By Nathan Pfau, Army Flier Staff WriterSeptember 15, 2017
FORT RUCKER, Ala. -- The UH-1 Huey was the helicopter that forever changed the world of Army aviation. The Huey became synonymous with Army aviation after it was able to showcase its versatility in the Vietnam War, where it was initially utilized as a medical evacuation transport. However, the Army quickly realized that the aircraft's adaptability also made it a capable troop transport and gunship, according to Bob Mitchell, U.S. Army Aviation Museum curator.
One such story of the aircraft's versatility involves then-Maj. Charles Kettles, who was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division. Kettles and his unit who were ambushed by the North Vietnamese army in the Song Tra Cau riverbed during the morning of May 15, 1967.
"As the story goes, they were airlifting elements of the 101st Airborne Division into a landing zone, and it became apparent over the day that the fighting was getting more and more intense," said Mitchell. "The enemy had realized what was going on and were essentially allowing them to feed more troops into what was going to be a giant ambush."
When the ambush happened, the word came in to reinforce the unit and evacuate the wounded troops, and Kettles volunteered to lead an emergency extraction team of six UH-1D helicopters into the ambush zone.
In order to safely recover the wounded Soldiers, a covering force was established to provide cover while the extraction was taking place, said Mitchell. But during the extraction, the covering force was left behind.
"There were [eight] men who were left, and after that day's battle, neither side was interested in niceties, so it was apparent that those men were going to be killed if they didn't get out of there," said the curator.
Although 44 men were extracted, Kettles was determined to not leave any of the eight troops behind, and when he'd gotten word that there were troops left in the landing zone, he disregarded his own safety and returned to rescue the remaining troops without the support of other aircraft.
"He took a door gunner and himself, and shot his approach into the [landing zone], and he said the enemy was stunned in utter amazement that any anybody would be stupid enough to find a single ship into that hornet's nest," said Mitchell.
While under heavy enemy fire, Kettles managed to keep control of the heavily damaged aircraft to allow the remaining Soldiers to board and save their lives.
"Kettles is doing his pilot magic and they're taking mortar rounds, and he finally gets the aircraft in the air and gets it out of there," said the curator. "The aircraft was basically shot to pieces, and he gets back, lands and drops off the troops."
For his heroic efforts, Kettles was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Barack Obama during a ceremony at the White House on July 18, 2016.
"To the dozens of American Soldiers that he saved in Vietnam, half a century ago, Chuck is the reason they lived, and came home and had children and grandchildren -- entire family trees, made possible by the actions of this one man," said Obama during the ceremony.
It was the actions of Soldiers like Kettles who were able to showcase the significance and versatility of the UH-1 Huey, which became the image that most people equate with the Vietnam War, said Mitchell.
"The Huey pretty much became the jack-of-all-trades in Vietnam," he said. "The Army realized when they were evaluating the Huey initially as a medical evacuation aircraft, that they could use the aircraft for all kinds of stuff.
"In addition to being a great medical evacuation helicopter, it was also a great troop transport and gunship," he continued. "The Army really got a lot of bang for their buck out of the UH-1. If you were going to mount something on an aircraft, the first thing they looked to was the Huey because it was such a reliable machine."
The Huey's reliability and power came from its use of a turbine jet engine, which Mitchell said made all the difference, and is why he regards it as the helicopter that changed the world.