"When I Have Your Wounded"
Vietnam Dustoff crews risked their lives in rescue missions.
By: Patrick H. Brady
In 1964, an Army helicopter clearly marked with red crosses circled red smoke above a rice paddy near Vinh Long, South
Vietnam. The mission was to pick up several wounded Vietnamese soldiers and a wonded American adviser. The area was reported
to be secure. The chopper was just setting down when the ground commander shouted into his radio that he was receiving fire.
He screamed for the pilot to get out immediately. A quiet voice with a soft southern drawl answered from the chopper, "When
I have your wounded."
Those were the pilot's final words. A communist bullet came through the open cargo door, ripped through his heart and
embedded itself in the door. The pilot was Maj. Charles L. Kelly. He sacrificed his life July 1, 1964, to save lives. But
his death also rescued the "Dustoff" unit in Vietnam, the greatest lifesaver in the history of warfare.
It was my great honor to serve with Charles Kelly, one of the most remarkable soldiers America has ever produced. He fibbed
his way into the Army at the tender age of 15. He served more than four years in World War II, where as an enlisted man he
earned the Combat Infantry Badge, Jump Wings and the Combat Medica badge. He would later add flight wings, the only soldier
ever to wear all four badges.
Shot by the Germans at Aachen, Kelly almost lost his leg. He was a bit rowdy and was court-martialed three times. After
the war he returned to Sylvania, Ga., finished his education and became a high-school principal. But he missed the Army and
returned to active duty in 1951.
Kelly arrived in Vietnam in January 164 to command the 57th Medical Detachment, Helicopter Ambulance. The 57th covered
all of Vietnam with five Hueys - one each at Qui Nhon and Pleiku and three in Saigon. The unit's call sign was Dustoff, a
name picked arbitrarily for a particular operation but made permanent for ease of communications in the inevitable confusion
Dustoff's primary mission was to rescue U.S. casualties. There were few at the time, and the 57th struggled for operational
definition, recognition and permanence.
Shortly after Kelly's arrival in Vietnam, his boss - Brig. Gen. "Cider" Joe Stilwell, son of World War II China
theater commander Gen. "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell - called him in to announce that he was going to put portable red
crosses on Kelly's birds so they could be used for non-medical missions during low-casuality periods. This would be like using
your local ambulance to haul trash and then slapping a red cross on it when someone gets hurt. Outraged, Kelly went one-on-one
with Stilwell. The staff winced as the two battle-hardened veterans went at it.
Kelly reported back that if we were to protect Dustoff, we had to prove no one else could do what we did as well as we
Most of the war action was in the delta, so Kelly relocated the two choppers at Qui Nhon and Pleiku to Soc Trang, forming
Detachment A of the 57th. I was at Pleiku. He told me to go to Saigon while he got Detachment A set up, and then I couls command
it. At Soc Trang, Kelly began to patrol the delta day and night, advertising the presence of Dustoff and looking for casualties.
Kelly let it be known that Dustoff was there to serve the wounded any time, any place.
As word got out, patient flow increased, and so did combat pickups - often in the heat of battle. Any kind of night-flying
by the United States was rare at the time. Kelly and his crews routinely flew single-ship night missions in all kinds of weather,
often without radio communications. The flights were so successful commanders began to question and study how the 57th was
so effective at night. Kelly's exploits were legendary. he became known as "Madman Kelly."
I never missed a chance to rag Kelly on his promise to let me command Detachment A. In the meantime, I had flown a mission
in which our supply officer was shot. Kelly said that since I had gotten his supply officer shot, I would be the new supply
officer. The truth was all the action was in the delta, and that was where he wanted to be. finally, he relented and said
I could replace him. It was on that day - July 1, 1964 - Kelly became the 149th American killed in Vietnam.
I spent my first night as Detachment A commander in Kelly's bunk at Soc Trang. the next day, the local commander called
me in to discuss future operations of Detachment A. He said because of the way we were flying, he was sure someone would be
killed, but he thought it would be a younger pilot. He expected Kelly's death would calm down our flying. Speaking for the
unit, I told him nothing would change; we would fly as Kelly had taught us. Vietnam was an opportunity for us to develop Dustoff
for future wars. We had no idea what was to come. He shrugged and, perhaps to make his point, gave me the bullet that killed
Stilwell wept when he heard, and the entire country mourned Kelly's death. We never heard another word about portable
red crosses. It may have cost him his life, but Kelly had proved his point; Dustoff could not be matched in lifesaving. New
Dustoff units began to arrive and the rest is, as they say, history.
dustoff moved more than 1 million patients and reduced the death rate as a percentage of hits from 30 percent during World
War II to 19 percent in Vietnam. Because of Dustoff, a combatant had a better chance of survival if shot in a Vietnam jungle
than if he crashed on an America highway. It also was the most dangerous work in Vietnam. One in three Dustoff pilots became
casualties during rescue missions. Three times as many Dustoff helicopters were lost compared to pilots on other types of
As an example of battlefield efficiency, consider the procudtivity of one 40-man unit with six birds. In a 10-month period,
Dustoff crews carried approximately 21,000 patients - more wounded carried than during the entire Korean jWar. They did this
despite averaging only 50-percent aircraft availability with 117 percent of theri aircraft damaged by enemy fire each month.
Crewmembers were awarded 23 Purple Hearts.
Kelly left a letter for his wife to be read in the event of his death. His words reveal a man of extraordinary faith and
compassion, a man who had a passion for his flag, his family and the Army. In the letter he notes his fondness for the Robert
Service poem "The Song of the Soldier Born." One passage is all Kelly:
For I hold as a simple faith there's no denying; the trade of a soldier's the only trade worth plying; the death of a
soldier's the only death worth dying.
One life lost, hundreds of thousand saved, "When I have your wounded." What a great way to die - and really,
not a bad way to live.
Retired Maj. Gen. Patrick H. Brady received the Medal of Honor for his actions as a Dustoff pilot in Vietnam. He is chairman
of the Citizens Flag Alliance.