Dustoff

By Seth Robson

Fifty years ago, medical evacuation pilot Maj. Charles L. Kelly — one of the iconic figures of the Vietnam War — was killed in action.

 

His legacy, and the legacy of those who came after him, lives on in today’s “Dustoff” pilots, who continue to fly into harm’s way to save those wounded on the battlefield.

'Saving lives,

no matter the circumstances'

On July 1, 1964, Patrick H. Brady hovered in his UH-1 Iroquois helicopter above the burning wreckage of a sister ship in Vietnam.

 

The young pilot – later a Medal of Honor recipient and major general – was there to collect wounded troops waiting near a downed Huey that had been piloted by his commander, Maj. Charles L. Kelly.

 

Earlier that day, Kelly had flown into the hot landing zone and been killed by a bullet through the heart. His last words to ground forces screaming for him to get out were: “When I have your wounded.”

 

Kelly’s attitude set the tone for a medevac mission that expanded from a few aircraft to an operation that evacuated between nearly 900,000 military personnel and Vietnamese civilians by the time the war ended in 1973.

 

Kelly’s goal was “saving lives, no matter the circumstances; get them out — during the battle, at night, in weather, whatever. Get those patients,” Brady would write in an Army magazine in 1989.

The danger of the mission was laid out in a post-war report on aeromedical evacuation in Vietnam by the U.S. Army Center of Military History.

 

“Slightly more than a third of the aviators became casualties in their work, and the crew chiefs and medical corpsmen who accompanied them suffered similarly,” the report said. “The danger of their work was further borne out by the high rate of air ambulance loss to hostile fire: 3.3 times that of all other forms of helicopter missions in the Vietnam War.”

 

Some 215 helicopter ambulance crewmembers were killed in action in Vietnam, according to the Dustoff Association, an organization for medical personnel, aviators and others who are, or have engaged in or supported, Army aeromedical evacuation.

 

Half a century after Kelly’s death, his legacy as commander of the 57th Medical Detachment (Helicopter Ambulance) lives on.

 

The concept of evacuating casualties in a helicopter was tested as early as 1936, but it wasn’t until the Korean War that dedicated helicopter ambulance units were established. During the conflict, helicopters evacuated thousands of wounded to Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals (featured in the television comedy “M*A*S*H”), according to a 1955 issue of the Armed Forces Medical Journal. Wounded troops were transported on stretchers attached to the top of the landing gear on the outside of the helicopter, according to the website MercyFlight.org.

 

When the 57th arrived in Vietnam in April 1962, it was the first unit to use the UH-1, which allowed patients to be carried — and cared for — inside the aircraft: a key element in reducing deaths and life-threatening complications, according to the website.

 

Soon after the unit arrived in country, it began using the “Dustoff” call sign, which referred to the dust, dirt and debris kicked up by helicopter rotors when the aircraft swooped in to pick up wounded soldiers from Vietnam’s fields and countryside clearings. Eventually, other helicopter ambulance units assumed the same call sign.

 

In the early stages of the war, there were only a dozen helicopter ambulances in Vietnam, but it wasn’t long before there were many more flying all over the country.

 

As the fighting intensified, the medevac crews got more calls than they could deal with, and pilots stopped logging flight hours to avoid being grounded for exceeding recommended limits. Often crews took great risks to evacuate the wounded from combat zones.

 

Brady’s Medal of Honor citation, for example, records his actions on Jan. 6, 1968, near Chu Lai. On that day, he flew into numerous hot landing zones — including one just 50 meters from enemy troops — and evacuated 51 seriously wounded men. His helicopters took so much fire from the enemy that he had to use three different ones during the operation.

Maj. Gen. Patrick Brady recounts the actions that lead to his receiving the Medal of Honor during the Vietnam War while serving as a medevac pilot attached to the  57th Medical Detachment, 67th Medical Group, 44th Medical Brigade, Jan. 6, 1968. The patch belonged to that unit.

'Pop smoke'

This transmission of an actual Vietnam War medevac request is an excerpt from a larger recording memorializing the 57th Medical Detachment, provided courtesy of the Paul Kasper Collection, File: 562AU1827, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University. The full 40-minute program can be found at
http://www.vietnam.ttu.edu/

'I can’t believe you did this'

Col. Jim Truscott few 2009 combat missions and evacuated more than 5,200 patients during his two tours in Vietnam.

(Photo courtesy of Dustoff Association)

“We got shot at every time we flew in. If you flew a couple of missions and didn’t get shot at you got really nervous.”

- Col. Jim Truscott

One of Brady’s contemporaries, Jim Truscott, now 73, joined the 57th in Vietnam soon after he graduated from flight school in 1965.

 

“Both my tours in Vietnam were when things were getting interesting,” the 30-year Army veteran from Oklahoma recalled.

 

In 1965, American forces such as the 173rd Airborne Brigade out of Okinawa, Japan, the 25th Infantry Division out of Hawaii and the 3rd Infantry Division out of Fort Riley, Kansas, were streaming into the country. Some of the pilots were veterans of the Korean War,  where they had pioneered helicopter medevac, but greenhorns like Truscott were forced to learn fast.

 

“You got to be experienced rather quickly or it was all over,” he said.

Every time a Huey landed to pick up patients, the crew was in danger. At that time, the medevac helicopters — manned by a commander, pilot, medic and crew chief — were the only ones that flew single-aircraft missions, Truscott recalled.

 

“We got shot at every time we flew in,” Truscott recalled. “If you flew a couple of missions and didn’t get shot at you got really nervous.”

Truscott said he got shot once but didn’t notice because he was distracted by the noise of explosions.

 

“I didn’t realize I had been shot until we were refueling,” he said. “The medic said, ‘You have blood on your flight suit.’ He stitched me up right there and we kept going.”

 

Medevac crews en route to collect patients received radio reports of enemy positions near landing zones and tried to steer clear of them during their approach. On the ground, the flight medic and crew chief would leap out and pull the wounded aboard, he said.

 

The Huey was designed to carry up to six stretchers.

 

In 1966, between tours, Truscott commanded a helicopter ambulance squadron in Germany that had few pilots because most were deployed to Vietnam.

 

“After a while it got kind of boring, so I volunteered for another tour,” he said.

 

Truscott arrived back in Vietnam in 1968, just in time for the Tet Offensive, when 80,000 Communist troops attacked hundreds of towns and cities, resulting in tens of thousands of U.S. and allied casualties.

 

“I ended up picking up thousands of patients all over the 3rd and 4th Corps areas, which covered Saigon and the south of the country,” he said.

 

Flying out of Long Binh, 20 miles from Saigon, Truscott flew in support of the 9th Infantry Division and Marines conducting amphibious operations in the Mekong Delta. That meant dropping patients off on a hospital ship for the first time, Truscott said.

 

By the time he left Vietnam he’d flown more than 2,000 combat missions and extracted more than 5,000 patients, he said. In the years since the war, he’s run into a number of other veterans who were wounded and flown off the battlefield in a helicopter ambulance.

 

“They want to give you a hug,” he said. “They say: ‘I can’t believe you did this.’ ”

Timeline by Catharine Giordano/Stars and Stripes

Fighting intensifies

Col. Douglas Moore served two tours in Vietnam, flying 1,874 combat missions and evacuating nearly 2,800 patients.

(Photo courtesy of Dustoff Association)

Veteran medevac pilot Doug Moore met Kelly at Fort Benning, Georgia, before his first tour, although he never had the chance to fly with the legendary pilot in combat.

 

“He was killed about two months before I got there,” Moore recalled. “He was an extraordinarily brave pilot but I think all the guys who were there would have fit that mold.”

 

Moore, now 77, shared a tent with Brady after shipping out from Arkansas for his first tour to Vietnam in the summer of 1964.

 

“Back then it was still basically a Vietnamese war,” he said. “There were only about 20,000 Americans in country at the time.”

 

However, the character of the war quickly changed as the North Vietnamese, frustrated with the slow progress of their insurgency in the South, started to organize larger units.

 

When the 9th Viet Cong Division attacked allied forces outside of Saigon there was a major battle and helicopter ambulances collected large numbers of Vietnamese casualties, he recalled.

 

On one mission, Moore said, he could only watch as Vietnamese forces overran and captured a group of American troops waiting for medevac near Binh Gia.

 

After his first tour, Moore found himself stationed in Japan where many of the patients evacuated from Vietnam ended up. He flew thousands of hours over Tokyo transporting patients between hospitals at Yokota Air Base, Yokosuka Naval Base and four Army medical facilities.

 

Back in Vietnam in 1968 he took command of the 159th Medical Detachment, supporting the 25th Infantry Division at Cu Chi – an area famous for a network of tunnels dug by the Viet Cong.

 

At the time, the 159th was mostly flying American patients along with allied forces from Australia, New Zealand, South Korea and the Philippines, he said.

 

In December 1968, Moore’s aircraft was struck by 37 rounds while it was on the ground picking up eight patients from the 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment.

 

“An AK-47 round that came through the lower part of the windshield frame hit my helmet in the visor knob slot and came out behind my left ear,” he recalled.

 

On New Year’s Day 1969 Moore flew to the Cambodian border to pick up three American prisoners of war whose release had been agreed at negotiations in Paris.

 

“We saw a flag flying in a clearing and we landed and were surrounded by North Vietnamese troops,” he recalled.

 

The Vietnamese troops let the POWs fly out on the helicopter but one died later from a brain abscess, said Moore, a 30-year Army veteran who medically evacuated 2,782 patients in Vietnam.

 

Truscott and Moore, still close friends after all these years, enjoy swapping war stories with old comrades from the Dustoff Association.

In this undated photo, five UH-1 Iroquois helicopters arrive to airlift American prisoners of war.

Medevacs today: the 'Golden Hour'

Plenty of today’s servicemembers are eligible to join the group.

 

In Iraq and Afghanistan, UH-60 Black Hawks have been used extensively to evacuate wounded U.S. and allied troops from the battlefield. Their efforts have created a new term that now stands alongside “dustoff” in the medevac lexicon: the “golden hour.”

 

Today’s aircraft are faster than the Vietnam-era Hueys, and they carry the latest high-tech equipment in an attempt to get patients to an advanced treatment facility. The goal is to get the wounded to the surgical centers within 60 minutes, the so-called “golden hour.”

 

 After those initial 60 minutes, the chances of survival begin to dwindle rapidly.

 

 

 The Army reports that only 10 percent of combat injuries resulted in death in Afghanistan, down from 27 percent in World War II, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

 

Today’s medevac personnel tell the old-timers that the rules for conducting operations in places such as Afghanistan are much stricter than they were in Vietnam, Moore said.

 

“They have gunships that fly cover for them and when higher authorities feel the risk is too great, they hold the aircraft on the ground,” he said. “We made those calls ourselves. If there were wounded on the ground, our mission was to go get them.”

Story by Seth Robson
Design by Michael Darnell

Throughout Vietnam, Desert Storm, Operation: Iraqi Freedom and throughout the continuing mission in Afghanistan - including dozens of smaller conflicts across the globe -  medevac units have saved the lives of thousands upon thousands of Marines, soldiers, airmen and sailors.

 

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The UH-1N is a light-lift Air Force utility helicopter used for support of Department of Defense contingency plans. The helicopter has a number of uses. Its primary mission includes airlift of emergency security and disaster response forces, medical evacuation, security surveillance of off-base movements of nuclear weapons convoys and test range areas during launch conditions. It is also used for space shuttle landing support, priority maintenance dispatch support, and search and rescue operations. Other uses include airlift of missile support personnel, airborne cable inspections and distinguished visitor transport. (Photo by Andy Dunaway/U.S. Air Force)