s go have dinner.”
The Distinguished Service Cross was awarded to Mr. Kettles in 1968. Only decades later, when he recounted his experience to an oral historian with the Library of Congress’s Veterans History Project, did momentum build for him to receive the Medal of Honor.
Former U.S. congressman John Dingell and his wife, U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, as well as U.S. Sens. Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow, all Michigan Democrats, helped enact legislation allowing the medal to be awarded after the customary five-year time limit had elapsed.
“Without his courageous actions and superior flying skills, the last group of soldiers and his crew would never have made it off the battlefield,” reads the citation for the medal.
Ashton B. Carter, who served as defense secretary at the time of the award, made the matter more concrete.
“How many Thanksgiving tables have had an extra chair through the years because of his actions?” he said in remarks honoring Mr. Kettles. “How many weddings, childbirths, and graduations were made possible because Major Kettles and his crew returned again and again to the hot landing zone in the Song Tra Cau riverbed?”
Charles Seymour Kettles was born in Ypsilanti on Jan. 9, 1930. His father served in the Canadian air force during World War I and in the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II.
Mr. Kettles was attending what is now Eastern Michigan University when he was drafted into the Army in 1951. He attended Officer Candidate School, received his commission in 1953 and served stints in postwar Korea, Japan and Thailand before returning to Michigan, where he operated a Ford car dealership and served in the Army Reserve.
He volunteered for active duty in 1963 and served two tours in Vietnam, the first in 1967 and the second in 1969 to 1970. His decorations included the Legion of Merit, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star Medal and multiple awards of the Air Medal and the Army Commendation Medal.
After his military retirement, Mr. Kettles received a bachelor’s degree in business management in 1978 from Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio and a master’s degree in industrial technology from Eastern Michigan University in 1979. He taught drafting and aviation technology at EMU, also working for Chrysler Pentastar Aviation.
His first marriage, to Ann Theresa Maida, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 41 years, the former Ann Cleary Heck of Ypsilanti; six children from his first marriage, Chris Kettles and Jeanna Kettles, both of San Antonio, Margaret Gupta of Reston, Va., Mike Kettles of Dallas, Marianne Kettles of Yellow Springs, Ohio, and Carolyn Kettles of Honolulu; three stepchildren, Catherine Nezwek of Rockford, Mich., Patrick Heck of Lachine, Mich., and Maria Heck of Saline, Mich.; a brother; and numerous grandchildren. His stepdaughter Theresa Heck Seibert died in 2018.
When he received the Medal of Honor, Mr. Kettles sought to deflect attention from what others regarded as his heroism. “The bottom line on the whole thing is simply that those 44 did get out of there and are not a statistic on the wall in D.C.,” he said, referring to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. “The rest of it is rather immaterial, frankly.”