Interestingly John Kelvin Koelsch’s story began in London, England. After spending much of his childhood there, he eventually moved back to the United States, where he was considered a citizen due to his parents’ status there. One he arrived in the United States, he took to studying English at Princeton University.
Koelsch had planned to become a lawyer, but he joined the military during the second world war. At this point, Koelsch enlisted in the U.S. Navy reserves as an aviation cadet. He was known for being a successful torpedo pilot and quickly rose through the ranks. After the war, Koelsch returned to Princeton to finish his degree and continued to serve in the navy thereafter.
Once the Korean war began, he retrained as a helicopter pilot for the Navy, serving on the U.S.S. Princeton.
Alongside being a successful pilot, Koelsch dipped his toes into engineering a bit. This began with altering his own helicopter during the Korean War to be more fit for weather conditions and other hazards. He also made it easier to fly at low elevations, increasing his ability to complete rescue missions successfully. In addition to this, Koelsch invented devices to assists in rescue missions such as slings and floating devices to be used in water.
In 1951, Koelsch’s ship received a distressed call from a marine known as Wilkins who was nearby. His knee was badly injured and severe burns covered more than half of his body. Koelsch’s superiors warned him that this would be a risky mission for several reasons, but he and his co-pilot, George Neal, took off to assist Wilkins anyway.
The pair flew as low as 50 feet above the ground in foggy, mountainous terrain as they searched for Wilkins. Enemy fire and the falling sun made this nearly impossible, but they eventually spotted him. Ignoring enemy fire, Koelsch flew above Wilkins as Neal lowered a hoist to Wilkins.
As they lifted Wilkins into the aircraft, enemy fire reigned, causing the helicopter to crash. Luckily, Koelsch made light of this, executing a controlled crash into a nearby mountain. Koelsch and Neal were not significantly injured and Wilkins was not injured further by the crash.
For 9 days, the trio avoided capture and was eventually found in a North Korean fishing village. En route to the enemy POW camp, Koelsch demanded that their captors provide medical treatment- and they obliged.
After they arrived at the camp, Koelsch chose to share his prisoner rations with those who were ill or injured. He refused to cooperate with his captors and was regularly tortured as a result of this. He was especially outward about his disagreement with the Koreans’ behavior in regards to the Geneva Conventions.
Eventually, Koelsch lost his life as a result of dysentery and malnutrition. His two companions survived the war and went on to attest for his hard work and bravery. Koelsch was awarded a Medal of Honor as a result, and his remains were returned to the United States in 1955. His final resting place is the Arlington Cemetery.