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First Name: John

Last Name: Koelsch

Birthplace: London, GBR

Gender: Male

Branch: Navy (present)


Middle Name: Kelvin

Date of Birth: 22 December 1923

Date of Death: 16 October 1951

Rank or Rate: Lieutenant (junior grade)

Years Served: 1942 — 1951
John Kelvin Koelsch

•  Korean War (1950 - 1953)


John Kelvin Koelsch
Lieutenant Junior Grade, U.S. Navy
Medal of Honor Recipient
Korean War

John Kelvin Koelsch was born on 22 December 1923. Koelsch joined the U.S. Naval Reserve as an Aviation Cadet on 14 September 1942 and was commissioned as an Ensign on 23 October 1944 after completing flight training. During the next few years, he served at Naval Air Stations at Fort Lauderdale, FL, and Norfolk, VA, and subsequently flew with Composite Squadron 15 and Torpedo Squadrons 97 and 18. Promoted to Lieutenant (Junior Grade) on 1 August 1946, he became an accomplished torpedo bomber pilot. After the outbreak of Communist aggression in Korea, he joined Helicopter Squadron 1 (HU-1) at Miramar, CA, in August 1950. As Officer in Charge of a helicopter detachment, he joined USS Princeton (CV-37) in October for pilot rescue duty off the eastern coast of Korea. He served in Princeton until June 1951 when he joined Helicopter Squadron 2 (HU-2) for pilot rescue duty out of Wonsan, Korea, then under naval blockade. He provided lifeguard duty for pilots who were downed either in coastal waters or over enemy-held territory. On 22 June, he rescued a Naval aviator from the waters of Wonsan Harbor, southeast of Yo Do Island.

Lieutenant (Junior Grade) John Kelvin Koelsch was awarded America's highest military decoration - the Medal of Honor - for his heroic actions on 3 July 1951. He was the first helicopter pilot to be awarded the Medal of Honor.

TIME Magazine Article: Monday, 15 August 1955 HEROES: Chopper Pilot

At Fort Lewis, Wash, last week, Marine Captain James V. Wilkins recalled an experience he had had in Korea. "On July 3, 1951," he said, "I was flying a Corsair with my squadron along the east coast of Korea, 15 miles inland and about 20 miles south of Wonsan. We ran into heavy ground fire from a road reconnaissance outfit; my plane was hit and began smoking heavily. I bailed out at 800 feet and landed on the inland side of a small bowl east of the main supply route. The North Koreans were lined up on the road, firing away. A half-hour later-it was late afternoon now-a solid overcast blew in from the ocean and completely covered the mountains. The minute that happened, I took and went up the mountain." "There He Goes." Meanwhile, intelligence of Captain Wilkins' plight flashed back to naval headquarters at Wonsan Harbor, and Navy Lieut, (j.g.) John Kelvin Koelsch, a 27-year-old helicopter pilot from Hudson, N.Y., volunteered to try a rescue. It was the sort of mission Koelsch liked: he had voluntarily passed up rotation home after a long tour of combat duty because he felt that his rescue work was urgently needed. In the gathering dusk Lieut. Koelsch and his crewman, Aviation Machinist's Mate George M. Neal, took off, without fighter escort, to look for Wilkins.

"A little while later I heard a putt-putt-putting," Wilkins continued, "and I realized it was a chopper. So I scrambled back down the mountain to my parachute. I got down into the bowl just as the chopper was finishing its first search of the area, flying at about 50 feet. He was way out near the main road, and I figured, there he goes, because the ground fire was thicker than the overcast." A burst of ground fire rocked the helicopter, but Lieut. Koelsch managed to keep it under control. "I figured he would surely back out," said Wilkins. "Then, by the Lord, he made another turn back into the valley a second time. It was the greatest display of guts I've ever seen."

On his second pass Koelsch spotted Wilkins. "He dropped the sling and I got into it. The North Koreans had every damn gun they had firing. Frankly, it was so bad I would rather have taken my chances at staying on the ground . . ." When Wilkins was dangling about three feet off the ground, another blast of Communist fire struck the hovering whirlybird and it crashed to the ground. "The chopper's door opened, and I saw Jack Koelsch and George Neal hanging upside down in their belts. 'Are you O.K.?' I yelled at them. 'Never mind that,' Jack answered. 'Are you O.K.?'"

Wilkins was burned on the legs and his left knee was twisted, but he managed to wriggle free of the wreckage. The three men headed for the mountain.

"Won't You Come In?" After three days a Korean reconnaissance patrol came up the mountain, looking for the three. "We decided we'd better get the hell out of there on foot," Wilkins continued. "We got to the coast in seven days, moving mostly at night. We hadn't had anything to eat in nine days, and damned little to drink." At dusk they sneaked into an abandoned bombed-out house near a fishing village. "Jack took the watch, and Neal and I sacked out. We were there about three hours, and I was half-dozing, when suddenly I heard Jack say in a perfectly normal voice: 'How do you do. Won't you come in?' "

Their callers were Communist soldiers, who promptly sprayed the house with machine-gun fire. The three Americans decided to surrender. "They tied us up and marched us through town, with all the civilians shouting threats and throwing things at us, to a headquarters. During all this time, Jack was constantly pointing out my burns to the Koreans and insisting that I needed hospitalization. I had maggots in my legs, and they looked pretty bad. So finally they gave me two guards and moved me out. I never saw Jack again."

Both Captain Wilkins and Machinist's Mate Neal survived their ordeal as captives and were repatriated. But three months after Wilkins last saw the man who saved him, Jack Koelsch died of malnutrition and dysentery in a Korean P. W. camp. His valor was not forgotten. Last week, in a ceremony at the Pentagon, he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, the first helicopter pilot in history to win his country's highest decoration.

Medal of Honor

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving with a Navy helicopter rescue unit in North Korea on 3 July 1951. 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, Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Koelsch 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 aircraft without the accompanying fighter escort to an extremely low altitude beneath the cloud level and began a systematic search. Despite the increasingly intense enemy fire, which struck his helicopter on one occasion, he persisted in his mission until he succeeded in locating the downed pilot, who was suffering from serious burns on the 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 on the side of the mountain. Quickly extricating his crewmen and the aviator from the wreckage, Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Koelsch led them from the vicinity in an effort to escape from hostile troops, evading the enemy forces for 9 days and rendering such medical attention as possible to his severely burned companion until all were captured. Up to the time of his death while still a captive of the enemy, Lieutenant (Junior Grade) 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 traditions of the United States naval service.

Other Medals

In addition to the Medal of Honor, Koelsch was awarded the Purple Heart.


The destroyer escort USS Koelsch (DE-1049), later reclassified as a frigate (FF-1049) was named in his honor.

Death and Burial

Lieutenant (Junior Grade) John Kelvin Koelsch died as a Prisoner of War on 16 October 1951. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, VA. His grave can be found in Section 30, Grave 1123-RH, Map Grid V/U 36.5.

Honoree ID: 1188   Created by: MHOH




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