After visiting Lackland and pondering why I didn't recognize the majority of the names on the Air Force Medal of Honor monument on the parade field there, I decided that I would do a few posts on Air Force Medal of Honor Recipients. I also decided to focus on the ones that weren't as famous as Richard I Bong or Eddie Rickenbacker. Along those lines, in this post, I'll point you to the story of the lowest ranking Air Force Medal of Honor Recipient, Airman 1st Class William H. Pitsenbarger.
Here's his citation:
"For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. Airman First Class Pitsenbarger distinguished himself by extreme valor on 11 April 1966 near Cam My, Republic of Vietnam, while assigned as a Pararescue Crew Member, Detachment 6, 38th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron. On that date, Airman Pitsenbarger was aboard a rescue helicopter responding to a call for evacuation of casualties incurred in an ongoing firefight between elements of the United States Army's 1st Infantry Division and a sizeable enemy force approximately 35 miles east of Saigon. With complete disregard for personal safety, Airman Pitsenbarger volunteered to ride a hoist more than one hundred feet through the jungle, to the ground. On the ground, he organized and coordinated rescue efforts, cared for the wounded, prepared casualties for evacuation, and insured that the recovery operation continued in a smooth and orderly fashion. Through his personal efforts, the evacuation of the wounded was greatly expedited. As each of the nine casualties evacuated that day was recovered, Airman Pitsenbarger refused evacuation in order to get more wounded soldiers to safety. After several pick-ups, one of the two rescue helicopters involved in the evacuation was struck by heavy enemy ground fire and was forced to leave the scene for an emergency landing. Airman Pitsenbarger stayed behind on the ground to perform medical duties. Shortly thereafter, the area came under sniper and mortar fire. During a subsequent attempt to evacuate the site, American forces came under heavy assault by a large Viet Cong force. When the enemy launched the assault, the evacuation was called off and Airman Pitsenbarger took up arms with the besieged infantrymen. He courageously resisted the enemy, braving intense gunfire to gather and distribute vital ammunition to American defenders. As the battle raged on, he repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire to care for the wounded, pull them out of the line of fire, and return fire whenever he could, during which time he was wounded three times. Despite his wounds, he valiantly fought on, simultaneously treating as many wounded as possible. In the vicious fighting that followed, the American forces suffered 80 percent casualties as their perimeter was breached, and Airman Pitsenbarger was fatally wounded. Airman Pitsenbarger exposed himself to almost certain death by staying on the ground, and perished while saving the lives of wounded infantrymen. His bravery and determination exemplify the highest professional standards and traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, and the United States Air Force."
As I read through that, I thought to myself, how could I NOT have known about him? Then I looked at the date the Medal was awarded, December of 2000. I'd been out of the AF for a couple of years, still trying to get situated in my civilian life. I'll cut myself some slack on this one.
Anyhow. Googling his name, got me to this site. It's a detailed interview of the survivors of the firefight and their description of AIC Pitsenburger's (Pits) actions. You're going to have to go and read that one yourself. There is no way, short of cutting and pasting the entire article, that can capture the detail therein. As Sarge says, I'll wait.
If that didn't bring tears to the eyes and chill to the bones, I don't know what would.
To me, this said it all
"...Pitsenbarger’s descent into the firefight ‘was the most unselfish and courageous act I ever witnessed. I think of him often now,’ he added. ‘That thing never leaves my mind totally. He did actually give up his life for guys on the ground that he didn’t even know. And he didn’t have to be there. I know he made the conscious decision to stay there.’Salem said that Pitsenbarger had volunteered to go to the ground because the soldiers were having trouble putting a wounded man into the wire basket to be lifted out. The helicopter pilot recalled telling Pitsenbarger that he could leave the chopper only if he agreed that, when given a signal, he would return to the aircraft. ‘As we were [getting in position], I said, ‘Pits, it’s hotter than hell down there; do you still want to go down?’ He said, ‘Yes sir, I know I can really help out.’ He made a hell of a difference. We ended up getting nine more out after he got on the ground. He is the bravest person I’ve ever known,’ Salem said."
So, why did it take 34 years for this hero to receive the recognition that he obviously truly deserved? Interservice rivalry? Politics? Standard Bureaucrat mindset? who knows. I'm just glad it happened.
I stand in awe.
*The title is a quote from Stephen Ambrose that I find particularly appropriate to the subject of this post.