Kelly's great adversary, and boss, was Brig. Gen. Joe (Joseph W.) Stilwell. He was Vinegar Joe's (Gen. Joseph W. Stilwell of World War II China-Burma fame) boy, 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 colorful, 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 patients--saving lives no matter the circumstances; get them out during the battle, at night, in weather, whatever. Get those patients, 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 hurt human, 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" would get you before sunup. Kelly flew missions nightly, on a routine basis.
The key to lifesaving 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 destroyed the time obstacles of terrain, but it made no sense to waste lifesaving time waiting for the sun to come up.
Dust Off was a pioneer in 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 the enemy on rare 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 patient.
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 patients were concerned. On one pickup, his crew got out and fought with the ground forces until they could get the patients 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 patient, he never criticized a pilot who did--he would simply go and get the patient 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, the command was changing hands. Stilwell was leaving as commander. U.S. Army Support Command, Vietnam, and Kelly came to town 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 colorful 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 five red crosses and the tail numbers of our aircraft. 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 in my belly when we got word that Kelly was down. We all raced for our birds and headed for the Delta. On the way down we monitored the operation. A slick (troop-carrying helicopter) went in and got the Dust Off, 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. physician 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 patients 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 patients 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 patients. That area is so clear in my mind. Kelly's ship was still burning, the area still called secure and the patients still classified urgent. We were landing beside the burning Dust Off when our ship took several rounds, 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 U.S. patient walked to the aircraft carrying a bag. All the patients were ambulatory. None was urgent. I was told that one was coming out of the field to go on R&R.
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 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.
Shortly after I took over Detachment A, the local commander called me in. I listened while he said that he was not at all surprised that someone had been killed. He didn't think it would be Kelly though. He thought it would be one of the young pilots. He expected Kelly's death would teach us a lesson, and we would modify our methods. As I listened, it was clear that some really did think Kelly was crazy and that much of the flying we did routinely was believed by others to demonstrate poor judgment.
When he had finished, I told him nothing would change. We would continue to fly as he had taught us and try to learn as much as possible from the only battlefield we had for use on the battlefields of the future. We would be wasting our time to do otherwise.
To his credit, he never tried to change or restrict us despite his personal convictions. When I left, he gave me the bullet that killed Kelly. Apparently it had come in the open rear door, passed through Kelly's heart and lodged in the door to his right. No other round had hit the aircraft. Kelly would not wear a flak vest, and he had long been criticized for that. It was uncomfortable and really didn't stop much. (The cockpit armor "chicken" plates hadn't arrived yet.) But some said that if Kelly had had one on, he might have lived. I guess his mortician is the only one who knows. Now that Kelly was dead, we remembered his angel and made a metal crest of an angel in a flight suit. We wore them on our hats and holsters. I lost my last one during my second tour when my hat flew out the door on a night mission. I still grieve over that loss.
The only change to the 57th patch was made some time after I left when they added the words, "The Originals." I flew with the Originals but never got to wear that patch. I can tell you that members of the 57th wore that patch with pride, but I must also confess I feel a strange emotion when I see others wearing it, and I don't really know why. Those of us who flew with the original Dust Off tried to prevent them from using our call sign, but the same rationale that allowed us to keep it prevailed, and we lost.
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 patients 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.
Although I know virtually nothing about Kelly beyond the few months in Vietnam, I would bet he was from modest beginnings. He certainly was a humble man, and humility is a constant mark of great leaders. He drove home for me the incredible treasure that is courage. In many ways, we are not born equal--not in terms of ability and certainly not in terms of opportunity. In matters of courage, however, we are all equal. Courage is the greatest resource in life, and it is readily and abundantly available to all. In fact, courage is probably the most significant equalizer in life; it certainly produces great people from among those without remarkable ability or opportunity.
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 this country, those they loved, their buddies--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 fait' faith, a belief that there is something beyond the moment and beyond and above the self.
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 down.
The contrasts in this man were sharp. He was quiet, even shy, but as loudly decisive as anyone I've ever met. He was colorful; some said flamboyant, but so aware of his humanity, really almost meek. He did not take himself seriously, but he was very serious, even fanatical, about his mission and responsibilities. That trait has been present in all the great men I've known. Others may make rank, but they'll never make a difference. He had no nose for the perks of leadership--only the responsibilities. He seemed to have no insecurities. Inside this modest man was a volcano of certainty about what he was about. He could not even pretend to be phony.
I'm sure if I looked hard enough I could find flaws in this man--but I don't want to. And that is what a real leader will do to his subordinates--that's the difference between a leader and someone in a leadership position.
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.
"When I have your wounded"; what a great way to die; and really, not a bad way to live.
MAJ. GEN. PATRICK H. BRADY, former Army Chief of Public Affairs, evacuated more than 5,000 wounded persons during two tours in Vietnam as a medevac pilot. He was awarded the Medal of Honor after a series of missions on 6 January, 1968, in which helicopters he flew rescued 57 severely wounded patients under direct enemy fire. Maj. Brady's aircraft were so severely damaged in the dawn-to-dark missions that he used three to accomplish the day's operations. When the day was over, the helicopters had more than 400 holes in them, and two other crewmen had been injured. A native of South Dakota with more than 29 years of commissioned service, he is an ROTC graduate of Seattle (Wash.) University and holds a master's degree from Notre Dame. 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, one with V device.
"When I Have Your Wounded"