Influenced by a trip to Lackland AFB and viewing a monument to USAF (and it's predecessor organizations) Medal of Honor Recipients, I started researching the stories of those on the monument I didn't know. Today I'll talk about CMSGT Richard L Etchberger. One would have thought that a Medal of Honor awarded to a Chief Master Sergeant would have caught my eye. It certainly did on the monument. The position of the Chiefs name on the monument should have been a clue.
I've mentioned in various posts that I've read Mark Barent's Wings of War series multiple times. While fiction, they were all based on true events. Except one, I thought.
Turns out what I thought was Mr Barent's exception, Eagle Station, was actually based on a true but classified operation. The battle fought in the book actually happened and that battle is where Chief Etchberger earned the Medal of Honor.
From Chief Etchberger's citation
"For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. Chief Etchberger and his team of technicians were manning a top secret defensive position at Lima Site 85 when the base was overrun by an enemy ground force. Receiving sustained and withering heavy artillery attacks directly upon his unit's position, Chief Etchberger's entire crew lay dead or severely wounded. Despite having received little or no combat training, Chief Etchberger single-handedly held off the enemy with an M-16, while simultaneously directing air strikes into the area and calling for air rescue. Because of his fierce defense and heroic and selfless actions, he was able to deny the enemy access to his position and save the lives of his remaining crew. With the arrival of the rescue aircraft, Chief Etchberger, without hesitation, repeatedly and deliberately risked his own life, exposing himself to heavy enemy fire in order to place three surviving wounded comrades into rescue slings hanging from the hovering helicopter waiting to airlift them to safety. With his remaining crew safely aboard, Chief Etchberger finally climbed into an evacuation sling himself, only to be fatally wounded by enemy ground fire as he was being raised into the aircraft. Chief Etchberger's bravery and determination in the face of persistent enemy fire and overwhelming odds are in keeping with the highest standards of performance and traditions of military service. Chief Etchberger's gallantry, self-sacrifice, and profound concern for his fellow men at risk of his life, above and beyond the call of duty, reflect the highest credit upon himself and the United States Air Force."
"The Americans operating the radar that night were killed almost immediately. Etchberger’s team, which was resting nearby, managed to escape the initial slaughter and take cover on a ledge at about 3 a.m. However, the North Vietnamese soon discovered Etchberger and the six Americans who were still alive out of the original 19, and opened fire. Staff Sergeant Henry Gish was shot and wounded; he died after being wounded again a short time later. Technical Sergeant Donald Springsteadah also was hit and killed almost immediately. A third airman, Staff Sgt. John “J.D.” Daniel, was shot in both legs, but was alive. Captain Stanley J. Sliz was wounded and unconscious. As Daniel recalled in a recent interview, “Everybody was either dead or wounded except Dick Etchberger.” Though the Americans were in bad shape, those who still could fought back.
Despite withering artillery fire, Etchberger single handedly held off the attackers with an M-16 as he and the others kicked away the enemy grenades being thrown at them before they could explode. At one point, one fell out of reach for him to push it away with his arms, so Daniel pushed Gish’s dead body onto the grenade to absorb the blast.
Using Daniel’s radio, he and Etchberger directed American A-1E Skyraiders against the enemy. They repeatedly bombed the site and the North Vietnamese attackers. As dawn broke, a CIA-operated UH-1H Huey managed to reach the stranded Americans. Ignoring the hail of enemy bullets pinging all around him, Etchberger carried Daniel to a rescue sling, and then he helped Sliz, who was now awake and sufficiently alert, to get into the helicopter.
Suddenly a fifth American, Staff Sgt. Bill Husband, who had been “playing possum,” jumped up and ran toward the helicopter. Etchberger, who had refused to be evacuated until the others had been rescued, now saved Husband’s life by embracing him in a bearhug, and both men were lifted into the helicopter."Ok, Chief Etchberger is a Radar Operator, not an Infantryman, or even Air Police. He works a Radar. I get how he could probably direct air strikes, since that was what the radar site was doing. But hold off enemy attacks with his M-1 while doing that? I think he probably clanked a bit when he walked.
Two things stand out about this citation both of which have happened in prior postings. Chief Etchberger went above and beyond the call of duty in protecting his men but gets killed at the last moment when victory seems attainable. Rolling the dice and losing in no way denigrates the valor displayed in his actions.
Second, since this Medal was awarded 42 years after the fact, it appears politics again played a role. Either LBJ directly spiked the Medal or influenced the USAF Vice Chief of Staff to spike it, because officially we weren't supposed to have troops in Laos. Since we didn't have troops in country how could we award a MOH for action in that country. Course the North Vietnamese weren't supposed to have troops in country either, but that didn't seem to stop them. Can you politicians please stop playing games that cost good people their lives?
And the answer to that stupid question, Juvat, is no.