Monday, May 11, 2020

"No compromise. No rationalization. No Hesitation. Fly the mission. Now!"

"No compromise. No rationalization. No Hesitation. Fly the mission. Now!"

This was the creed of Major Charles L. "Combat" Kelly, viewed by many as the founder and inspirational leader of the world renowned "Dust Offs," the men and women of Army military medical evacuation helicopters, the air ambulances. Their stories are incredibly inspirational. Their courage and steadily improving tactics have reduced deaths among those wounded on the battlefield almost exponentially since WWII, to where today, about 85 percent of our wounded in Iraq survive. MSgt. Stan Hutchson, a Vietnam vet, wrote a poem entitled, simply, "Dustoff," and it opens like this:

"They come in fast and furious. Sliding in over the top of a tree. A better sight on all this earth. Believe me, you’ll never see."

"Dustoff to strike force. Ready your wounded. ETA (Estimated time of arrival) 60 seconds from your LZ (landing zone). We're coming in."

Vietnam: the 57th Medical Detachment (Air Ambulance), and Combat Kelly

Helicopter medevacs in Vietnam began early in the war. Recall that in the early days of that war, the South Vietnamese did most of the fighting and the US provided mostly advice, training and support, such as in this rescue.

The first full-fledged aeromedical evacuation unit sent to Vietnam was the 57th Medical Detachment (Air Ambulance-AA), arriving in Nha Trang, Vietnam on April 26, 1962 from Fort Meade, Maryland.

In January 1963, the 57th was moved to Tan Son Nhut Air Force Base (AFB) outside Saigon. It later split operations between Tan Son Nhut and Pleiku in South Vietnam's central highlands, dividing its UH-1 fleet between the two bases.

UH-1 Iroquois "Huey", photo courtesy of Global Security
As an aside, the 57th was also the first unit to use the UH-1 "Iroquois" helicopter for medevac in actual combat. The name "Iroquois" never really caught on.

This ship was more fondly known as the "Huey." Before it left Vietnam in 1973, the 57th had evacuated more than 100,000 patients within the combat zone.

There are several elements of history tied up in the 57th crucial to understanding US military helicopter medevac history.

First, let's introduce you to the 57th's commander, Major Charles L. "Combat" Kelly.

He was born in a small town in Georgia in 1925. At the age of 15, he ran off and joined the Army, serving in Europe. He came home, finished school, including college, became a high school principal, got out of that, joined the Army as an enlisted man and then became an officer. He served in Korea with the 50th Medical Detachment (Helicopter Ambulance - HA). This is where he earned his medevac spurs.

Following Korea, Capt. Kelly would get promoted to major and then go off to Vietnam, taking command of the 57th. I am not sure of the date, but believe it was in 1963.

In any event, one of the first things Kelly noted was that the 57th had no radio callsign of its own. There was a vacant call sign, “Dust Off,” in the operations instructions so Kelly grabbed it unofficially and started using it.

At the time, the 57th covered Vietnam with five UH-1 helicopters, and they were old ones.

“Dust Off” became not only the callsign used by all Army aeromedical evacuation flights (except the 1st Cavalry, which used “Medevac”), but its use told everyone that when they heard that call used on the radio, it was an aeromedical flight.

Soldiers in the heat of battle need only remember the callsign “Dust Off” when radioing in for help. They knew they would get the desired response, any time, anywhere.

The callsign "Dust Off" also became the nickname for development of the concept of operations for such operations that blossomed throughout the Vietnam war.

"Combat” Kelly, besides being a tremendous leader by example, employed some verbiage that soon became the motto of many in the medevac business.

Patrick Brady, a Dustoff pilot who would rise to major general and receive the Medal of Honor,  wrote:

"(Capt. Kelly) said that if we were to save Dustoff (as a callsign and nickname) we had to prove we could rescue patients better than anyone else. He led the way, and we tried to follow. Our helicopters were moved to the areas of heaviest combat ... Up to this time there had been little night flying. Reaction time is immeasurable in life-saving. Why must a patient wait for sunup when helicopters fly just as well – actually, better – at night, and the crew is safer from enemy fire?

"Our casualty load increased significantly, breaking all previous records. Kelly became a legend, flying up to 150 hours a month. Entire villages turned out for his pickups, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer began covering him. Because our night missions were unprecedented, many actually thought that Dustoff was specially trained for night flying. One commander ordered a study into how we did it, which concluded that night operations were too dangerous. But Dustoff defeated those dangers every night.

"Dustoff pilots, of course, were not specially trained. But through repetition, we became specialists in combat pickups at night, in weather and under fire. Through trial and error, we found ways to get patients with an alacrity previously unknown. If we encountered a situation beyond our capability we could call Kelly, but we never left a patient in the field; the welfare of the patient was our universe. 

"We were a free-enterprise operation. Individual initiative ruled. We determined the risk (although I don’t remember ever hearing that word) by launching immediately and flying to the site. We had our own radio frequency and call sign and dealt directly with the grunts at the pickup site. There were no middlemen. Although we had three categories of patients – urgent, priority and routine – we responded to all calls instantly if we had the resources. This is the only way to prevent overclassification. It was unheard of to use two ships – a “gaggle” – or to waste time waiting for gunships except in extreme situations. 

"Area security was undefinable, and a waste of time, between grunt and crew. We set a simple definition: stand up and help us load, and we will come in."

On July 1, 1964, he arrived at a very hot area to pick up the injured, and came under intense hostile fire. He was ordered to withdraw several times, and responded that he would depart “when I have your wounded.” That idea quickly became the unofficial motto of all Dust Offs.

In the minds of most Dust Off pilots and crew who flew with or knew of Combat Kelly, he is a legend. There is much written about him, all worth reading if you wish to be uplifted by the incredible devotion to his fellow man displayed by this short guy from Georgia.

Kelly was killed in a Dust Off mission on July 1, 1964, shot through the heart by ground fire. His chopper went down, his crew made it out, and retrieved his body. This flight had a US physician aboard and he declared Major Kelly dead on the scene.

A group of Dust Offs, who had heard Kelly was hit, rushed to the area, only to learn they were too late. They completed his mission and rescued the patients Kelly had gone to get. My information is that Major Kelly was the 149th American to die in combat in Vietnam.

From what I have read, Major Kelly's impact on the Dust Off crews around the world to follow was enormous. I see a phrase attributed to him that seems to fit the man, the mission, and the crews who flew before him and after him:

"No compromise. No rationalization. No Hesitation. Fly the mission. Now!

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