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John Kelvin Koelsch
Lt(jg) John K. Koelsch
Nickname "Jack"
Born (1923-12-22)December 22, 1923
Died October 16, 1951(1951-10-16) (aged 27)
Place of birth London, England
Place of death North Korea
Place of burial Arlington National Cemetery
Allegiance United States
Service/branch United States Navy
Years of service 1942 — 1951
Rank Lieutenant (Junior Grade)
Unit Composite Squadron 15
Torpedo Squadron 97
Torpedo Squadron 18
Helicopter Squadron 1 (HU-1)
USS Princeton (CV-37)
Helicopter Squadron 2 (HU-2)
Battles/wars Korean War
Awards Medal of Honor
Purple Heart

John Kelvin Koelsch (December 22, 1923 – October 16, 1951) was a United States Navy officer and a recipient of America's highest military decoration — the Medal of Honor — for his actions in the Korean War. He was the first helicopter pilot to be awarded the Medal of Honor.


John Kelvin Koelsch joined the U.S. Naval Reserve as an Aviation Cadet on September 14, 1942, and was commissioned as an Ensign on October 23, 1944, after completing flight training. During the next few years, he served at Naval Air Stations at Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Norfolk, Virginia, and subsequently flew with Composite Squadron 15 and Torpedo Squadrons 97 and 18. Promoted to Lieutenant (Junior Grade) on August 1, 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, California, 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 June 22, he rescued a Naval aviator from the waters of Wonsan Harbor, southeast of Yo Do Island.

Late in the afternoon of July 3, 1951, Lt(jg) Koelsch responded to a distress call from a Marine aviator, Capt. James V. Wilkins, whose Corsair had been hit by enemy fire during an armed reconnaissance mission about 35 miles southwest of Wonsan. Capt. Wilkins parachuted from his burning plane at low altitude; and, though severely burned about the legs, he survived. Despite approaching darkness, worsening weather, and enemy ground fire, Lt. Koelsch located the downed aviator in the Anbyon Valley and began his pickup. Thick fog prevented the air cover from protecting the unarmed HO3S helicopter, and intense enemy fire downed the craft as the Lieutenant's crewman, George M. Neal, AM3, hoisted the injured pilot toward the helicopter. All three men survived the crash; and, after hiding in the mountains from enemy patrols for 3 days, they began a slow march to the coast. After 6 more days, they reached a coastal village where they were captured the following day while hiding in a hut. During his captivity, though beaten and abused, Koelsch refused to aid his captors or submit to interrogation. His fortitude and personal bravery inspired his fellow prisoners. John Koelsch died of malnutrition and dysentery on October 16, 1951, while a prisoner of war. On August 3, 1955, Lieutenant (Junior Grade) John Kelvin Koelsch was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in Korea.[1]

He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia. His grave can be found in section 30, grave 1123-RH, Map Grid V/U 36.5.

Medal of Honor citation

Lieutenant (jg) Koelsch's official citation reads:

A light blue neck ribbon with a gold star shaped medallion hanging from it. The ribbon is similar in shape to a bowtie with 13 white stars in the center of the ribbon.
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.


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

See also


 This article incorporates public domain material from websites or documents of the Naval History & Heritage Command.

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