Kennedy, Leland T.

Leland “Lee” T. Kennedy, Colonel, USAF (Retired)
January 01, 1934 – December 28, 2003

Leland “Lee” T. Kennedy was born on January 1, 1934, in Louisville, Kentucky to Edith and William Kennedy. He graduated from the University of Kentucky, Lexington, in 1955, and during college was a member of ROTC and Kappa Sigma fraternity.

He was commissioned through the Air Force ROTC program at the University of Kentucky on May 30, 1955, and went on active duty beginning August 31, 1955. Lt. Kennedy completed Undergraduate Pilot Training at Vance AFB, Oklahoma, and was awarded his pilot wings in November 1956 and then completed helicopter pilot training in March 1957. He flew SH-19 helicopters at Oxnard AFB, California from March 1957 to March 1959, and then completed Weapons Controller training before serving with the 4640th Support Squadron at Norton AFB, California, from December 1960 to August 1962. His next assignment was as an EC-121 Warning Star pilot with the 963rd Airborne Early Warning and Control Squadron at McClellan AFB, California, from August 1962 to June 1966, with deployments to Southeast Asia in 1965. After completing CH-3C Jolly Green Giant upgrade training, Capt. Kennedy served as an HH-3E rescue helicopter pilot with the Detachment 5, 38th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron at Udorn RTAFB, Thailand, from August 1966 to August 1967, followed by service as a CH-3E pilot with the 1042nd Test Squadron at Dover AFB, Delaware, from August 1967 to July 1970. He next served with the 5040th Helicopter Squadron at Elmendorf AFB, Alaska, from July 1970 to July 1972, and then on the staff of Headquarters Alaskan Command from July 1972 to June 1975. Col. Kennedy served as assistant director of the Region Control Center for the 21st Air Division at Hancock Field, New York, from August 1975 to September 1976, followed by service as assistant deputy commander for operations of the 602nd Tactical Air Control Wing at Bergstrom AFB, Texas, from October 1976 to October 1978. He returned to Elmendorf AFB and served with Headquarters Alaskan Air Command from October 1978 to December 1982, and then served as deputy director and the director for operational plans and support with Headquarters Tactical Air Command at Langley AFB, Virginia, from December 1982 until his retirement from the Air Force on October 1, 1985.

After retirement, Kennedy served his community as a member of the York/Poquoson Social Service Board, and served as Chairman of that organization for three years. In addition, he incorporated his interest in woodworking and miniature ship building into his own business, “Why Knot”, for many years. In recent years, Kennedy joined his love of family and his interest in history by researching the genealogical history of his family. He leaves to cherish his memory his loving bride of almost 50 years, Harriet June, as well as three children, seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Lee Kennedy died on December 28, 2003 in Yorktown, Virginia, and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.


Awards and Citations

Awarded for actions during the Vietnam War


The Air Force Cross is presented to Leland T. Kennedy, Captain, U.S. Air Force, for extraordinary heroism in military operations against an opposing armed force in Southeast Asia on 5 October 1966. On that date, Captain Kennedy, flying as pilot of an unarmed HH-3E rescue helicopter, proceeded deep into hostile territory in attempts to rescue two downed American pilots. Disregarding his own safety, he voluntarily flew through heavy automatic weapons and intense small arms fire to reach the injured airmen. Captain Kennedy succeeded in rescuing one of the downed American; however, heavy ground fire forced him from the area before he could reach the other one. Through his extraordinary heroism, superb airmanship, and aggressiveness in the face of hostile forces, Captain Kennedy reflected the highest credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.

Air Force Cross

Awarded for actions during the Vietnam War


The Air Force Cross is presented to Leland T. Kennedy, Captain, U.S. Air Force, for extraordinary heroism in military operations against an opposing armed force as a HH-3E Helicopter Pilot in Southeast Asia on 20 October 1966. On that date, Captain Kennedy successfully recovered six downed American airmen. Despite the intense, accurately directed, hostile fire which damaged his own unarmed rescue helicopter, Captain Kennedy, with indomitable courage and professional skill, chose to land next to a disabled companion helicopter and retrieve the crew, plus a previously rescued wounded F-4C pilot. With undaunted determination, Captain Kennedy, then amid hostile fire, sought and successfully recovered the second downed F-4C pilot. Through his extraordinary heroism, superb airmanship, and aggressiveness in the face of hostile forces, Captain Kennedy reflected the highest credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.

Awarded for actions during the Vietnam War


The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress July 9, 1918 (amended by an act of July 25, 1963), takes pleasure in presenting the Silver Star to Captain Leland Thornton Kennedy, United States Air Force, for gallantry in connection with military operations against an opposing armed force while serving as Pilot of an HH-3E Rescue Helicopter of Detachment 5, 38th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron, DaNang Air Base, Vietnam, in action in Southeast Asia, on 16 February 1967. On that date, Captain Kennedy, as Rescue Crew Commander of an unarmed HH-3E helicopter, assumed primary recovery responsibility on a downed pilot when another helicopter experienced extensive battle damage and loss of personnel. Without regard for his personal safety and concerned only with saving the life of the survivor, Captain Kennedy committed his aircraft into a box canyon heavily defended by automatic weapons and small arms fire. As he approached a hover near the position of the downed airman, heavy fire raked the aircraft until fuel exhaustion made it necessary to return to a recovery base. By his gallantry and devotion to duty, Captain Kennedy has reflected great credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.

~From: Air Force News~

“No one who was in Southeast Asia during the long course of the Vietnam War will be surprised that, in relation to their number, Air Rescue and Recovery Service (ARRS) crewmen earned more combat decorations than any other group. One of their number, then-Capt. Leland Kennedy, was the first airman to be awarded the Air Force Cross twice. His two awards of the nation’s second highest decoration for valor were for extraordinary heroism in combat missions only 15 days apart. Captain Kennedy had been at Udorn RTAFB, Thailand, with Detachment 5 of the 38th ARRS Squadron only a short time when, on Oct. 5, 1966, he lifted his HH-3E Jolly Green Giant helicopter off the ground to search for an F-4C crew downed along the Black River west of Hanoi. It was a deep penetration–some 300 miles into enemy territory. He was flying backup to Capt. Oliver O’Mara, pilot of the low rescue bird. The F-4 crew was located in a box canyon. Two A-1H “Sandys” made a low pass over the area, drawing no fire. Captain O’Mara dropped into the canyon and lowered his hoist. His helicopter was immediately hit by fire from a ridge 200 yards above the F-4 pilot. Captain O’Mara had to pull out, but he made two more attempts in the badly damaged HH-3E before his hoist was knocked out and he had to head for Udorn. (Captain O’Mara was awarded the Air Force Cross for his part in the mission.) The usual practice was for the secondary helicopter to escort the lead ship home if it was heavily damaged, but Captain Kennedy was asked to return and attempt a pickup. It was his eighth mission and his first actual rescue attempt. On the first pass, his Jolly Green was hit and one of the crew wounded. In spite of the odds against them, Kennedy’s three crewmen joined him in wanting to try again. Four times the HH-3E was driven off by enemy fire, taking more hits on each pass. On the fifth try, with Captain Kennedy holding the aircraft in a hover just off the canyon floor, the crew dropped their hoist to the pilot and reeled him in. Kennedy climbed out of the canyon and flew his tattered chopper back to Udorn. His determination, skill, and sustained heroism were to make him a member of an elite group–only 25 at that time–to earn the Air Force Cross. The mission for which Captain Kennedy was awarded an oak leaf cluster to the Air Force Cross came 15 days later, on Oct. 20. Again he was flying the secondary helicopter in an attempt to rescue an F-4 crew, both of whom had parachuted into trees. The lead helicopter flown by Maj. A.D. Youngblood, dropped its hoist to the pilot, who had strapped himself to a tree. While the downed pilot was hanging half in the hoist, Major Youngblood’s Jolly Green was hit so hard he had to make an emergency landing. Captain Kennedy, descending and dumping fuel to compensate for the added weight of Major Youngblood’s crew and the F-4 pilot, directed Youngblood to a field nearly a mile away. Kennedy had to continue dumping fuel while on the ground–engines running and rotor turning–knowing that vaporizing fuel might blow up the aircraft at any moment. Luck was with them. Major Youngblood’s crew and the rescued pilot climbed aboard, one of them wounded by small arms fire, and Kennedy lifted off with nine men in the helicopter. At that point, an O-1E pilot spotted the second F-4 crewman, still in a tree. As Kennedy hovered to pick him up, enemy soldiers came from the tree line, firing at the HH-3. The F-4 crewman was wounded as he came up the hoist, and Kennedy started for Nakhon Phanom. Then one of the Sandys that had participated in the rescue reported that it was losing power Kennedy escorted the damaged Sandy all the way to a safe landing. It was a great day for an elated Jolly Green crew who saved six fellow Americans from death or the horrors of Hanoi’s prisons. Leland Kennedy, now a retired colonel, flew 99 missions in Southeast Asia for a total of 354 combat hours. Colonel Kennedy spent much of his subsequent career in Alaska before retiring from an assignment as director of Operations Plans at Tactical Air Command headquarters. Like so many other ARRS crewmen, the satisfaction of saving others whose lives were in peril made his combat tour in southeast Asia the high point of an Air Force career. Leland Kennedy was a major player in Southeast Asia rescue operations, called by former Secretary of the Air Force Harold Brown “one of the most outstanding human dramas in the history of the Air Force.” Published February 1992.

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