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By Christina Coleburn

Nearly 50 years after Lt. Col. Charles Kettles swooped in while flying a bullet-riddled helicopter and saved the lives of dozens of soldiers during the Vietnam War, President Barack Obama awarded the Medal of Honor to the retired soldier in a ceremony at the White House on Monday.

Kettles, who served as a helicopter commander in the Army during the Vietnam War, received the nation's highest military honor for his valor in combat operations in May 1967. He is credited with saving the lives of more than 40 soldiers during an ambush in the Song Tra Cau riverbed.

U.S. Army Maj. Charles Kettles, in front of a 121st Aviation Company UH-1H, during his second Vietnam tour of duty, 1969.Retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Charles Kettles

Those soldiers called Kettles, then 37, "papa". And he told NBC News that he considered them like his children, "great kids".

"They needed guidance," he said.

And on that fateful day they also needed help. The firefight was heavy and his fellow soldiers suffered casualties. So he volunteered to lead a helicopter flight back to the battlefield to help rescue injured personnel and carry reinforcements.

"Kettles refused to depart until all reinforcements and supplies were off-loaded and wounded personnel were loaded on the helicopters to capacity," according to a profile on the Army website. "Kettles led them out of the battle area and back to the staging area to pick up additional reinforcements."

One of the soldiers who was rescued said "Major Kettles became our John Wayne."

"With all due respect to John Wayne," the president said. "John Wayne couldn't do what Chuck Kettles did

Kettles steered his chopper through enemy fire, even as a mortar round shattered the windshield and shrapnel tore through the cockpit. He skidded in to save the soldiers left behind.

The helicopter, loaded down by all of the extra weight, struggled to take off.

So Kettles, "hopped and skipped to pick up enough speed to take off", the president told the gathering.

One of the soldiers fell out of the craft and dangled from the skid as the helicopter fishtailed violently. Kettles navigated through enemy fire and flew all of the soldiers to safety.

"I couldn't make this up," the president joked. "This is like a bad Rambo movie ."

U.S. Army Maj. Charles Kettles (left), standing beside his heavily damaged "Huey" helicopter on return from the May 15, 1967 emergency extraction rescue operationRetired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Charles Kettles

Kettles actions were "the reason (his fellow soldiers) lived and came home and had children and grandchildren, entire family trees made possible by the actions of this one man," Obama said.

Kettles also served in Japan, Korea and Thailand, according to a White House statement.

The president lauded Kettles during the ceremony for a life that is "as American as they come". He described the various roles Kettles has assumed throughout his life — a dutiful son, a devoted husband, a dedicated aviation professor and city councilman and a decorated soldier.

Kettles humbly shared credit for his heroism in a video on the Army's website.
"I didn't do it by myself," he said. "There were some 74 pilots and crew members involved in this whole mission that day, so it's not just me. The medal is not mine. It's theirs."
NBC News contributed.