It was July 3rd 1951. The war had been raging on for a little over a year at this point and the stalemate along the 38th parallel was just beginning. Lieutenant Junior Grade John K Koelsch was aboard an old LST that was serving as the floating base for his helicopter squadron, Helicopter Utility Squadron 2 (Hu-2). That is when he heard the call over the radio. There was a Marine Aviator down behind enemy lines. The Marine was forced to bail out after his plane was badly damaged 35 miles south of Wonson, firmly inside the boundaries of North Korea. LTJG Koelsch wasted no time in volunteering to mount a rescue mission that would most certainly put his own life in danger.
Commissioned in 1944, LTJG Koelsch was originally trained as a torpedo bomber pilot during WW2. Koelsch was trained as a helicopter pilot in 1949 and learned to fly the HO3S-1. He had completed a combat tour in the Korean war already before requesting reassignment to HU-2 as a rescue pilot in 1951.
Just before sunset on that fateful day in July of 1951 LTJG Koelsch and his rescue crewman, AD3 George M Neal, boarded their helicopter and headed out for their mission. Thick clouds and overcast skies forced the pair to fly very low as they approached the area where they suspected the downed pilot to be. Koelsch was flying at an altitude of just 50 feet when the pair spotted the downed pilot. Under heavy gunfire LTJG Koelsch was forced to briefly leave the area before returning to complete the rescue mission. LTJG Koelsch and his crewman were able to lower a rescue harness to the injured pilot and raise him aboard the helicopter.
Disaster struck shortly after the downed pilot was brought aboard. The helicopter, which had been sustaining enemy fire for some time at this point, finally went down hard into the mountainside. LTJG Koelsch and AD3 Neal were unhurt in the crash and the rescued Marine aviator suffered no new injuries.
The three men suddenly found themselves far behind enemy lines in an area heavily infested with North Korean soldiers. LTJG Koelsch was able to lead the party East, towards the coast, and evade the enemy for 9 days. The three men were eventually captured and imprisoned by North Korean forces. LTJG Koelsch refused to cooperate with his captors. He was kept in isolation and eventually tortured before falling ill and dying after three months on October 16th 1951.
He was only 27 years old.
For his actions during the rescue attempt on July 3rd 1951, the 9 day evasion of the enemy that followed, and his time as a POW, LTJG Koelsch was awarded the Medal of Honor. He was the first helicopter pilot to be awarded our nation’s highest military honor. The citation reads as follows:
“For conspicious gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving with a Navy helicopter rescue unit. Although darkness was rapidly approaching when information was received that a Marine aviator had been shot down and was trapped by the enemy in mountainous terrain deep in hostile territory, he voluntarily flew a helicopter to the reported position of the downed airman in an attempt to effect a rescue. With an almost solid overcast concealing everything below the mountain peaks, he descended in his unarmed and vulnerable helicopter without the accompanying fighter escort to an extremely low altitude beneath the cloud level and began a systematic search. Despite the increasingly intense enemyfire, which struck his helicopter on one occasion, he persisted in his mission until he succeded in locating the downed pilot, who was suffering from serious burns on his arms and legs. While the victim was being hoisted into the aircraft, it was struck again by an accurate burst of hostile fire and crashed into the side of a mountain. Quickly extricating his crewmen and the avitor from the wreckage, he led them from the vicinity in an effort to escape from hostile troops, evading the enemy for nine days and rendering such medical attention as possible to his severely burned companion until all were captured. Lieutenant (jg) Koelsch steadfastly refused to aid his captors in any manner and served to inspire his fellow prisoners by his fortitude and consideration for others. His great personal valor and heroic spirit of self-sacrifice throughout sustain and enhance the finest tradition of the United States Naval Service."
The readiness to sacrifice life and limb to save the life of a brother in arms was not uncommon during the Korean War. Stay tuned to this blog to read more stories about the men who fought to save Korea. The Battleship IOWA lives on today as a memorial to all of the men and women who served in the US Navy. IOWA’s latest project to acquire a Korean War helicopter in order to better share the stories of valiant Navy Aviators like LTJG Koelsch can be supported by following this link- https://www.gofundme.com/2nwdpzfv/ . Please consider supporting IOWA’s latest campaign to tell the stories of the Korean War.