A1C William Pitsenbarger

Airman 1st Class William Pitsenbarger was awarded the Air Force Medal of Honor posthumously Dec. 8. Pitzenbarger earned the medal during the Vietnam Conflict, for his actions while on a rescue and recovery mission in which he died, April 11, 1966.

'PJ' Community Remembers Fallen Hero, Friend
by Tech. Sgt. Ginger Schreitmueller
Air Force Special Operations Command Public Affairs

12/19/00 - HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. (AFPN) -- For six weeks, Airman 1st Class Ryan Hall spent hours polishing a small bronze plaque outside the Pararescue Indoctrination Course at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas.

The 21-year-old, now assigned to the 23rd Special Tactics Squadron here, first saw the plaque as mere words etched in metal. But, with each touch of the cloth he survived some of the toughest training the Air Force has to offer. Hall began to understand.

It is not solely a memorial in metal -- it is a reflection of one man's unfaltering belief in the simple pararescue creed: "That Other's May Live." The plaque reminds those enduring the course about one of their own -- Airman 1st Class William "Pits" Pitsenbarger Jr.

On April 11, 1966, Detachment 6, 38th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron, out of Bien Hoa, Vietnam, was called in to support a medevac mission. Pitsenbarger, a native of Ohio, was on the second of two HH-43 Huskie helicopters sent in to retrieve the wounded and dead from elements of the Army's 1st Infantry Division, which was surrounded by enemy forces a few miles east of Saigon.

This wasn't a new mission for Pitsenbarger, who was just 21 years old. He had been "in country" since the previous August, and had already seen nearly 300 rescue missions.

Pitsenbarger's crew located the American forces and went in. On scene, Pitsenbarger volunteered to go down the line and administer emergency treatment to the most seriously wounded, and to assist with the extraction of wounded soldiers.

"To put down on paper what that battle was like is an impossible task," said then-1st Lt. Martin Kroah. "At times the small arms fire would be so intense that it was deafening, and all a person could do was get as close to the ground as possible and pray."

As soon as he touched the ground, Pitsenbarger jumped off and began treating the wounded. In the next few hours, the rescue crews made five flights in and out of the area. On the sixth flight, the chopper was hit by enemy fire. The cable holding the stokes litter was cut as the pilot fought to keep the aircraft from crashing into the trees.

Because of heavy enemy fire, and no backup fire support, the choppers were pulled out of the area. Pitsenbarger elected to stay at the battlesite to aid the wounded until reinforcements and artillery could clear the way for additional rescues.

Army Sergeant Fred Navarro, a squad leader with the trapped Charlie Company, remembered watching the Air Force PJ operating under heavy sniper fire.

"(Pitsenbarger) gave his pistol to one of the wounded men who couldn't hold a rifle," Navarro said. "He then took the wounded soldier's rifle and moved from place to place, while under fire. He was collecting ammo from the dead and giving it to the wounded. He went back out, running all around the perimeter collecting ammo. He redistributed ammo to each soldier that was still alive."

After the choppers had returned to Bien Hoa, the word came down that the Army company and Pitsenbarger were moving to another spot, and were OK. Further rescue and extraction was not needed that night. The rescuers waited anxiously for the next day to come so they could go back and retrieve the wounded and bring their fellow PJ back to base. The next morning they found out the company had not moved and the battle was still going on.

Then Airman 1st Class Harry O'Beirne was on the first alert chopper out and, when they arrived on scene, was lowered to the ground to continue evacuation efforts. On the ground, O'Beirne remembers an Army lieutenant who was seriously wounded and saying he needed to be sure someone knew about the heroic actions of the airman, and what he had done for Charlie Company. The story he told would end with the solemn statement, "I'm sorry. Your friend didn't make it."

Somewhere around 7:30 p.m. the night before, Pitsenbarger had been killed. O'Beirne found his friend's body and brought him out of the jungle that day.

"I was very angry. I don't know why, just very angry," O'Beirne said. "You do everything as you're trained to do; it's part of the job. I was stepping over some 81 dead GIs, and about 100 wounded. Later, as you have time to sit around, it hits you."

Of the 180 men that were involved in the firefight, few would escape uninjured.

At a ceremony in the Pentagon, Sept. 22, 1966, Mr. and Mrs. Pitsenbarger were presented their son's Air Force Cross, as well as the Airman's Medal, four Air Medals and the Purple Heart for other missions the young PJ had flown in Vietnam.

Though the Air Force Cross is the highest medal the Air Force can bestow, those who knew him and those who saw what happened that night didn't give up the fight to have the pararescue jumper's memory and actions honored with the Air Force Medal of Honor.

Now, after nearly 35 years, William Pitsenbarger Sr. received his son's Air Force Medal of Honor during a ceremony at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, Dec. 8.

Master Sgt. Scotty Gearen, operations superintendent at the 23rd STS, was among more than 300 "PJs" who attended the ceremony.

"'Pits' lived by the motto," he said, "and has always been our guidepost for courage and devotion to duty. I hope that if I ever find myself in similar circumstances I would have the courage that he displayed."

For those who knew Pitsenbarger, there was never a doubt that his actions that night merited the nation's highest honor.

"He died doing his job," said Dave Milsten, who was the noncommissioned officer in charge of the PJ section at Bien Hoa. "If he would have known the consequences of going down that hoist it wouldn't have slowed him up a bit."

It's that sense of duty and honor, and the chance to help others that Hall said attracted him to the pararescue career field.

Though not a PJ long enough to even get his beret dirty, Hall said he has come to realize the legacy of "Airman 1st Class William 'Pits' Pitsenbarger" is what earns a man the right to wear the distinctive maroon beret of Pararescue.

"You can't ask more from an individual than what Airman Pitsenbarger gave," Hall said. "It changes your perspective about pararescue. It's not a job; it's a way of life. It's not something you can explain; it's personal."

Outside the PJ schoolhouse at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., there is another plaque that echoes the perspective of Hall and other PJs: "For those who've never been there, no explanation is possible. For those who have, no explanation is needed." (Courtesy of Air Force Special Operations Command News Service).