Ken Harbaugh tells the stories of service members who have distinguished themselves through an act of valor. These stories feature recipients from the Civil War to present day, including a few who were originally overlooked for the medal.
LTJG Koelsch was one of two Navy pilots to receive the Medal of Honor during the Korean War. Flying his helicopter deep into enemy territory, he attempted to rescue a downed Marine pilot and resisted capture after being shot down.
Welcome to the Medal of Honor podcast, brought to you in partnership with the National Medal of Honor Museum. I’m Ken Harbaugh. In each episode, we’ll learn about a different service member who has distinguished him or herself through an act of valor.
Lieutenant (Junior Grade) John K. Koelsch was born on December 22nd, 1923 in London, England. After graduating from a boarding school in Connecticut, he enrolled in Princeton University, but he dropped out and joined the Navy after the United States entered World War II.
Koelsch joined the Naval Reserve as an aviation cadet and was commissioned as an ensign. He was assigned to Torpedo Squadron 18, a.k.a. the Carrier Clowns, as a torpedo bomber pilot and flew helicopters in the Pacific Theater.
Koelsch eventually was promoted to Lieutenant (Junior grade) and returned to the U.S. to finish his college degree. He resumed his education at Princeton and graduated three years later with a degree in English.
In August 1950, Koelsch was assigned to a Helicopter Squadron in Miramar, California and served as the Officer in Charge. He served aboard the USS Princeton as a rescue pilot for eight months, rescuing pilots on the eastern coast of Korea.
On July 3rd, 1951, at 28 years old, Koelsch voluntarily flew an unarmed rescue mission to recover Captain James Wilkins. While conducting reconnaissance as a Marine aviator, Wilkins was shot down 35 miles southwest of Wonsan. He parachuted to safety, but suffered serious burns to his arms and legs.
With night setting in and enemy forces nearby, Koelsch flew to Wilkins’ last reported position and began to search for the Marine as enemy fire increased. Koelsch found the aviator and began to hoist him to the helicopter when enemy fire struck the helicopter, causing it to crash. Koelsch and the aircrew survived, recovered Wilkins, and evaded the enemy for nine days. He was then captured and taken as prisoner of war, but refused to aid his captors. On October 16th, 1951, after three months in captivity, Koelsch died of dysentery and malnutrition in a North Korean prison camp.
Four years later, Koelsch was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his daring rescue attempt and evasion of enemy forces. Secretary of the Navy Charles Thomas presented the award to his mother. Koelsch’s other awards include the Purple Heart, the Prisoner of War Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, and the Korean Service Medal.
Koelsch became the first helicopter pilot to be awarded the Medal of Honor. Captain Wilkins, who survived the prison camp, said of Koelsch’s rescue mission: “It was the greatest display of guts I ever saw,”.
The Medal of Honor Podcast is a production of Evergreen Podcasts.
Nathan Corson is our producer and engineer, León Pescador is our script writer, Declan Rohrs is our script editor and recording engineer, and I’m Ken Harbaugh.
We are proud to support the National Medal of Honor Museum. To learn more, and to support their mission, got to mohmuseum.org. Thanks for listening.