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Obama presents Vietnam veteran Charles Kettles with Medal of Honor

Obama awards Vietnam vet Charles Kettles with Medal of Honor 01:43

WASHINGTON -- Nearly five decades after helping rescue dozens of American soldiers pinned down by enemy fire, a Vietnam War veteran is receiving the nation's highest military honor for valor.

Vietnam War vet Charles Kettles on what the Medal of Honor means 01:36

President Barack Obama awarded the Medal of Honor to retired Lt. Col. Charles Kettles of Ypsilanti, Michigan during a ceremony Monday at the White House.

Kettles led helicopter flights carrying reinforcements to U.S. soldiers and evacuated the wounded after they were ambushed in combat operations near Duc Pho in May 1967.

Kettles repeatedly returned to a landing zone under heavy fire. He is credited with helping to save 40 soldiers and four members of his unit. During the final evacuation effort, he was advised that eight soldiers had been unable to reach the helicopters, so he returned without benefit of artillery or tactical aircraft support.

Lt. Col. Charles Kettles received the Medal of Honor for his service in the Vietnam War. Charles Kettles

The Army said his helicopter was hit by a mortar round that damaged the main rotor blade and shattered both front windshields. Small arms and machine gun fire also raked the helicopter.

"In spite of the severe damage to his helicopter, Kettles once more skillfully guided his heavily damaged aircraft to safety," the Army said in describing his actions. "Without his courageous actions and superior flying skills, the last group of soldiers and his crew would never have made it off the battlefield."

US President Barack Obama presents the Medal of Honor to retired US Army Lt. Colonel Charles Kettles during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House on July 18, 2016 in Washington, DC. MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

When Mr. Obama recounted Kettles' accomplishments Monday, the president jokingly noted, "you couldn't make this up."

"This is like a bad Rambo movie," he added.

Chalres Kettles

The Veterans History Project launched a formal campaign to upgrade Kettles' Distinguished Service Cross for his actions that day to the Medal of Honor. After the Pentagon agreed his actions merited an upgrade, Congress passed legislation waiving a time limitation for the award, and paving the way for Obama's action.

Kettles, for his part, remains humble about his achievements.

Of receiving the Medal of Honor, Kettles told CBS News' David Martin in an interview that "it's more a recognition of the entire 74 helicopter crew members."

"As far as I'm concerned, it belongs to them," he said. "Not to me."

"Now, it can only be presented to one person and that happens to be me in this case," Kettles added. "Each of those who are still above ground - who had a part in it - it belongs to them. "

CBS News' Mary Walsh contributed to this report.

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