All morning the Army’s intermountain radio warned: “There’s enemy fire. It’s way too hot. You need to leave.”
Still, Maj. Charles Kelly continued into the highlands of northeast Vietnam on a medical evacuation mission in his UH-1 “Huey” helicopter, replying that he would leave only “when I have your wounded.”
A few seconds later – on July 1, 1964 – a bullet came through an open cargo door and pierced Kelly’s heart. Kelly’s crew survived but the commander died, despite the efforts of his men to start an IV.
Fifty years later – with a coming rush of anniversaries of the Vietnam War – his five words carry significant meaning for an American war still seen by many as a mistake.
Army statistics show that more than 850,000 military
personnel and Vietnamese civilians were rescued by air ambulances from 1962 to 1973, a figure that greatly outnumbers the 58,220 deaths and 303,645 injuries of American personnel in the war.
Such transports continue today under the legacy of Kelly’s call sign, “DUSTOFF,” and his last five words – “when I have your wounded.” It’s also the title of a documentary released in 2013 by the Pentagon and narrated by Kelly’s son, Charles Kelly Jr., a computer repairman from Martinez.
“I was 3½ when my father left for Vietnam,” Kelly said Monday in a small trailer behind his Washington Road business that’s packed with flight logs, diary entries and newspaper clippings documenting his father’s missions.
“I didn’t know him, but I am fortunate to have met the men who flew with him and tried to rescue him. Their service makes me proud of my dad and the men and women who do medical evacuation missions every day.”
Kelly’s memory of his father consists of only two moments – Charles Sr. standing in his family’s kitchen in a white T-shirt, and giving Charles Jr. a 10-foot liftoff in a Huey outside his childhood home in Sylvania, Ga.
The rest is captured in thousands of photographs and articles that Kelly is working to upload onto a digital server to cement his father’s distinguished career.
According to The Illustrated History of the Vietnam War, Kelly is known as “the man who was Dust Off,” the term that still refers to the medical ambulance crews that fly unarmed into heavy fire, disregarding their own safety.
The phrase was derived from the plume of dust raised by the Hueys that Kelly’s 57th Medical Detachment flew, but the call sign might have never been if not for the commander’s “hypercritical” nature toward Army leadership, his son said.
A diary kept by Kelly in 1960 during his time in Korea stated that on Sept. 23 he “intended to make some changes” when he took control of the Army’s 50th Detachment three days later and that the company would not understand it because of the “high brass.”