Major Charles L. Kelly was the Commanding Officer of the 57th Medical Detachment (Helicopter Ambulance) in Vietnam from the 11th of January 1964 until he was killed in action on the 1st of July of the same year while trying to evacuate a wounded American advisor along with several ARVN (South Vietnamese Army) wounded.
He is considered to be the founder of U.S. helicopter ‘Dustoff’ medical evacuation operations
Kelly was KIA (Killed-in-Action) on 1 July 1964 when, after being warned out of a ‘Hot’ Landing Zone, he replied with his famous last words, “When I have your wounded.”
After he was shot down, his men landed at the site of his crash and attempted to revive him to no avail. Ernie Sylvester, who was trained by Kelly, right out of flight school, flew his body to an aid station in hopes of a miracle. A lone bullet from a sniper had pierced his heart and lodged in the frame of the aircraft.
The following day, a senior U.S. commander tossed the bullet that killed Kelly onto the desk of Lieutenant Patrick Henry Brady*, and asked Brady they were going to stop flying so aggressively.
Pat’ 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.”
This determination to continue the ‘Dustoff’ mission as envisioned by Kelly was upheld throughout the Vietnam
War and continues to this day.
Charles Kelly was posthumously awarded the US Army’s Distinguished Service Cross (second only to the Medal
of Honour). He was also awarded South Vietnam’s Cross of Gallantry with Palm, and the National Order of Vietnam.
* Lt. Patrick Brady served two tours in Vietnam as a medical evacuation ‘Dustoff’ pilot and, on his second tour in 1968,
was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Major General Pat’ Brady (retired) recalled his Vietnam service with his old C.O. - Charles Kelly:
“I had arrived in Vietnam the day before. Never had I experienced such heat. It was as if someone had covered me with a hot, steamy wool blanket. There was no sleeping that night because of the heat, the excitement and the persistent chirping sound in my room. I thought it must be some wayward birds. When the sun came up, I found my walls covered with lizards. Singing lizards? Indeed, it was a reptile rhapsody that had serenaded me that first night.
“I was joining the 57th Medical Detachment (Helicopter Ambulance), which had arrived in Vietnam in April of 1962. Since then, they had struggled for operational definition, recognition and permanence. There were those who coveted their brand-new helicopters and many who felt that the medevac (medical evacuation) mission should be a part-time mission. Their primary mission was American casualties, and since there were few of them at this time, these folks believed that the medevac birds should be fitted with convertible red crosses and used for other missions when there were no casualties to carry. The unit was holding its own and had become known as ‘Dust Off’. The radio call sign had no particular significance. It had been picked from a list of call signs and kept to avoid confusion. When someone called for Dust Off, everyone knew it was for a casualty. Maj. Charles L. Kelly was the commander.
“Early the next morning, I reported to Tan Son Nhut airfield in Saigon where I saw my first Dust Off clearing the end of the runway. They told me it was Major Kelly going on a mission. We were at lunch when he joined us.
“Charles Kelly was a small man – very proud, but still rather shy. His face was quite Irish, freckled and round, dominated by large eyes that seemed to change size according to his mood. Those eyes moved more quickly than the rest of him and could be rather disquieting once they rested on you. He spoke with a soft Georgia drawl and never raised his voice, regardless of his mood or the danger of the moment. You only needed to look in his eyes to know his mood.
“I had heard a lot about him. Vietnam was his third war. Between wars, he was a high school principal. I was told that he was the only man ever to wear the Combat Infantryman Badge, the Combat Medical Badge, as well as jump and aviator wings. He had been an enlisted man and rose through the ranks to major. Legend had it that he had been court-martialled earlier in his career and would never make lieutenant colonel.
“The first words I heard him say were: ‘We never covered ourselves with glory today.’ He had just returned from an operation along the coast south of Saigon. An H-21, the old banana-shape helicopter, had gone down in the South China Sea. Kelly and his crew heard the distress call and almost beat them to the water.
Miraculously, the entire crew had gotten out before their bird sank. They were in the water clear of the ‘21 when Kelly came down over them.
“Kelly started to put his skids in the ocean, but his co-pilot, who was the commander of the mission since Kelly had only been in country one week, would not allow it. He was concerned about the waves. Kelly was forced to hover over the downed crew and watch them drown one by one as his crew, using a litter, failed to pull all but one aboard. The combination of the downwash from Kelly’s rotor blades, rough seas and the weight of their clothing - especially their boots - prevented Kelly’s crew from pulling them on board. We heard later that some washed ashore with one boot on and one off.
“There was deep anguish in Kelly’s face as he told the story. I don’t think he ever forgave his co-pilot for not letting him put his skids in the water. As risky as that might have been, it was the only way those men could have been saved. That would be the last time Kelly left undone anything that had any chance of saving a life, no matter how dangerous.
“When Kelly finally focused on me, he told me not to unpack. I learned later he was sending me north where we had 2 birds, one in the central highlands at Pleiku and the other one on the coast at Qui Nhon. The 3 in Saigon rounded out the total of only 5 Dust Offs that covered Vietnam in those days. That was all he said to me: no welcome and no pep talk – simply, ‘Don’t unpack.’
“The first meeting was not pleasant, but I don’t believe I was ever around that man without learning something. We had no hoists at that time; but I never flew without a rope; and I put zippers in my boots as soon as I could find some. Often, I learned, it was some small overlooked detail that made the difference between surviving and dying.
“Kelly was a teacher, a quality rare in many commanders I have known. He seemed unconcerned about previous flying experience. Although there were many experienced medical pilots (in terms of years of service and flying hours) in the Army, most of the pilots in Kelly’s unit were not experienced. He made no effort to get anyone specifically assigned to his unit but took what the pipeline brought. He was as interested in what he could do for his men, what he could teach them, as he was interested in what they could do for him. Mostly, he was interested in what they could do together for the mission.
“From him, I learned that experience was not always related to time and repetition. It is not what has happened to us that makes us experienced, but rather what we do with what has happened to us - or better yet, what we do with what has happened to others. I worked two tours with ‘inexperienced’ pilots, and they were marvellous. Alertness is a part of all that. It is vital in experience and should be vital in training. Some soldiers just are more alert; and time, repetition or duration is not the key. Caring is the key. The inner quality that makes soldiers alert, that makes them experienced, is caring. I’ve never met a soldier who cared more than Kelly, not just about people, but about what was right and about doing what you did right. There was little action up north, and I was grateful when the decision was made to move those aircraft to Soc Trang in the Mekong River Delta where most of the fighting was at that time. The two aircraft and their crews would come Detachment A of the 57th, and much to my delight, Kelly told me I could command it. He would go down first and set things up. I would follow shortly after.
“Soon after I got back to Saigon, I was on a mission with the unit supply officer. We were on short final into a ‘secure’ area when there was a splatter of blood across the cockpit and he announced, rather quietly I thought, that he had been shot. Kelly wasted no time notifying me that since I had gotten his supply officer shot, I was now the new supply officer - a job I hated. The truth was that Kelly was flying in the Delta and didn’t want to come back to Saigon. I never missed an opportunity to rag him about his earlier promise to let me command Detachment A. He would just look at me, occasionally with his twinkle and ignore me.
“An early encounter I had with Kelly was the result of a mission we flew near Phan Thiet, just north of Saigon. The South Vietnamese Army ‘friendlies’ (the ARVN) were surrounded and had taken quite a few casualties. We had been carrying wounded out of the area all day. During a re-fuelling stop, a U.S. military adviser asked it we would carry some ammunition resupply in on our next trip. The only other bird in the area was a fixed-winged spotter plane. My co-pilot, who had been in country longer than I had, called me to one side, and we discussed the propriety of the request. He noted the Geneva Convention prohibitions on such use of medical sources and the medical community’s concerns in this regard. If the word got out, we might get into trouble. I wasn’t all that clear on the Geneva Convention, but we both agreed that what was clear was that if our South Vietnamese ARVN ‘friendlies’ didn't get some ammunition, we would end up carrying all of them to the morgue. We took the ammo in.
“About that time, the spotter plane was shot down. When we got into the crash location, we found both U.S. pilots dead. We were forced out of the area by enemy fire but decided to wait for the ARVN ‘friendlies’ to secure the crash site so we could take the bodies back that night. Carrying the dead was also not an approved medical mission and a frequent cause of discord between the medical and operational folks. On the way back, much to my discomfort, I got word that Kelly wanted to see me.
“We got into the airfield after midnight. Kelly and many of the 57th were waiting. Kelly did not look pleased. He took me to one side and in measured tones, quieter than usual, asked me what in the hell I was thinking of - carrying that ammo. I told him I was practicing preventive medicine. He kind of blinked, almost smiled, but said no more.
“I followed him back to the group where he announced that he was proud of our work that day. He said it was the kind of thing he wanted to see Dust Off do and that he was recommending our crew for medals (we had carried quite a few casualties and taken several hits from enemy ground fire). No one mentioned the Geneva Convention after that, nor did I ever hesitate to carry the dead as long as it did not interfere with service to the living. You’ll find disagreement on both missions. To this day, I’m not sure what the book says about a situation like that - nor do I care. As a young officer I had taken a risk, right or wrong, and my boss, even though he would have been the one to answer for my actions, stood by me. It’s easy to find a boss to stand by you when the buck stops at him, not so easy when it stops at his boss.
Kelly’s great adversary, and boss, was Brigadier General ‘Joe’ (Joseph W.) Stilwell. He was the son of ‘Vinegar Joe’ (General Joseph W. Stilwell of World War II China-Burma fame), and we called him ‘Cider Joe’. This guy was a genuine character. He was not an aviator, but he flew; and when he wasn’t flying, he rode as door gunner. The man was combat hungry and tough as hell. I was told he once survived a jump after his parachute malfunctioned. The last I heard about him was that his plane ditched at sea, and he was never found. Some folks waited a long time for him to walk up off the ocean floor.
“His meetings with Kelly were always colourful, occasionally comical and even violent. Kelly was not intimidated by anything, let alone rank. Stilwell resurrected the issue of convertible red crosses and the cannibalization of Dust Off. He told Kelly that it was only a matter of time until he gained control of Dust Off and noted that the surgeon general was a personal friend of his. Kelly allowed that the surgeon general might be his friend, but he wasn’t a damn fool.
“Kelly called us together after his first meeting with Stilwell and warned that those ‘folks in headquarters’ did not wish us well. If Dust Off is to survive, he said, we had better prove that no one else could do what we did as well as we did. Performance was the key to our survival, and although he never set any rules for us, he certainly set the example.
“The key was the wounded - saving lives no matter the circumstances; get them out during the battle, at night, in weather, whatever. Get those wounded, the more the better; and don’t let anyone else carry our patients. We increased, even advertised, our service to the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam). We even carried the enemy wounded. We never discriminated against a wounded soldier, no matter his cause.
“Kelly set up a kind of circuit. He would head out at dusk and cover the outposts of the Delta, checking for patients and putting out the word that Dust Off was available anytime it was needed. Although he had many close calls, it was because of the night flying that many began to call him Madman Kelly.
“Night missions, single ship, with one engine were viewed with alarm by many and flown only in the most extreme emergencies. Most believed that if you lost that engine at night, you certainly were dead. Even if you lived through the autorotation, they warned, ‘Charlie’ (the Viet Cong) would get you before sunup. Kelly flew missions nightly, on a routine basis.
“The key to saving lives was time – the time from injury to medical care, not necessarily to a hospital. Dust Off had highly competent medical care on board. The helicopter eliminated the time obstacles created by distance and terrain, but it made no sense to waste lifesaving time waiting for the sun to come up.
“Dust Off was a pioneer in helicopter night flying. Indeed, many of us felt it was the safest time to fly, and we all became good at it. I was never in a Dust Off unit that lost an aircraft because of darkness – because of enemy ground fire on occasions, but never because of night. Repetition, not avoidance, is vital in dangerous training. You don’t get good at something you will have to do by avoiding it. Night hours were training multipliers – they made you better at all types of flying.
“Even day missions were primitive and challenging in those days. Our communication with the ARVN seldom worked and was rarely accurate even when it was working. You never knew what was waiting when you found the site (which in itself could be a challenge) and seldom had anyone to talk to when you got there. It was not rare for Dust Off to land in the middle of the Viet Cong. We learned fast and quickly developed many flying techniques to promote survival. Before long, we were very difficult to kill. Although we took a lot of hits, nothing stopped us from eventually bringing home the wounded.
“Kelly was burning up the Delta and also becoming very famous down there. Jim Lucas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, began to write about him. Only later would those of us in Saigon learn of his fame, but we were working hard to keep up with him. His methods were occasionally unorthodox but always effective as far as the wounded were concerned. On one pickup, his crew got out and fought with the ground forces until they could get the wounded aboard. Another time, he took some hits in the fuel cell and was leaking JP-4 on the way to Soc Trang. The tower called and said they would meet him on the runway with a fire truck and ambulance. They asked if he needed anything else. He said yes, that he’d be obliged if they’d bring some ice cream. He made it to the approach end of the runway, and the base commander met him with a quart of ice cream.
“Even though Kelly did not come back without the wounded, he never criticized a pilot who did – he would simply go and get the wounded himself. Nor did he ever criticize a crew member who wanted out of Dust Off. Some did not agree with his methods and wanted out. They went with his best wishes. There were also a lot of adventurous young men lined up to fly with Dust Off.
“I don’t want you to get the idea he was perfect. Kelly had his ways. He didn’t like our unit patch and wanted us to design a new one. He said he was open to ideas but thought there should be some way to get an angel in it. That raised some eyebrows. He had a picture of an angel by his bed. It may have been a daughter dressed for a play, but Kelly had this thing for angels.
“I found a gunship pilot who was a great patch designer. I asked him to paint a design using a kangaroo in a flight suit carrying a patient in its pouch. It was beautiful. I put it in his chair so he would see it when he came to Saigon. He walked into his office, never even tried to sit down, completely ignored the painting and left without comment. Next time I saw him, he asked how I was doing with his angel.
“Toward the end of June 1964, Stilwell was ending his your as commander of U.S. Army Support Command and was leaving Vietnam, and Kelly came to town for the farewell dinner. I was having lunch that day with Kelly when we got word that a ship had gone down up north and a pilot was killed. I asked for his name. Kelly wondered why I wanted to know that. I told that I had some flight school friends up there including a close friend who was my buddy in flight school. He remarked it is better not to ask for names in this business. I worried about the coldness of the remark but figured that three wars might do that to you.
“That evening, he and I - and a recently arrived chaplain - were sitting together listening to the Stilwell farewells. I had never seen Kelly so animated. He was by nature a quiet private man, but this night he was cheerful. He read between the lines of the speeches and his remarks were colourful and his language rather earthy. The chaplain winced on more than one occasion.
“At their last meeting, Kelly presented Stilwell with a plaque decorated with 5 red crosses and the tail numbers of our choppers. He told Stilwell, ‘General, you wanted my aircraft so bad, here they are.’ I have a picture of that encounter, and Stilwell is smiling. I don’t think the Dust Off issue was settled by then, but Kelly had his antagonist at bay. For all their differences, I always felt there was something rather special between Kelly and Stilwell.
“I took Kelly back to Soc Trang after Stilwell’s farewell and once again bugged him about his promise to let me have Detachment A. I was shocked when he said I could take over on 1 July. I think he was concerned about the fight for Dust Off and had finally decided he should be in Saigon for that battle.
“I can still remember the cold chill I felt in my belly when we got word that Kelly was down. We all raced for our birds and headed for the Mekong Delta. On the way down we monitored the operation on radio. A ‘slick’ (troop-carrying type helicopter) went in and picked up the crashed Dust Off crew, and we heard they were safe at Vinh Long. We all breathed a sigh of relief, and I remember smiling to myself as I thought about Kelly’s reaction to being picked up by ‘slick’.
“I saw a lone Dust Off on the ramp at Vinh Long and another parked behind it. One of our pilots was sitting in the door. I was in a cheerful mood until I noticed he was crying. Then I the saw the body bag behind him. Before I could say anything, he nodded at the bag and said it was Kelly. All the air went out of my body, and I sank down beside him. He had come through so many tight spots, so close so many times, that it never occurred to me that they could kill him. The reality just shook me.
“He had gone into a supposedly secure area for some urgent wounded – one of them a U.S. soldier. Once on the ground, they began drawing fire. It was not unusual in those days to take fire out of friendly lines. The ground forces screamed at Kelly to get out. He replied in his quiet Georgia drawl, ‘When I have your wounded.’ His next words were ‘my God,’ and he curled up from a single bullet shot right through his heart. The ship curled with him, and the rotors beat it to pieces. The crew got out safely but would not leave until they dragged Kelly out. There was a U.S. doctor on board, and he declared Kelly dead on the spot. Then they were rescued.
“They had only been at Vinh Long a few minutes before I got there, and the same people were yelling for a Dust Off to come back for the urgent wounded that Kelly was killed trying to rescue. I recall Kelly’s deputy, now our new commander, rushing over to us as we sat there in silent numbness. He began to shout and wave and give orders and question why we sat while there were wounded in the field. I can remember rousing from my stupor and becoming outraged at his insensitivity to what had happened to Kelly. They had been friends for years. He saw my anger and said simply and quietly, ‘it’s over; it’s done; and we’ve got work to do.’
“He was right. Kelly was probably smiling in the body bag behind us.
“We cranked up and went back for Kelly’s wounded. That landing zone is still so clear in my mind. Kelly’s ship was burning, the area still called secure and the wounded still classified urgent. We were landing beside the burning Dust Off when our ship took several ground fire hits, probably the same folks who shot Kelly. We jumped over a tree line, checked to ensure we were still flyable and went back.
“This time we made a tactical approach, found some cover and retrieved the patients. The one wounded American advisor walked to the aircraft carrying a bag. All the wounded were ambulatory. None was urgent. I was told that one was coming out of the field to go on R&R. (Kelly died for these ‘urgent wounded’ …)
“I stayed in Kelly’s room that night and slept in his bed. I remember sitting at his desk writing up the missions of that day. It was 1 July, 1964, and I was finally the commander of Detachment A, just as Kelly had promised.
“He was the 149th American killed in Vietnam, and the outcry was overwhelming. I think it was then that we all realized how revered he was in the Mekong Delta.
“I was told that Stilwell broke down and cried when told of Kelly’s death. He was given the highest awards of the Vietnamese government, and they had the biggest funeral I had ever seen in Saigon. His pilots were pallbearers. It was an emotionally tough time for all of us.
“There were two coffins in the chapel that day. The other one was my stick buddy, the one Kelly told me not
to inquire about. They were now side by side. The chaplain was the same one who had winced at Kelly’s war
stories a few days earlier. He never mentioned the names of the dead on his altar that day, and I have often
wondered if he knew who it was he was praying over.
“I never again heard another word about convertible Dust Offs. In fact, they began to bring in more Dust Off
units. There is no telling how many lives were saved because of Kelly, probably because of his death, and
the preservation of the dedicated Dust Off as opposed to some part-time, ad hoc system.
“I can tell you that some of those who came behind Kelly did not agree with his methods. They were more
concerned with getting themselves out than with getting the wounded out. He was a tough act to follow. As
the older ones washed out, the young ones fought to preserve his spirit and his traditions. I think he is still
alive in Dust Off units today.
“Although Kelly is most remembered for his physical courage in saving lives in combat, it was his moral courage that saved Dust Off – the greatest lifesaver the battlefield has ever seen. I have known many with blinding courage on the battlefield who would later succumb to the outrages and onslaughts of the bureaucracy and its daily drill of paper. I have known others who would cower in the unending war we all wage between our security, our desires, our passions and those wonderful things called our ideals. Kelly was unique in the degree to which he possessed all forms of courage.
“I think I also found the source, the key, to courage in Kelly. Of those I know who died in combat, none that I knew died for the flag or the country. They died for the people of America, those they loved, their buddies – they died for the country only inasmuch as it protected those they loved. So love was part of it (sacrifice is really nothing more than love in action), but so was faith, a belief that there is something beyond the moment and beyond and above the “I’ve not known many men of consistent repetitive courage who were not also men of faith. Fear is nothing more than our faith on trial. Kelly was a man of deep faith. He never missed church, and each day he posted an inspirational thought on the bulletin board. He certainly didn’t wear it on his sleeve, but it was evident to all around him. I know that in my own experiences my faith was for me a substitute for fear, a source of calm and comfort, and it gave me a confidence I don’t think I would have otherwise had. I think the greatest fear I ever had was that I might let him
“Today there are many monuments and memorials to this man, but none as lasting as those in the men who served with him. His last words, “When I have your wounded,” set a standard for excellence that was both monumental and memorable. He was responsible for what Dust Off was in Vietnam – simply the most effective and efficient execution of a vital mission in that war. Kelly was one man who made a difference. He was a leader, a man who provoked openness, honesty and caring who lasted beyond his lifetime. The great thing about true leaders like Kelly is that they never leave us. Dead or alive, the noblest part of their being remains behind, becomes a part of our being – as soldiers, of our profession of all those things that make our way unique.”
Pat’ Brady evacuated more than 5,000 wounded during his two tours in Vietnam as a ‘Dustoff’ pilot. Pat’ Brady served under Charles Kelly in the 57th Medical Detachment during his first tour of Vietnam, and after Kelly’s death on the 1st of July 1964, Brady took command of the 57th Medical’s ‘Detachment A’ in Soc Trang. On his second tour, Pat’, by then a major, commanded the 54th Medical Detachment. Pat’ was awarded the United States Congressional Medal of Honour during his second tour of duty in Vietnam, after a series of missions on the 6th of January 1968, in which helicopters he flew rescued 57 severely wounded under direct enemy fire. Pat’ Brady’s choppers were so severely damaged in the dawn-to-dark missions that he had to use three separate choppers to accomplish the day’s operations. When that day was over, the three helicopters had more than 400 holes in them, and two other crewmen had been wounded. Pat’ was born on the 1st of October 1936, and is a native of South Dakota with more than 29 years of service as an
Pat’ attended O’Dea High School in Seattle, a strict all-boys school run by the well known Irish Catholic religious order, the Christian Brothers, where he was active in sports. While in college at Seattle University, he initially hated the compulsory ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps) program and was kicked out. Brady realized he would probably be drafted after graduation and so he re-joined the ROTC programme to be able to enter the service as an officer.
After graduation in 1959 he was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Army Medical Service Corps, and now also holds a master’s degree from Notre Dame (the famous ‘fighting Irish’ university).
Among his other decorations are the Distinguished Service Cross, six Distinguished Flying Crosses, the Bronze Star Medal with V device and oak leaf cluster, the Purple Heart, and 53 Air Medals.
Medal of Honor citation:
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty, Major Brady distinguished himself while serving in the Republic of Vietnam commanding a UH-1H ambulance helicopter, volunteered to rescue wounded men from a site in enemy held territory which was reported to be heavily defended and to be blanketed by fog. To reach the site he descended through heavy fog and smoke and hovered slowly along a valley trail, turning his ship sideward to blow away the fog with the backwash from his rotor blades. Despite the unchallenged, close-range enemy fire, he found the dangerously small site, where he successfully landed and evacuated 2 badly wounded South Vietnamese soldiers. He was then called to another area completely covered by dense fog where American casualties lay only 50 meters from the enemy. Two aircraft had previously been shot down and others had made unsuccessful attempts to reach this site earlier in the day. With unmatched skill and extraordinary courage, Major Brady made 4 flights to this embattled landing zone and successfully rescued all the wounded. On his third mission of the day Maj. Brady once again landed at a site surrounded by the enemy. The friendly ground force, pinned down by enemy fire, had been unable to reach and secure the landing zone. Although his aircraft had been badly damaged and his controls partially shot away during his initial entry into this area, he returned minutes later and rescued the remaining injured. Shortly thereafter, obtaining a replacement aircraft, Major Brady was requested to land in an enemy minefield where a platoon of American soldiers was trapped. A mine detonated near his helicopter, wounding 2 crewmembers and damaging his ship. In spite of this, he managed to fly 6 severely injured patients to medical aid. Throughout that day Major Brady utilized 3 helicopters to evacuate a total of 51 seriously wounded men, many of whom would have perished without prompt medical treatment. Major Brady’s bravery was in the highest traditions of the military service and reflects great credit upon himself and the U.S.