by H.A. Gill
DUSTOFF has a magical kind of connotation in the military. It conjures up visions of young pilots, unarmed aircraft bearing Red Cross placards, coming on the call to evacuate and save the wounded or injured. To those in combat, DUSTOFF is an assurance, and promise, that fellow soldiers will risk their lives and their aircraft to come for them – or die trying. DUSTOFF has saved thousands of lives, and continues to save more daily. Hundreds of DUSTOFF pilots and crews have died trying when they failed.
DUSTOFF is a term known to everyone, even those who have never served in the armed forces.
The original 57th Medical Detachment (Air Ambulance) was formed at Fort Meade, MD in 1962. It was soon deployed to the Republic of Vietnam where its five (5) Huey helicopters and crews were tasked to provide air evacuations for the 8,000 American servicemen already in country.
Shortly after its arrival in Vietnam, a political battle began which raged from 1962 until 1964. Military Assistance Command – Vietnam, commanded by Brigadier General Joseph Stilwell, Jr. (Vinegar Joe’s son), wanted the Red Cross insignia removed and the aircraft used for utility purposes (and VIP flights). The battle between the Medical Corps and MACV was bitter, and MACV stripped the 57th MED’s aircraft of parts for other Hueys. At this time, only one air evacuation Huey was flying for all of Vietnam.
A second commander took over the 57th MED and the unit was re-equipped with five brand new, upgraded Huey helicopters — only to see them stripped or siphoned away. The 57th MED was so low-priority that they did not even have a callsign for their aircraft operations. After reviewing the situation, the unit began to use a vacant callsign: “DUSTOFF.” That lasted for a short while until the it was formally assigned to the 118th Aviation Battalion. However, the 118th Avn refused to use the callsign and the 57th MED continued to use DUSTOFF for their transmissions.
On 11 January 1964, the 57th MED received a new commander: Major Charles L. Kelly. Kelly, who had been born in Georgia, was short, tough and stubborn. Vietnam was Kelly’s third war. Abandoned by his father at a young age, Kelly grew up and learned about hard work quickly. During World War II, he lied about his age, joined the Army at 15 years old and saw combat in Europe. Between wars, he was a school teacher and principal. He saw combat again in Korea. By the end of that war, Kelly was an Army officer and one of the few in the Army to wear a Combat Infantryman’s Badge, a Combat Medic’s Badge, paratrooper wings and aviator’s wings. Legend has it that he’d once been court-martialed and would never make Lieutenant Colonel. Kelly was tough, but he loved and deeply cared about his soldiers. He had a fixation with angels and would always fly with a picture of an angel tucked into his wallet.
About a week after his arrival, Kelly was flying a check-out mission as a co-pilot to a junior officer in the 57th MED. During this mission, Kelly’s aircraft was called to the scene of an H-21 helicopter being ditched in the South China Sea. They arrived shortly after the aircraft splashed in and the four-man crew frantically tried to swim clear. Kelly wanted to put the Huey’s skids in the water, but the pilot claimed that it was too dangerous and insisted upon using the litter and winch. One by one, Kelly watched as three of the exhausted and waterlogged crewmen slipped beneath the surface and drowned. Only one crewman was saved. The mission would have a profound effect upon Major Charles L. Kelly. Back at base, Kelly vowed that neither he nor his unit would ever lose a wounded man again.
BG Stilwell and Major Kelly soon locked horns over the status of the 57th MED’s five Hueys. Their encounters were loud, feisty and sometimes even violent. Kelly never backed down and Stilwell never got those helicopters. Kelly believed that the only way that Stilwell could be convinced was through performance. The 57th MED would perform in such a manner that Stilwell could never complain. Kelly left three Hueys at Pleiku (in II Corps – Central Highlands) and took two helicopters and crews to IV Corps in the Mekong Delta.
Two Hueys, flown by Kelly and his Executive Officer (XO) Captain Patrick H. Brady would soon be responsible for providing all air evacuations in the 12,000 square-mile Mekong Delta region. More than 100 hours were flown every month and logs were doctored to prevent HQ from grounding the aircraft or crews. Kelly began flying night missions and regularly flew circuits of 700 kilometers (@420 miles) in a little more than three hours.
Kelly laid down rules: There could be no refusal to fly a mission; the wounded always came first. BG Stilwell and Kelly still continued to struggle over the operational control of the Hueys. During BG Stilwell’s farewell visit, MAJ Kelly gave him a plaque with five red crosses, each engraved with a Huey tail number. Upon presenting Stilwell with the plaque, Kelly said, “Here, General, you wanted my goddamned aircraft, take them.” *
Kelly continued to fly medical evacuation missions using the “Dustoff” callsign. Soldiers soon knew that DUSTOFF would always come for them. Anytime, anywhere, DUSTOFF would come for American wounded, Republic of Vietnam (South) wounded and even the enemy wounded. Kelly saw them all as human beings and never refused to fly a mission. The soldiers knew it, but so did the enemy: DUSTOFF would always come.
On 01 July 1964, Kelly flew a medevac mission to a unit in heavy contact. Despite their desperate situation, the unit on the ground advised Kelly that the landing zone was too “hot.” It just was not safe for the Huey to attempt to approach, let alone land. Even the Forward Air Controller (FAC) flying above advised Kelly to remain clear. But Kelly directed the ground unit to clear the landing zone and to prepare to evacuate their wounded.
The enemy began firing as soon as Kelly’s Huey began its approach to the landing zone. Hit time and again, the Huey began to look like a sieve, but Kelly remained waiting for the wounded to be loaded aboard. The ground unit pleaded with Kelly to depart. When the FAC asked, “When will you depart?” Kelly calmly replied, “When I have your wounded.”
Above the sound of bullets impacting and pinging through the Huey, Kelly was heard to utter, “”Oh God.” Suddenly and violently, the Huey pitched up and crashed to the right.
Despite the violent crash, Kelly’s crew all survived and frantically began clawing at the wreckage to save their commander. But Kelly was dead, shot through the heart by an unseen enemy. Another medevac helicopter arrived and rushed Kelly and the other wounded to the evacuation hospital. It was a forlorn hope; Kelly had died instantly.
Kelly’s body, still wrapped in a poncho, was soon surrounded on the airfield by his soldiers. Most were in tears at the loss of their commander. Still, the missions had to go on, and they quietly walked away to continue their vital medevac missions to units still in combat.
The next day, an officer from MACV walked into the 57th MED office of Captain Patrick H. Brady (Executive Officer). ** The officer threw the bullet that had passed through Kelly’s heart and had lodged in the Huey’s door frame on Brady’s desk and asked him how long the 57th MED would continue to fly these missions. Brady calmly told him, “Anytime, Anywhere.” The DUSTOFF mission would never be threatened by MACV again. DUSTOFF continued, and continues to fly under Kelly’s Creed:
No compromise. No rationalization.
No hesitation. Fly the mission. Now!
Major Charles L. Kelly received the Distinguished Service Cross (second only to the Medal of Honor), along with the Republic of Vietnam Military Order of the Medal of Vietnam and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Palm for his actions that day. The legend of DUSTOFF began and continues to this day.
NOTES: *Legend has it that BG Stilwell quietly shed a tear upon learning of Major Kelly’s death. It is said that he admired Kelly’s spirit and stubbornness. BG Stilwell soon afterwards disappeared on a flight over the South China Sea. There was no sign of wreckage and his body was never recovered.
**Captain Patrick H. Brady went on to serve one more tour as a DUSTOFF pilot in Vietnam. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in 1968 when he flew a series of missions to a unit in combat that saved 51 men that day. Despite having two helicopters shot out from underneath him, Brady continued to fly a third helicopter into the landing zones until all of the wounded were evacuated. After 34 years of service, Brady retired as a Major General (two-star), awarded the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross and Distinguished Service Medal. It is estimated that he evacuated 5,000 wounded men in his two tours in Vietnam.
***The 57th MED continues to fly DUSTOFF operations. It recently returned from a tour in Iraq where it, and its sister units continue to fly DUSTOFF missions — or die trying