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During the early morning hours of 15 May 1967, members of the 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division were being ambushed at the Son Tra Cau riverbed. A North Vietnamese army battalion-sized force with numerous automatic weapons, machine guns, mortars, and recoilless rifles was inflicting casualties on the brigade in intense fighting.


Then-Maj. Kettles was serving on his first of two Vietnam tours of duty as a flight commander with the 176th Assault Helicopter Company, 14th Combat Aviation Battalion. Upon learning of the 1st Brigade’s casualties, he volunteered to lead a flight of six UH-1D helicopters to carry reinforcements to the embattled force and to evacuate wounded personnel. As the flight approached the landing zone, it came under heavy and deadly enemy attack from multiple directions. Soldiers were hit and killed before they could leave the arriving lift helicopters, and enemy fire continued to rake the landing zone, inflicting heavy damage to the rotorcraft. However, Kettles refused to depart until all reinforcements and supplies were off- loaded and wounded personnel were loaded on the helicopters to capacity. He then led them out of the battle area and back to the staging area to pick up additional reinforcements.


Kettles then returned to the battlefield, despite knowing the intense enemy fire awaiting his arrival. Bringing reinforcements, he landed in the midst of enemy mortar and automatic weapons fire that seriously wounded his gunner and severely damaged his aircraft.


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He departed with fuel streaming out of his aircraft, but nursed his damaged aircraft back to base.


Later that day, the infantry battalion commander requested immediate emergency extraction of the remaining 44 troops, that included four members of Kettles’ unit who were stranded when their helicopter was destroyed by enemy fire. With only one UH-1 helicopter remaining that could fly, Kettles volunteered to return to the deadly landing zone for a third time, leading a flight of six evacuation helicopters, five of which were from the 161st Aviation Company.


During the extraction, Kettles was informed by the last helicopter that all personnel were onboard, and departed the landing zone accordingly. Army gunships supporting the evacuation also departed the area. However, once airborne, Kettles was advised that eight troops had been unable to reach the evacuation helicopters due to the intense enemy fire. With complete disregard for his own safety, he returned to the landing zone to rescue the remaining troops.


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