Do you know the name William H. Pitsenbarger? He’s the young guy pictured above, the good looking kid who looks like he’s barely old enough to vote. If you don’t know about him you should because his is an inspiring story of selflessness and heroism.
He was a US Air Force Pararescueman who flew on more than 250 missions during the Vietnam War, helping scores of downed soldiers and pilots.
On one of his best known missions, he hung from an HH-43 Huskie helicopter’s cable to rescue a wounded South Vietnamese soldier from a burning minefield. This action earned him the Airman’s Medal and the Republic of Vietnam’s Medal of Military Merit and Gallantry Cross with Bronze Palm.
On April 11, 1966, he was sent into a battle near Cam My to extract wounded Army members. He attended to wounded on the ground and helped six men be lifted into two helicopters by cable. Those choppers flew wounded men to a nearby aid station but took on small arms fire when they returned for a second load. One damaged chopper sent a basket down for Pitsenbarger but he waved them off, instead choosing to stay and help the wounded Charlie Company, gather ammunition from the dead, and improvise splints and stretchers from vines and trees to help the wounded.
And when necessary, he picked up a rifle, helping to hold off the Viet Cong. He died by sniper fire that night. When his body was recovered the following day, he was still clutching a medic kit and a rifle.
While the 21 year old did not live to see the sun rise over a new day, the military says that sixty others did because of his courageous actions.
One of the reasons places like the National Museum of the US Air Force means so much to me is that they help keep alive stories that would otherwise be lost to time.
The museum tells his story with photos, a short video, the written word and some of the young Airman’s possessions and they do it beautifully. It was meaningful enough to me that I wanted to tell you about him.
Anyone who would wave off a chopper to safety in favor of staying with a unit that was pinned down and in grave danger doesn’t do that sort of thing to have their picture in a museum. But having a display dedicated to his actions is a reminder of the brave sacrifices made by countless young men in Vietnam. It’s a poignant reminder that life isn’t fair and that young men, even the brave and strong, too often don’t come home from war.
It’s also a subtle reminder of those who did make it home but who brought with them emotional baggage far heavier than the weapons and ammo they carried through the jungles of that place so far away.
This story, if told in a school text book would have a picture of a guy in uniform next to a story that basically says “there was a battle and people got hurt and this guy went in to save them. He died. The end.”
There was so much more to Airman Pitsenbarger. He was an only child who wanted to be a Green Beret when he was a high school junior. His parents wouldn’t give permission for their underaged son to join the Army. His pals called him Pits. His birthday was July 8, 1944.
Airman First Class Pitsenbarger was from Piqua, Ohio and he volunteered for the very dangerous pararescue work. He volunteered to go to Vietnam. He volunteered to stay when he knew his odds of survival were slim.
Had he lived, Pits would be 76 years old today. He might’ve had grandkids sitting on his knee at this very moment. Instead, he was posthumously promoted to Staff Sargent and awarded the Air Force Cross even though his superiors put in for the Medal Of Honor. It took another 35 years before his family and other Airmen looked on as that original award was upgraded to the Medal of Honor.
A movie was made about him and released in January. Perhaps you’ve seen it? I have not. It’s called “The Last Full Measure.”
His story is still taught to Air Force trainees and I hope that never changes. If you go to the Air Force Museum, look him up and watch his video. Look at his things and say his name as you hope that someday young people can stop dying in wars.