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 where I saw my first Dust Off clearing the end of the runway. They told me it was Mai. Kelly going on a mission. We were at lunch when he joined us.
Charles Kellv was a small man—very proud, perhaps a bit vain but still rather shy. He combed his hair toward his eyebrows to camouflage a receding hairline. His belt seemed too tight, and although it never affected his breathing, he seemed always to be holding his belly in and puffing out his chest. His walk was structured but rather graceful. 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. Only rarely did I ever see them twinkle, and I never heard him laugh. 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. He was deeply religious, and I believe he read the Bible daily.
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-martialed 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 copilot, 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. 1 don't think he ever forgave his copilot 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 two birds, one in the central highlands at Pleiku and the other one on the coast at Qui Nhon. The three in Saigon rounded out the five 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 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 marvelous. 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. 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 (mostly with ???) 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 Vietnamese friendlies were surrounded and had taken quite a few casualties. We had been carrying patients out of the area all day. During a refueling stop, a U.S. adviser asked it we would carry some ordinance in on our next trip. The only other bird in the area was a fixed-winged spotter plane. My copilot, 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 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 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, and 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 rounds). 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.