Boundless Bravery - Foundation of DUSTOFF History

by Cleo Brennan
Fort Sam Houston Public Affairs Office From the Fort Sam Houston News Leader, March 1, 2001

THE HISTORY OF DUSTOFF is recorded in the annals of the Center for Military History and at the DUSTOFF Association Web site. They chronicle in detail the drama and developments that heralded the legacy of aeromedical evacuation during the Vietnam War know as DUSTOFF. The seeds of the legacy began long before, however, with little known events from an unlikely quarter. Historians record that, from 1950 through early 1954, French air ambulances in Vietnam evacuated about 5,000 casualties, but the US Army used only a few helicopters for medical evacuation at the end of World War II. Until recently, little was known of an early secret enterprise between the Army, Navy, and Merchant Marines known as Project Ivory Soap. Among twenty-four ships and some 5,000 men involved in the operation, were six Liberty ships that were converted into floating machine shops and repair and maintenance depots. The mission of the aviation repair units was to repair aircraft damaged on combat missions in the Pacific Theater during World War II. The ships were operated by the Army Transport Service (ATS), all of whose officers and men were merchant mariners. Helicopters based on the Navy ships were used to locate downed planes and rescue their flight crews and passengers, ferry shipwrights and mechanics wherever they might be needed on the islands of the Pacific Campaign, and haul parts. Facilities had to be built into the ships to accommodate R-4B Sikorsky helicopters on board.

These experimental models of Army helicopters are now known to have also effected the first Aeromedical evacuation of wounded soldiers in the Philippine Islands. These facts, buried in the history of the 112th Cavalry Regimental Combat Team and ships' logs, were painstakingly unearthed and presented to the DUSTOFF Association by Fred Duncan, Ivory Soap historian. David Carle, son of the pilot who made the first unbelievably daring rescue, with no medical training and little more than a learneršs permit to pilot a helicopter, mesmerized his audience with a narrative of that early escapade, written by his late father, former 2LT Louis Carle.

Carle became one of five pilots to complete a rescue of more than seventy soldiers from the Philippine Theater, flying tiny Sikorsky R-4 and R-6 helicopters, eventually equipped with litters welded to the outside. For the first rescue, Carle had to remove seats to squeeze in his prone passenger with his feet between the steering rudders and his back against the firewall. Carlešs commander reportedly had asked if the craft could fly forty miles and return. Humorously, Carle described his arrival with the wounded soldier at the medical facility thirty-five miles away, where he was advised that sick call was over and he would need to return another time. Prevailing on the hospital staff for assistance with what he called 'muleskinner language,' Carle remarked in his narrative that they weren't accustomed to having patients delivered that way.

Carle is also credited in an article in Hometown News, published June 1945, with observing, 'Driving an egg-beater is hard work. The control stick shakes like a jack hammer and the pilot must hold it tightly at all times. If he relaxes for a minute, the plane falls out of control. Regular pilots say they can tell a helicopter pilot - they're the ones with a permanent case of the shakes.'

During the Korean War, helicopter ambulances were employed on a larger scale, transporting some 17,700 U.S. casualties. Several years later during the Vietnam War, the Army used helicopter ambulances to move almost 900,000 U.S. and Allied sick and wounded, according to documents from the Center for Military History.

The term 'DUSTOFF' is traced to the radio call sign given to the first Aeromedical evacuation unit in Vietnam, the 57th Medical Detachment that arrived in-country in 1962. The 57th initially communicated internally on any vacant frequency it could find. In Saigon, the Navy Support Activity, which controlled all call signs in South Vietnam, allowed the 57th to adopt the call sign DUSTOFF.

Helicopter pickups in dry, dusty fields often blew dust and dirt, and this call sign characterized the nature of the 57thšs medical evacuation missions. Throughout Vietnam all evacuation helicopters, with the exception of those of the 1st Cavalry Division, known as Medevac, assumed the call sign DUSTOFF, followed by a numerical designation. Though other call signs regularly changed, both ground and aviation units refused to refer to these evacuation helicopters by any other call sign. By adopting DUSTOFF in those early stages of the Vietnam War, the legend was born. The call sign DUSTOFF, now synonymous with lifesaving Aeromedical evacuation, has taken on added meaning with the application of the Association's motto: 'Dedicated Unhesitating Service to Our Fighting Forces.'

The source of that boundless bravery is motivation, according to retired Major General Patrick Brady, a DUSTOFF Hall of Fame inductee and Medical of Honor recipient. 'DUSTOFF crews save lives. When you're engaged in saving a life, therešs a special motivation there. Knowing that the injured person on the battlefield is father, son, husband, brother, you go after him as you would want someone to come after you or one of yours. It's personal,' Brady said. When combat troops are ordered to take a hill or some other strategic objective, the options are weighed, and if the engagement appears more costly in lives or equipment than the probability of success, they regroup and try something else. Brady noted that for DUSTOFF, there is no option, even though that means landing in the middle of boiling turmoil in the most intense part of the battlefield.

'When DUSTOFF is called, you can't not do it when somebody is hurt. You've got to give it everything youšve got because you're saving a life. It's just that simple. Therešs no mission more noble, nothing more motivating. To overcome obstacles of enemy, terrain, and weather to get the wounded and get them to a hospital‹ - you can't match that in life - the feeling of doing the best you can and the result being the saving of a human life. Thatšs what motivates DUSTOFF. You just do it,' Brady said.