Saturday, September 22, 2018

Who They Are, Part V - The Enlisted

Left to right - CMSgt Duane D. Hackney, USAF. SSgt William H. Pitsenbarger, USAF. CMSgt Richard L. Etchberger, USAF.
Truth be told, I get teary eyed when I look at the pictures of these three men. They epitomize everything that is noble and right with the Air Force. While they seem to be few and far between these days, there are folks just like them still on active duty, still fighting the good fight. They shall have my gratitude forever.

Why teary-eyed Sarge?

I wore the same uniform they did, went through some of the same training they did, ate the same chow, marched under the same hot sun at Lackland AFB, TX. In a very deep sense, they are my brothers. I didn't serve with them, but I served with guys like them. The enlisted folks are the people who get the work done in all of the services. The sergeants make sure of that.

I've written about Chief Hackney before, here and here (the second is one of my favorite Friday Flybys). He is the most highly decorated enlisted man to ever wear the Air Force blue. Might be a while before anyone passes that. You can see the Chief's awards and decorations here.

Sadly Chief Hackney didn't really get to enjoy his well-deserved retirement, he died two years after retiring of a heart attack. He was only 46 years old.

RIP Chief Hackney...

We've met SSgt Pitsenbarger (the promotion was posthumous) before, Juvat wrote about him here. He, like Chief Hackney, was a pararescueman, or PJ as we Air Force types like to call them. (I had a deep cut over my right eye once upon a time, a story I told here. Two PJs sewed me up, and provided running comedic chatter while doing so. Awesome guys. A PJ trained The Nuke at a JROTC summer camp she attended in Germany. She was impressed.)

He was one Hell of a warrior...
Flying on almost 300 rescue missions in Vietnam, Bill Pitsenbarger risked his life almost daily during the war rescuing downed soldiers and fliers. On April 11, 1966, the 21-year-old, known as "Pits" to his friends, was killed while defending some of his wounded comrades. For his bravery and sacrifice, he was posthumously awarded the nation's highest military decorations, the Medal of Honor and the Air Force Cross, becoming the first enlisted airman to receive the medals posthumously. (Source)
RIP SSgt Pitsenbarger...

Juvat also told the story of Chief Etchberger's actions which resulted in his death and a posthumous Air Force Cross here, which was later (much later) upgraded to the Medal of Honor. Buck told that tale shortly after it happened, here. (One of the things, there are a few, which the last President got right.)
In the early morning hours of March 11, 1968, the site (Lima Site 85) came under attack from North Vietnamese soldiers who had scaled the surrounding cliffs. By 3 a.m., Etchberger and six others were the only surviving Americans out of the original 19. Etchberger tended to the wounded and fought off the advancing North Vietnamese troops until a rescue helicopter arrived. He then helped load the wounded onto slings to be lifted into the hovering aircraft before coming aboard himself. As the helicopter headed towards an air base in Thailand, an enemy soldier below fired his AK-47 into the underside of the aircraft, fatally wounding Etchberger.

John Daniel had been shot twice in the legs and was taking shelter amidst the bodies of other casualties when Etchberger recovered him and fitted him into the helicopter sling. Upon regaining consciousness and learning that Etchberger himself had been killed, Daniel voiced his disbelief: "Hell, he hasn't been injured, he hasn't been shot. How is he dead?" Decades later, when Etchberger was awarded the Medal of Honor, Daniel, in an interview with Stars and Stripes, suggested: "It should have happened 42 years-plus ago, and he should have gotten a damn 55-gallon drum full of them if he wanted them." (Source)
Killed in action just 6 days past his 35th birthday.

RIP Chief Etchberger...

There are many heroes who wore stripes who deserve to be up there on the masthead, these three must represent them all. I get pretty choked up thinking of those guys...


This long black wall is somber, true. 
Name after name of those who died for you, 
And as I sit and weep beneath a tree 
I hear them scream, 'REMEMBER ME'.

I touch the granite stone.  It's cold. 
Their average age was but twenty years old. 
They hardly left their mother's knee! 
"Remember me.  PLEASE,  remember me".

Vietnam was so very far away. 
Their call was duty, not for play. 
Our country had a pledge to keep. 
They answered it.  We stayed to weep.

I reach to touch each name I can. 
Some left, a boy; returned a man. 
The others are upon this wall I see 
I hear them whisper, "Remember me".

--Esther B. (Campbell) Gates


  1. God bless those warriors....... got dusty here reading "Remember Me".......good post Sarge.

    1. Ran across that poem at Arlington's website. They have a whole section devoted to poetry. Don't go there without a large box of tissues.

      Thanks Nylon12.

  2. Thanks Sarge. Remember, and honor, I do.

  3. Dunno if its been declassified yet, but if anyone can get their hands on the CIA debrief/afteraction rpt on the STOL/LIMA site 85 action it makes for more hair-raising reading than even one can imagine. Based on my reading of that document I would've awarded EVERYONE involved the AF Cross at minimum.

    1. PS That CIA rpt as been around for a long time and was widely disseminated. I remember reading it in the 78thTFS intel vault @ RAF Woodbridge as far back a 1971..

    2. It looks like that report (declassified in 1995 from the look of it) has been reproduced on the CIA's website. I haven't had a chance to go through the whole thing yet. It can be accessed here.

      I plan on giving that a thorough read.

    3. Concur on the valor of those involved.

    4. Thanks, VX, for stimulating OldAFS' search-fu and getting him to find that report.

      Well, actually... Thanks, VX, for being you. After the great re-read of all the posts (I'm up to Nov 2017) your thought provoking and on target comments have added greatly to the, well, greatness of this whole blog. Thanks for being such a great Chanter, and for being such a great guy. I don't think I've ever told you how much you remind me of the guys my dad hung around with and I got to listen to. Thanks for that. Brings back good memories that have helped through troubled times.

      Oh, to be able to sit in the corner like I used to and listen to you talk about the things you did and do. That's where I learned to imitate a gargoyle, being still and quiet listening to great people talk about everything.

    5. Beans - If you chase through the Wayback Machine for Lex's old posts, VX was a long time commenter over there.

  4. You need a Kleenex alert symbol on some posts...or else my allergies are REALLY acting up...

    One of the items on my "bucket list" is to go to DC and see The Wall. Had 3 uncles in the military, 1 was stationed in Germany, 2 of whom fought in Nam. We were lucky as all 3 came back physically, although 1 had serious mental health issues the rest of his life, and, I believe, he died of complications from Agent Orange exposure.

    Thank you again for posting this series. It is items like these that help keep their memories green in our memory so they are not ever forgotten.

    1. The Wall. I've been there, it's sobering.

      My oldest brother-in-law fought in Vietnam, White Horse Division. Agent Orange is slowly killing him. He spends a LOT of time in hospital. The Vietnam vets, they are all heroes in my book.

  5. This is a good and noble project of yours, this header and telling us who they are. All great men, who under extreme heat and pressure, forged a better world.

    And also for finding the poem and linking to the site of said poem. Going to be a tough day reading today (along with the AAR report, too.)

    1. Yeah, that Arlington poetry site is gold. Sad, but uplifting as well.

    2. Looks like a good site to dip into on a rainy afternoon.

  6. Day-um.....awfully dusty in here today.....


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