By Katie Lange
Defense Media Activity
This blog is part of a weekly series called “Medal of Honor Monday,” in which we’ll highlight one of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.
Plenty of military aviators have earned Medals of Honor over America’s long history, but very few earned them for actions taken in helicopters. The very first helicopter pilot to earn that distinction did so in the Korean War during a voluntary rescue mission that ended disastrously.
Navy Lt. John Kelvin Koelsch was born in London in 1923. He got his education at Princeton University before commissioning into the Navy in Los Angeles in September 1942. Two years later, he became a pilot and spent some time serving as a torpedo bomber before World War II ended.
Koelsch stayed in the Navy and eventually found himself switching aircraft – from planes to helicopters – as the Korean War began. He made a name for himself on the USS Princeton, rescuing at least two crew members. He also designed devices to help with operations during Korea’s harsh winter, and he developed a floating sling hoist that he used during the mission that earned him the Medal of Honor.
Koelsch was piloting a Navy helicopter rescue unit on July 3, 1951, when he heard that a Marine fighter pilot had been shot down in the mountains of North Korea. Despite nighttime rapidly approaching, Koelsch and one crewmate, Petty Officer 3rd Class George Neal, volunteered to fly the chopper to try to rescue him. Conditions were overcast, so Koelsch had to drop to an extremely low altitude to get below the clouds to search.
He didn’t have a fighter escort, nor was the helicopter armed. The enemy was able to fire at the chopper freely, hitting it at least once before Koelsch found the downed pilot, Marine Corps Capt. James V. Wilkins.
Neal began hoisting Wilkins into the chopper with Koelsch’s signature sling, but another shot from the enemy made a direct hit, and the helicopter crashed into the side of the mountain. Koelsch and Neal weren’t hurt, but Wilkins suffered from serious burns and a twisted knee.
Koelsch managed to gather the other two men from the wreck and lead them away from the crash site to hide from enemy troops, who would inevitably be searching for them. They managed to evade capture for nine days, reaching a small coastal fishing village before being captured.
As they were marched through the village, Koelsch made an effort to point out Wilkins’ injuries to their captors, who eventually separated the Marine from the sailors to get him medical help. Wilkins later attributed that effort by Koelsch to his survival.
When Armistice Day finally came in 1953, prisoners of war were returned to the U.S., and Neal and Wilkins were two of them. Koelsch was not. Records show he died in October 1951 from dysentery and malnutrition.
But in his months of captivity, Koelsch always refused to help his captors, other POWs remembered. He was considerate and helpful toward his fellow prisoners despite his weakened state, and that courage and self-sacrifice inspired them.
When it came to the helicopter rescue attempt, Wilkins, who had watched Koelsch navigate through the cloud cover and enemy fire, later said it was “the greatest display of guts I’ve ever seen.”
In August 1955, Koelsch’s mother was presented the Medal of Honor for his sacrifice at a ceremony at the Pentagon. Koelsch was the first helicopter pilot to receive the nation’s highest award for valor.
“He was always ready for any rescue mission, no matter how dangerous, and he let this be known. If anything happened, he wanted to be part of it,” said one officer who served with Koelsch.
Koelsch’s legacy carried on in 1965, when the Navy named a destroyer escort after him. The USS Koelsch was later reclassified as a frigate before its decommissioning in 1989.
READ MORE: Korea: The Forgotten War Explained
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