“‘I couldn’t believe that anybody was brave enough or crazy enough to come down on the ground with all the firing going on… Even though there was 700 guns firing at the same time, it was to him like nothing was going on. Like nothing could hurt him. He came there to save lives and that was what he was doing.’”
- Fred Navarro, a man whose life William Pitsenbarger saved -
(Photo courtesy of the Piqua Public Library History Department)
William H. Pitsenbarger:
A Hero of Piqua and America
By Judy Deeter
PIQUA - On December 8, 2000 a very important ceremony was held at the Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton. The ceremony was so important that top military officials came from Washington, D.C. to attend.
On that day, the Medal of Honor was presented to William F. Pitsenbarger for the courageous military service of his deceased son, Airman 1st Class William H. Pitsenbarger, United States Air Force.
Airman Pitsenbarger, an Air Force Pararescue Crew Member, had died in Vietnam decades earlier on April 11, 1966 while rescuing wounded soldiers. Those who knew Pitsenbarger will never forget his courage and willingness to go the “last mile” to save a soldier.
A Piqua Native
Pitsenbarger, a Piqua native, was born to William F. and Irene Pitsenbarger on July 8, 1944. When he was 17, he wanted to drop out of school—Piqua Central High School—to become a Green Beret. His parents, however, convinced him to finish his studies; he graduated in the class of 1962. He enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in December 1963 and went to Lackland Air Force Base in Texas for basic training. When his basic training was complete, he volunteered for Air Force Pararescue duty. He was chosen for pararescue duty and sent to several military schools in a variety of locations for further training: survival school, Army Infantry Jump School, Rescue and Survival Technician’s Medical Course, Naval School of Underwater Swimmers and Air Rescue Service Transition Tree Jump Training. He also became qualified as a U.S. Navy Scuba Diver. After his training was completed, he returned to Piqua on leave and then to his first duty assignment at Hamilton Air Force Base in California.
Facing a Bear
His pararescue training was put to the test soon after arriving at Hamilton Air Force Base. He and another pararescuer were asked to find two hunters lost in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. They found the hunters and began to cut a trail down the mountain. At some point during the rescue, they encountered a bear.
According to Pitsenbarger’s Medal of Honor biography, “Pitsenbarger reacted instantly with confidence and courage, charging toward the bear and yelling as if enraged. The frightened bear performed an about-face and fled. San Francisco television stations covered the rescue on the evening news.”
Pitsenbarger received orders to go to Okinawa, but requested his orders be changed to go to Vietnam. This was granted.
In His Element
Pitsenbarger was in his element in Vietnam. He was a Pararescue Crew Member of Detachment 6, 38th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron. In his first eight months in Vietnam, he went on 250 rescue missions. During most of the missions the rescues were conducted under fire from enemy forces. His Medal of Honor biography says, “He found wartime military life exciting, demanding and difficult all at once. According to members of his squadron, Bill enjoyed participating in flights to treat patients at a leper colony in Viet Cong controlled territory.” Once he was lowered from a helicopter to rescue a South Vietnamese soldier in a burning mine field. For his actions, he was given the Airman’s Medal by the United States; South Vietnam gave him the Vietnam Medal of Military Merit and the Vietnam Gallantry Cross with Bronze Palm.
"I Couldn't Believe That Anybody Was Brave Enough, Or Crazy Enough..."
Pitsenbarger’s last, and probably most gallant mission, was on April 11, 1966. On that day, he was aboard a rescue helicopter that was sent to evacuate casualties of a firefight between the Army’s 1st Infantry Division and Viet Cong enemy forces. The firefight was at Cam My, in the Republic of Vietnam, about 35 miles east of Saigon. One hundred eighty American soldiers on patrol had come upon a much larger force of Viet Cong in a dense jungle area. The surrounded Americans fought for hours and sustained several casualties.
Two helicopters with pararescue personnel were sent to rescue the trapped soldiers, but the helicopter pilots could not land in the aircraft in the jungle. The choppers hovered above the desperate American forces. Rescue personnel on board, the helicopters lowered wire stretchers to the ground to try to pick up wounded men. The wire stretchers, however, kept getting caught in the jungle trees.
(Note: Only the US Air Force HH43 Huskie helicopter could rescue wounded from the jungle. It was the only helicopter equipped with cables and winches that could be lowered into the jungle.)
Pitsenbarger decided that he could speed things up if he could get to the ground. He volunteered to ride a hoist over 100 feet through the jungle and to the jungle floor. Reports say that watching soldiers “were stunned” when they saw Pitsenbarger being lowered to the ground. An ABC News report by John McWethy (December 8, 2000) quotes Fred Navarro, a man whose life Pitsenbarger saved, as saying, “‘I couldn’t believe that anybody was brave enough or crazy enough to come down on the ground with all the firing going on… Even though there was 700 guns firing at the same time, it was to him like nothing was going on. Like nothing could hurt him. He came there to save lives and that was what he was doing.’”
When Pitsenbarger reached the wounded soldiers, he organized their rescue and prepared for them to be transferred to get to the helicopters. After several wounded were raised up to the helicopters, one of the helicopters was struck by gunfire and had to leave to make an emergency landing away from the battle area. Pitsenbarger stayed on the ground to medically care for the remaining wounded.
The American forces, including Pitsenbarger, soon came under sniper fire and mortar attacks from the Viet Cong. They tried to leave the area, but they were attacked by the large Viet Cong force. Pitsenbarger’s Medal of Honor citation says, “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 ammunition (from dead and wounded soldiers) 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 returned fire whenever he could, during which time he was wounded three times.”
Though wounded, he continued his work. He even gave away his own pistol, and did have a firearm to return enemy fire. At some point, a fatal bullet hit him.
Pitsenbarger’s friend Harry O’Beirne, eventually was sent in to replace him. After arriving on the scene, O’Beirne learned of Pitsenbarger’s death. He examined Pitsenbarger’s body and found that he had four wounds. O’Beirne believes Pitsenbarger probably continued giving aid until he was hit the third or fourth time.
First to Receive Honor
Pitsenbarger was given the Air Force Cross for his actions on June 30, 1966. He was the first airman to receive the honor and continues to be remembered for risking his life to save the lives of others.
Along with the being the recipient of the Medal of Honor (posthumously) he has been honored several times. Some honors can be seen by the public.
A 67-acre sports complex in Piqua has been named the Pitsenbarger Sports Complex (Pitsenbarger was a wrestler at Piqua Central High School), and two Ohio Historical Society markers tell his life story.
In 2004, an Ohio Historical Society marker honoring Pitsenbarger was placed along Riverside Drive (State Route 66 at Broadway). It was erected by the Piqua Area Chamber of Commerce and the Ohio Historical Society. It is next to the Piqua Veterans Memorial.
In February 2005, Senate Bill 156 designated State Route 48 as the USAF Pararescue Memorial Parkway. The roadway honors four local USAF Pararescuemen who died in battle. A marker honoring the men is along State Route 48 just north of Covington. It was placed by “The Valley of the Jolly Green Giants” and the Ohio Historical Society. Three of the men died in Vietnam and one in the Gulf War. Along with Pitsenbarger, the men honored on the sign are: Msgt. Bill McDaniel (Greenville), Sgt. Jim Locker (Sidney) and A1C James Pielman (Russia). The historical marker is on Route 48, north of Covington.
Part of Pitsenbarger uniform is on display in the Southeast Asia Gallery of the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton.
For those whose lives he touched, he will never be forgotten.
Memorial Fund Started for Pitsenbarger Graveside
A 34-year delay in Pitsenbarger receiving the Medal of Honor is the topic of a Hollywood movie that's currently filming called "The Last Full Measure." It stars Grant Gustin as Pitsenbarger, as well, Samuel L. Jackson, Peter Fonda, Alison Sudol, Sebastian Stan and many other A-list actors.
With the spotlight being cast on what the film calls "one of the great untold stories of the Vietnam era," community members in Miami County and beyond are rallying to purchase a memorial to place at Pitsenbarger's graveside at Miami Memorial Park in Covington. To learn more about these efforts, as well as for more information on the man and the film, visit www.mymiamicounty.com/pits.