June 19, 1967 — It’s a day Fred McKellar of Plain Dealing will never forget.
“I just turned 27 on the 16th of June so it was a bad birthday.”
McKellar was serving active duty in the United States Army as a medical service corps officer with the 1st Cavalry Division, 15th Medical Battalion, Air Ambulance Platoon. They were stationed at a base camp in An Khe, a town in the Central Highlands region of Vietnam.
MedEvac crews were responsible for transporting the wounded in a safe, timely manner to aid stations and hospitals for medical care. McKellar’s crew consisted of five people: the aircraft commander, a pilot or co-pilot, a crew chief, medic and a gunner.
McKellar flew many helicopters during his time as a Med-Evac aircraft commander, one of which was the Army UH-1D #63-08803 (or 803). It was a Huey helicopter that they named “Old Reliable.”
“There were various helicopters that were assigned to us, but it sure was a good one,” he said.
McKellar wasn’t flying the 803 on that 19th day of June in1967. That’s because he told the 803’s crew to stop and rest a while.
“They had been out flying for a long time,” McKellar explained. “I was the officer in charge there for medical evacuation and I told them if they got another mission while they were resting or getting food that we would take it for them.”
And so they did. McKellar and his crew were sent on a mission to retrieve wounded soldiers from battle. When their aircraft reached tree top level, they were bombarded by enemy fire.
“We were just sitting ducks because we slowed down to land. They really tore up the helicopter,” he said.
SP4 Ron Trogdon, crew chief of the 803 who happened to be flying with McKellar’s crew during that mission, was killed in action that day. McKellar received a gunshot wound through his right arm, but was somehow still able to maneuver the aircraft away from the enemy and fly it back to safety.
“I should have lost [my arm], but I didn’t. I flew with my left arm and my legs. My right arm was definitely not operational,” he said. “My medic told me they counted over 90 entrance holes. They slid me out on a stretcher and when I looked up all I could think about was how [the helicopter] was even able to fly.”
That was the second time McKellar was wounded in Vietnam. The first was a gunshot to his leg in February 1967. He managed to pull the bullet from his own leg and even kept it.
For his service, McKellar was awarded two Purple Heart medals, a Bronze Star and the Distinguished Flying Cross, which McKellar said is the third highest honor awarded by the Army.
Because of the injury to his arm, McKellar was told he would never pilot an aircraft again. He was assigned jobs at several hospitals throughout the United States serving various administrative roles, including medical logistics officer.
McKellar was eventually riffed (or discharged) out of service after more than 16 years in the Army. He went on to complete seven and a half more years of service in the Army Reserves, ending a 23-year stint in the military.
However, the thought of flying never left his mind. “Old Reliable” was obtained, restored and now sits at the National American History Museum in Peru, Indiana.
Museum officials did a little research on the history of the 803 and found out that McKellar was one of its pilots. They contacted him in the summer of 2013 and asked if he would like to visit the museum and, more importantly, fly the helicopter.
McKellar jumped at the opportunity.
“After 46 years of not flying a helicopter, I got in with an instructor pilot and we took off. He let me have the stick and we flew all over the country side. I found out that my arm was actually strong enough to fly. I always thought that, but the Army didn’t.”
Returning to the pilot’s seat was an emotional moment though. On a wall inside the aircraft is a memorial plaque for SP4 Trogdon, a permanent reminder for one man who gave his life during military service.
“It brings back a lot of good memories and some sad,” he said. “It was exhilarating just to be able to fly again.”
McKellar and his wife, Nora, will be going back to see and fly with “Old Reliable” again this summer.
“It’s like riding a bicycle; you never forget,” he said. “It’s a wonderful feeling knowing you can still do it and that people recognize there are soldiers who still want to do what they once did in the past.”
Surviving members of the 15th Medical Battalion still meet yearly for a reunion. Next year, they will be meeting in Boise, Idaho.
Their yearly reunions also include a memorial service to honor and remember the comrades who However, McKellar said there’s always time to remember those who’ve passed on, not just on a holiday.
“I lost a lot of friends over there. I wish more people recognized what the day actually stands for,” McKellar said. “Memorial Day is another day that we can think about and remember those who gave the total sacrifice so that others may live.”