A Camp Pendleton Marine who flew his helicopter for 10 straight hours through oil-blackened skies and enemy groundfire in the Persian Gulf War will be decorated with the prestigious Navy Cross today.
Lt. Col. Michael M. Kurth is credited with helping destroy 70 Iraqi armored vehicles as he maneuvered under high-voltage power lines and dodged anti-aircraft fire.
Kurth said in a telephone interview Thursday that he is unsure why he was singled out to receive the award.
"I was just doing what I get paid to do, what the taxpayers pay me to do," said Kurth, who will receive the cross during a ceremony in Washington. "I'm certainly gratified, but I'm also having a hard time putting it into perspective. I guess I just wish there was a better way to recognize everybody else."
According to his bosses, the 42-year-old led groups of armed gunships to the aid of U.S. forces 10 times in a maneuver that led to the collapse of Iraqi defense forces.
Kurth, a 20-year veteran of the Marines who served as commanding officer of Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 369, is receiving one of the two Navy Crosses awarded for service during the Persian Gulf War.
The Navy Cross is the second highest combat award for heroism in Navy services. Only the Medal of Honor is more prestigious.
On Feb. 26, Kurth led his squadron of helicopters in combat over Kuwait through skies so blackened by oily smoke that he needed special commercial radar and laser equipment to navigate.
Kurth and his squadron, composed of 24 gunships, were providing air support to more than 3,000 ground troops who were on a mission to isolate the Kuwaiti International Airport.
"It's just an amazing feat of courage and airmanship," said Brig. Gen. Thomas V. Draude, assistant commander of the 1st Marine Division from Camp Pendleton during the war. "It's rare, and it's for this reason he's the only Marine aviator to receive the Navy Cross."
Kurth described conditions that day as the worst he has ever seen as the sky went from "deep gray to black."
"The ceiling of smog and smoke mixed together was so low we had to fly under telephone wires and power lines," Kurth said. "But I would have been more scared if I had gone over the telephone wires because . . . if I had lost sight of the ground, then there was no way I would have been able to get back down."
A few months after the war ended, Kurth left Camp Pendleton to attend the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., where he is scheduled to graduate with a master's degree in national security, policy and strategy in June, 1992.
Kurth is a native of Waukegan, Ill., and a graduate of the University of Wisconsin with a degree in English literature. He has also been the recipient of the Meritorious Service Medal, the Navy Commendation Medal and the Air Medal, three times.
Though unsure whether he will return to Camp Pendleton when he graduates, Kurth said his plans include marriage to his fiancee, Debbie J. Scott of Chestwich, Pa.