Ken Kelly was nearly a decade into his Air Force career in the late 1960s when he said he received orders to begin training on an aircraft that he had never even seen or heard about.
Although he didn’t know it at the time, that aircraft — an HH-3E helicopter, also known as a Jolly Green Giant — would provide the setting for Kelly’s overhead view of a year-long stretch of the Vietnam War, and also help save his life, and the lives of others, more times than he probably knows.
The 75-year-old Kelly, who has lived in Santa Ynez for the past 35 years, reported to Vietnam in 1969 and spent a year primarily flying rescue missions to save pilots and other military personnel who had either gone down in a crash or been forced to bail from their vehicles due to enemy fire.
“There were some very dramatic rescues that went on,” Kelly said of his time stationed at Da Nang Air Base in Vietnam.
Kelly, who was 29 when he arrived in Vietnam, said much of his time was spent hovering on standby if he wasn’t involved in an active rescue mission. On those missions, he said the first task for him and other rescue pilots was to identify that the person on the ground was actually the person they were seeking.
“You didn’t want to be suckered in by a false beacon,” he said. “A lot of these areas that we had to make rescues in were in places where somebody got in trouble.”
Many of his rescues, some of which occurred over water, had to be made quickly due to the threat of enemy fire. He said that teams of fighter pilots would often go into the rescue areas first in an attempt to draw out any enemy fighters. This was known as “sterilizing” the area.
“In De Nang, we had a lot of incoming (fire) all the time,” he said. “It was mostly Viet Cong testing whatever defenses they had by shooting kind of randomly into where the bases were, or lobbing mortar directed missiles into them.”
Although Kelly spent much of his time in the air, he wasn’t immune to attacks.
“I did not know it at the time, but with my helicopter that I brought back, sometimes the maintenance person would ask me, ‘Do you realize you got hit?’ I'd say, ‘No,’ and he’d show me the bullet holes,” he said. “It was very much luck if your time was up or not. I flew across the Ho Chi Minh trail several times ... (and) there were airbursts going off as we were flying.
“I’m glad they were a bad shot,” he added with a laugh.
Kelly, who said he often thinks about some of his friends and colleagues who are still missing in Vietnam, left the war in 1970.
He retired from the Air Force nine years later and went on to work for Flight Safety International for a short time before essentially becoming permanently grounded in his later career in information technology. He retired for good 10 years ago and spends a lot of time now on his lifelong passion of railroading.
He and his wife, Susan, have two adult children, Karl and Kristen.
It is because of the public perception in the U.S. during and immediately after the Vietnam War that Kelly said he often would not talk about the war or share his experiences with anyone.
“It was a very bad time and the general public was very upset with Vietnam and they were doing all kinds of things to the military and veterans,” he said. “So we were very low-key after returning. That experience was quite bad for me.”
Kelly, who is a member of a Veterans of Foreign Wars group and an American Legion, said it wasn’t until recently that those negative feelings began to change.
“One of the things that really changed my attitude was two years ago,” he said. “There was a parade in Solvang and, fortunately enough, I got to ride in a Jeep in the parade. I could not believe how appreciative the general public was for vets.”