That others may live

  • Published
  • By Mr. Rick Shea
  • 49th Fighter Wing historian
This is the 3rd article in a series of Air Force enlisted heritage.

"It is my duty, as a member of the Air Rescue Service, to save life and aid the injured. I will be prepared at all times to perform my assigned duties quickly and efficiently, placing these duties before personal desires and comforts. These things I do that others may live."

Born July 8, 1944 in rural Pique, Ohio, William Hart Pitsenbarger was raised to honor traditional American values: a sense of community, honesty, self-confidence and integrity.

At the age of 17, Pitsenbarger felt compelled to drop out of high school and join the Green Berets.

"Bill wanted to go where the action was," said his father.

But, the wisdom and persuasive powers of his parents convinced the younger Pitsenbarger to graduate high school, which he did, and then enlisted in the Air Force.

After basic training, Pitsenbarger immediately volunteered for the most rigorous training program offered by the Air Force - Air Force Pararescue duty. Upon graduation and a short trip home to Pique, Pits, as known to friends, arrived at his first duty station, Hamilton Field, Calif. Here his training was immediately put to the test. He and another pararescuer were sent into the rugged Sierra Mountains to find two lost hunters. While cutting a path down the mountain, the pararescuers and hunters came face-to-face with an all too inquisitive bear. Pits reacted instantly, charging toward the bear and yelling as if enraged. The frightened bear did an abrupt about face and fled.

Indicative of his commitment to duty, Pitsenbarger requested a change to his newly received PCS orders assigning him to Okinawa. Pits asked for and received orders to Vietnam. After finishing the last of his training, Pits again took leave and went home. Eerily, Pitsenbarger's parents felt that would be their courageous son's last visit.

In Vietnam, Pits was finally in his element. Having arrived at Bien Hoa, Vietnam on Aug. 8, 1965, Pitsenbarger saw his first combat mission on Sept. 17, 1965. Pitsenbarger spent 275 days in Vietnam and logged over 300 sorties in the HH-43 helicopter. The sortie to days in country ratio was due in large part to a change in United States objectives in regard to the war against communism. Previous policy supported organizing, training and equipping the Army of Vietnam forces, reality was however, that ARVN forces could not defeat the Viet Cong forces without direct U.S. intervention. So, as U.S. military personnel increased, so too, did the number of casualties.

Airman 1st Class Pitsenbarger's greatest challenge began to unfold on April 11, 1966. On back-up alert status that day, Pits and his fellow PJs got the call around 3:00 pm. Their mission - assist Pedro 79 (primary alert HH-43) in rescuing injured soldiers of the Army's 1st Infantry Division, 2nd Battalion, Charlie Company, approximately 45 miles east of Saigon, who had been cut-off and encircled by Viet Cong snipers. A friend of Pitsenbarger's later recalled Pits remarking "I have a bad feeling about this mission."

Snipers presented their own set of problems to a PJ, add to that complications from trees that ranged from 175 to 200 feet tall and the fact that Army Soldiers were not familiar with the stokes litters the PJs used during rescue attempts. While returning for a second mission, concerned Pedro 73 (Pit's HH-43 that day) crew members discussed the long hover times caused by Charlie Company's unfamiliarity with stoke litters and the possibility of ground fire, Pits volunteered to have himself lowered so he could assist with the loading of wounded Soldiers.

Once on the dense jungle floor, Pitsenbarger's presence was immediately felt, as he not only began treating the wounded, he also instructed others as to how to properly load wounded onto the litters. Next up for Pitsenbarger would be Pedro 79, where he expeditiously loaded three litters. After waiting its turn, Pedro 73, Pits' aircraft, moved into position to make the sixth HH-43 recovery and third for Pedro 73. With the litter approximately 10 feet off the ground, everything went awry. Pedro 73 took hits over the entire aircraft. The Viet Cong, turning their attention away, at least momentarily, from Charlie Company, now attempted to shoot down Pedro 73. The aircraft sustained seven holes in the engine itself, as well as, having the throttle jam in the full open position. As the pilot struggled to regain control of his aircraft, two thoughts were foremost in his mind: the first was obviously to stay airborne, while his second thought was to recover Pitsenbarger. After waving off the pilot's hand signal to hoist himself up, Pits remained with the wounded Army Soldiers.

After hearing that Pedro 73 had made it to Binh Ba and was safely on the ground, Pedro 79, knowing there were at least seven more wounded soldiers and Airman Pitsenbarger, headed back to the pick up point. Getting late in the day, Pedro 79 wanted to get the wounded and Pits before it got dark. Situation reports received were all bad, Charlie Company was engaged in extremely heavy fighting and no one was available to provide cover. Reluctantly, the call to abort and return in the morning was made.

Meanwhile, Pits was quickly running out of medical supplies, but alas, he wasn't the only one running low. Engaged in some of the most intensive fighting to this point, Soldiers were quickly running low on ammunition. True to his PJ credo, that others may live, Pits decided to risk his own life in order to re-supply the besieged Soldiers with rifles and ammunition from those who had already died.

Late the following morning, after declaring the previously too-hot-to-attempt air-evac pick up point accessible, it was discovered that Airman Pitsenbarger had sustained four fatal gunshot wounds. The survivors of Charlie Company and the Det 6, 38th Air Rescue & Recovery Squadron, of which Pits was assigned, commander nominated him for the Medal of Honor.

Sadly, Pits had begun making plans to return to Pique, Ohio. He also had applied for admission to Arizona State University where he planned to study nursing. Pits had only four months left of his tour in Vietnam and was ready to return home.

The Medal of Honor nomination was downgraded to our nation's second highest honor - the Air Force Cross and posthumously awarded to Pits' parents on Sept. 22, 1966.

Through the efforts of two Air Force historians, the Air Force Sergeant's Association, Ohio Congressman Boehner and the Pentagon, in April of 1999, Pitsenbarger's Medal of Honor package was re-considered. The Secretary of the Air Force concurred and after Congressional approval, at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, on Dec. 8, 2000, in the largest Medal of Honor ceremony in the history of the award, Airman 1st Class William H. Pitsenbarger posthumously received the medal he deserved.