Talking Proud Archives --- Military

Medevacs & Medics, Angels of Mercy

By Ed Marek, editor

March 17, 2012

Combat Kelly’s Creed: “No compromise. No rationalization. No Hesitation. Fly the mission. Now!"

This was the creed of Major Charles L. "Combat" Kelly, viewed by many as the founder and inspirational leader of the world renowned "Dust Offs," the men and women of Army military medical evacuation helicopters, the air ambulances. Their stories are incredibly inspirational. Their courage and steadily improving tactics have reduced deaths among those wounded on the battlefield almost exponentially since WWII, to where today, about 85-90 percent of our wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan survive.

Before we get to Major Kelly, I want to review a little history before he came on the scene in Vietnam, to help better understand the legacy from which he and they emerged.

Helicopter medical evacuation, its roots in the 1940s


The Germans had the first helicopter to enter active military service, with the FL-265 (shown here) and FL-282 entering service with the German navy in 1942. But the Yanks were right on their heels. The Sikorsky R-4 was a two-seat aircraft that became the "belle of the ball," and the Coast Guard's Lieutenant Commander F.A. Erickson one of the early pioneers.

On September 14, 1939, Sikorsky's prototype VS-300 helicopter flew its first flight, which turned out to be the first flight of an US helicopter (photo courtesy of As you see here, she consisted of a steel frame, a pilot's seat that was completely open, a three wheel landing gear and three rotor blades. By May 1940 she could stay aloft for 15 minutes.

But by May 6, 1941, Sikorsky put a body on her, made other improvements and set a world helicopter endurance record of 1 hour, 32 minutes, 26 seconds aloft. By January 1942 further improvements had been made, the aircraft was redesignated the VS-316, and the military came aboard, designating her the R4, the Army Air Corps' (AAC ) first service helicopter, nicknamed the "Hoverfly." The Navy also bought in, on behalf of the Coast Guard.


Sikorsky R-4B "Hoverfly," photo courtesy of the USAF Museum, Wright Patterson AFB, Ohio

The R-4 was the world's first production helicopter and the AAC's first service helicopter. It was to be a two-man aircraft used for observation, reconnaissance, and medevac, with one external litter. As we read the records, though, the first operational R4 belonged to the Coast Guard, and it and its pilot made medevac history.


The Coast Guard's Lieutenant Commander F.A. Erickson, fifth from the left in the above photo (courtesy of, had watched the development of the VS-300 virtually from the start, and saw the value of a helicopter for antisubmarine warfare and medevac. The US Navy accepted its first helicopter (to be used by the Coast Guard), a Sikorsky YR-4B (HNS-1), at Bridgeport, Connecticut, following a 60 minute acceptance test flight by Mr. Erickson on October 16, 1943.

Cmdr. Erickson started the world's first helicopter school at Floyd Bennett Field, New York in December 1943. Just the next month, on January 3, 1944, the US Naval destroyer USS
Turner, while anchored off Sandy Hook, New Jersey, experienced a series of shattering internal explosions and sank, taking 15 officers and 123 crewmen with her. Many survivors were picked up by nearby boats and brought to the Sandy Hook Hospital.

The hospital was in urgent need of plasma. A terrible storm was pounding the area and all airfields were closed. U.S Coast Guard Admiral Parker, from his Third Naval District headquarters in New York, called Erickson and asked him if he could fly to Battery Park in New York, pick up plasma, and get it to the hospital. Erickson said he could do it, he grabbed his co-pilot, Ensign Walter Bolton, and his aircraft, an R4 called HNS-1 by the Coast Guard, tail number "Buno 46445", and off they went. You need to read the full story conveyed by, because this was a hair-raising flight, but Erickson completed the mission marking this as the first use of a helicopter in a life saving role. To give you a sense for the bravado demonstrated during this flight, Erickson and his co-pilot strapped two cases of plasma to the helicopter's floats, the co-pilot was forced to stay behind because of weight issues, and Erickson literally had to back his way out of Battery Park to avoid obstacles and go into the wind to get his bird aloft. He certainly set the bar for medevac pilots to follow, and as you'll see, they have set an even higher bar.

The next first for the helicopter in a medevac role occurred in 1943. The AAC was the first to use the helicopter in operational service in WWII. We believe that the AAC, in 1943, sent one R4B to General Hap Arnold's 1st Commando Force in the China-India-Burma theatre of operations, to serve along with a composite force of fighters, cargo planes, light aircraft and support people. This was the first helicopter to serve in combat. The air commandos were hooked up with ground commandos known as "The Chindits," formed and led by British Major General Orde Wingate DSO. Together they conducted "unconventional" hit-and-run warfare to confuse the enemy, and destroy their lines of communication and resupply. The 1st Commando Force was re-designated the 1st Air Commando Group in 1944 and deployed to Hailakandi, India.

Four more R4Bs were airlifted to India. In fairly short order, the unit was down to two aircraft. Then, we get another first, the first combat medical evacuation by a helicopter.

In late April 1944, 1st Air Commando sergeant pilot Ed "Murphy" Hladovcak crash landed his L-IB light plane in Burma with three wounded British soldiers aboard, deep behind Japanese lines. On April 25-26, 1944, Lt. Carter Harman of the 1st Air Commandos flew an R4B behind enemy lines to them. He flew from his base in India on a circuitous 500 mile route to avoid the Japanese. He had to stop for fuel every 100 miles at landing zones controlled by friendly ground commandos.

The two photos below give you a sense for what the fields were like.


In one day, engineers turn "Broadway" into a bustling airfield. This end of the field needed little leveling, but the other was badly rutted. Photo courtesy of National Geographic magazine, August 1944 edition, "The Aerial Invasion of Burma," by General H.H. Arnold, Commanding General, US Army Air Forces.


The light plane airstrip at "White City," carved out of the jungles behind enemy lines by Wingate's "Chindits" British Commandos. The Stronghold is in the hills next to the airstrip. Imperial War Museum (Ref SE7937) courtesy of Chindit Special Force Burma 1942-1944.

Harman made it to the Allied Aberdeen glider strip (similar to White City and Broadway seen above) torn out of the Burma jungles.


Lt. Carter Harman (standing at left) made the first AAF helicopter rescue, in Burma, behind Japanese lines on April 25-26, 1944. U.S. Air Force Museum, photo courtesy of Ft. Rucker, Alabama, home of Army Aviation

He then flew to a clearing near the crash site to pick up the first wounded British soldier and took him to an emergency strip prepared by British commandos on a sand-bar 10 miles away. He went back and picked up the second wounded soldier, but an overheated engine forced him to remain at the sandbar overnight. He went back the next morning to get the third wounded soldier and then went back again and got the L-IB pilot. He successfully picked up three British soldiers and a pilot from behind Japanese lines. We understand a painting of this historic operation is hanging in the Helicopter War Museum in England. The last two R4Bs of the 1st Air Commando Group were credited with 15 successful evacuations before the two helicopters collapsed from the weight of the jungle's environment.

The success of the R4 led to the development of the R5 and R6, followed by large production orders from the Army.


Sikorsky R6-A "Hoveryfly II". Presented by USAF Military Training Instructor Association.


One of very first external litter helicopter transports, 1945 in Philippines using Sikorsky R-6A. Both photos, above and below, submitted by Dan Gower. Presented by


The R6-A was a two-seat observation helicopter and served in combat in May 1944. Although primarily an observation and liaison helicopter, many R-6As also were equipped with capsules on each side of the fuselage to carry litters for medical evacuation. Bomb racks also could be installed and, if necessary, the R-6A could be equipped with floats for operation from water.

So began the long and distinguished history of helicopter evacuations and specifically medical evacuations, medevacs. The tactic continued to develop during the Korean War.

The Korean War: helicopter medevac concept forms


Personnel and equipment needed to save a man's life are assembled at HQs of the 8225th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, Korea. October 14, 1951. That's a Bell H-13 "Sioux" helicopter. Photo credit: Cpl. Charles Abrahamson. (Army), courtesy of, "Commemorating the Korean War."

Based on the enormous casualties of WWII, and the helicopter's potential to serve, in June 1950, Army field forces recommended that a helicopter organization be provided for each division and field army and be considered, from a medical standpoint, the same as a medical ground ambulance unit.

Initially, in Korea, rescue squadrons tasked to pick up downed aircrews were called on to also pick up wounded soldiers and Marines. The practice had such great impact that in January 1951 three Army helicopter detachments arrived with the mission to evacuate the seriously wounded, each with four helicopters, two detachments with the Bell H-13 and one with the Hiller H-23 Raven.


Hiller H-23 Raven three seat utility helicopter used for medical evacuation and battlefield observation and surveillance. Presented by The Korean War.

Interestingly, at the outset of the war there were no Medical Service (MS) aviators specifically trained in aeromedical evacuation, so as has so often been the case in warfare, they had to operate by the seat of their pants and learn day-by-day.

There were two baskets or pods for litter patients on either side of the H-13 craft. Since there was only one pilot, a walking patient could be carried aboard as well. At the height of the war, each detachment controlled eleven aircraft. By war's end, the H-13 alone in Korea had evacuated more than 18,000 casualties. Many of these men would not have survived without this transportation.


Members of 3 RAR (Australian) load a wounded soldier into a pod on a US Army Bell 47D (H-13) helicopter in the Sokkong valley area, Korea. Photo courtesy of the Australian War Memorial

In both WWII and Korea, the practice was to pick up the wounded and get them to a medical facility. That changed in Vietnam, when the practice of providing medical care aboard the flight began. This was a natural progression, especially as helicopter technology improved and the aircraft grew in size, power, speed and maneuverability.

Vietnam: the 57th Medical Detachment (Air Ambulance), and Combat Kelly

Now let's move on to Vietnam. Helicopter medevacs in Vietnam began early in the war. Here you see an Army helicopter delivering a wounded South Vietnamese soldier in 1962. You will recall that in the early days of that war, the South Vietnamese did most of the fighting and the US provided mostly advice, training and support, such as in this rescue.


Saved from certain death, a stretcher-borne Vietnamese soldier leaves his US Army air ambulance for a hospital in Da Nang. The day before he was shot in the abdomen while patrolling the Bou Aie Ha. Called by radio, the Army helicopter flew to the rescue. From "Helicopter War in South Viet Nam," by Dick Chapelle, National Geographic magazine, November 1962.

The first full-fledged aeromedical evacuation unit sent to Vietnam was the 57th Medical Detachment (Air Ambulance-AA), arriving in Nha Trang, Vietnam on April 26, 1962 from Fort Meade, Maryland.

In January 1963, the 57th was moved to Tan Son Nhut Air Force Base (AFB) at Saigon. It later split operations between Tan Son Nut, outside Saigon, and Pleiku in South Vietnam's central highlands, dividing its UH-1 fleet between the two bases.


UH-1 Iroquois "Huey", photo courtesy of Global Security

As an aside, the 57th was also the first unit to use the UH-1 "Iroquois" helicopter for medevac in actual combat. The name "Iroquois" never really caught on. This ship was more fondly known as the "Huey." Before it left Vietnam in 1973, the 57th had evacuated more than 100,000 patients within the combat zone.

There are several elements of history tied up in the 57th crucial to understanding US military helicopter medevac history.

First, let's introduce you to the 57th's commander, Major Charles L. "Combat" Kelly, in some quarters, because of his bravado, known as “Madman Kelly.” He was born in a small town in Georgia in 1925. At the age of 15, he ran off and joined the Army, serving in Europe. He came home, finished school, including college, became a high school principal, got out of that and joined the Army as an enlisted man and then became an officer. He served in Korea with the 50th Medical Detachment (Helicopter Ambulance - HA). This is where he earned his medevac spurs. (Photo of Captain Kelly receiving an award in Korea, courtesy of Si Simmons, one of "Kelly's Krazies" in Vietnam, "In memory of Major Charles L. Kelly, Dust Off founder")

Following Korea, Capt. Kelly would get promoted to major and then go off to Vietnam, taking command of the 57th. We are not sure of the date, but believe it was in 1963.

In any event, one of the first things Kelly noted was that the 57th had no radio callsign of its own. There was a vacant call sign, “Dust Off” in the operations instructions so Kelly grabbed it unofficially and started using it. “Dust Off” became not only the callsign used by all Army aeromedical evacuation flights (except the 1st Cavalry, which used “Medevac”), but its use told everyone that when they heard that call used on the radio, it was an aeromedical flight. Soldiers in the heat of battle need only remember the callsign “Dust Off” when radioing in for help. They knew they would get the desired response, any time, anywhere. The callsign "Dust Off" also became the nickname for development of the concept of operations for such operations that blossomed throughout the Vietnam war.

“Combat” Kelly, besides being a tremendous leader by example, employed some verbiage that soon became the motto of many in the medevac business.

In the minds of most Dust Off pilots and crew who flew with or knew of Combat Kelly, he is a legend. There is much written about him, all worth reading if you wish to be uplifted by the incredible devotion to his fellow man displayed by this short guy from Georgia.

On July 1, 1964, he arrived at a very hot area to pick up the injured, and came under intense hostile fire. He was ordered to withdraw several times, and responded that he would depart “when I have your wounded.” That idea quickly became the unofficial motto of all Dust Offs.

Moments later, he was killed with a single bullet, shot through the heart by ground fire. His chopper went down, his crew made it out, and retrieved his body. This flight had a US physician aboard and he declared Major Kelly dead on the scene. A group of Dust Offs, who had heard Kelly was hit, rushed to the area, only to learn they were too late. They completed his mission and rescued the patients Kelly had gone to get. Our information is that Major Kelly was the 149th American to die in combat in Vietnam.

Capt. Pat Brady has written a tribute to Kelly. Here are some extracts:

“Major Charles L. Kelly the commander of the original Dust Off unit in Vietnam set a high standard of physical courage for the medevac pilots who would follow him in a widening war, but it was his moral courage that preserved the independent integrity of what would become the greatest battlefield lifesaving system in the history of warfare.

“Charles Kellv was a small man—very proud, perhaps a bit vain but still rather shy. He combed his hair toward his eyebrows to camouflage a receding hairline. His belt seemed too tight, and although it never affected his breathing, he seemed always to be holding his belly in and puffing out his chest. His walk was structured but rather graceful. His face was quite Irish, freckled and round, dominated by large eyes that seemed to change size according to his mood. Those eyes moved more quickly than the rest of him and could be rather disquieting once they rested on you. Only rarely did I ever see them twinkle, and I never heard him laugh. He spoke with a soft Georgia drawl and never raised his voice, regardless of his mood or the danger of the moment. You only needed to look in his eyes to know his mood. He was deeply religious, and I believe he read the Bible daily.

“Kelly was a teacher, a quality rare in many commanders I have known. He seemed unconcerned about previous flying experience. Although there were many experienced medical pilots (in terms of years of service and flying hours) in the Army, most of the pilots in Kelly's unit were not experienced. He made no effort to get anyone specifically assigned to his unit but took what the pipeline brought. He was as interested in what he could do for his men, what he could teach them, as he was in what they could do for him. Mostly, he was interested In what they could do together for the mission.


“(For Kelly), the key was patients--saving lives no matter the circumstances; get them out during the battle, at night, in weather, whatever. Get those patients, the more the better; and don't let anyone else carry our patients. We increased, even advertised, our service to the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam). We even carried the enemy wounded. We never discriminated against a hurt human, no matter his cause … The key to lifesaving was time—the time from injury to medical care, not necessarily to a hospital. Dust Off had highly competent medical care on board.”

From what we read, Major Kelly's impact on the Dust Off crews around the world to follow was enormous. We see a phrase attributed to him that seems to fit the man, the mission, and the crews who flew before him and after him:

"No compromise. No rationalization. No Hesitation. Fly the mission. Now!”, and…

“(I’ll leave) when I have your wounded.”



1-4 Marines medevac wounded, Operation Granite, Quang Tri, october 27, 1967


Sam Romera guiding in a medieval near LZ Ross. B/2-12 Cav, by David Barnes


Can’t land, get him up and in there


Looking for his medieval --- he’s com in’


Medevac, com in’ in? Trooper guides him to a landing spot, 101st Airborne


Medevac landed, troops uploading a wounded trooper; soldier who took photo was hit by shrapnel shortly thereafter, and had to be loaded up as well.


Medevac in hover, surveying situation, C/326 Medical, 101st Airborne


No place to land, it’s Mutters Ridge, medieval hoists wounded Marine, 2-3 Marines, 1968, after horrific battle up the mountain.

Birth of the 45th Medical Company (Air Ambulance - AA)