Wednesday, April 11, 2012

TFH 4/11: A1C William H. Pitsenbarger, USAF

William Hart Pitsenbarger was born July 8, 1944 in Piqua, OH. When he was a junior in high school, he wanted to join the United States Army in hopes of becoming a Green Beret, but his parents denied permission, insisting he stay in school. After graduation, he chose instead to enlist in the United States Air Force and volunteered for training as a Pararescueman.

The Air Force's Pararescue Jumpers ("PJ") are among our military's elite troops. They are trained in combat medicine, parachuting, diving, small unit tactics, weapons, etc. Their job is to rescue friendly forces, such as downed airmen, from the teeth of enemy opposition.

William Pitsenbarger, "Pits" to his comrades, flew over 300 rescue missions with the 38th Aerospace Rescue & Recovery Squadron, Detatchment 6 in Vietnam. Two of those saw him recognized for his conspicuous gallantry. First, on March 7, 1966, he rescued a South Vietnamese soldier from a flaming minefield. Since this rescue didn't involve enemy action, he received the Airman's Medal:

From Military Times' Hall of Valor:

The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, July 2, 1926, takes pleasure in presenting the Airman's Medal to Airman First Class William H. Pitsenbarger (AFSN: 15680744), United States Air Force, for heroism involving voluntary risk of life while assigned as a Pararescue Crew Member, Detachment 6, 38th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron, in action near Bien Hoa Air Base, Republic of Vietnam, on 7 March 1966. On that date, Airman Pitsenbarger was on duty when a helicopter was requested to remove a severely wounded Vietnamese from a burning, uncharted mine field. With complete disregard for his own safety and despite the hazard of being lowered on a concealed mine, Airman Pitsenbarger was voluntarily lowered by hoist to recover the injured man. The exemplary courage and heroism displayed by Airman Pitsenbarger have reflected great credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.

About one month later on April 11, the call for rescue came in from a unit of the Army's 1st Infantry Division. The unit had suffered heavy casualties and the jungle was too thick for the Army's helicopters to land, and they weren't equipped with hoists. Pitsenbarger volunteered to descend to the jungle floor, coordinate the evacuation of the wounded, and then, when the situation became impossible for the helicopters to remain, he joined with his soldier comrades in fighting off the ground attack.

From Medal of Honor Citations for the Vietnam War (M-Z):


The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, March 3, 1863, has awarded in the name of The Congress the Medal of Honor to 


For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. Airman First Class Pitsenbarger distinguished himself by extreme valor on 11 April 1966 near Cam My, Republic of Vietnam, while assigned as a Pararescue Crew Member, Detachment 6, 38th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron. On that date, Airman Pitsenbarger was aboard a rescue helicopter responding to a call for evacuation of casualties incurred in an ongoing firefight between elements of the United States Army's 1st Infantry Division and a sizeable enemy force approximately 35 miles east of Saigon. With complete disregard for personal safety, Airman Pitsenbarger volunteered to ride a hoist more than one hundred feet through the jungle, to the ground. On the ground, he organized and coordinated rescue efforts, cared for the wounded, prepared casualties for evacuation, and insured that the recovery operation continued in a smooth and orderly fashion. Through his personal efforts, the evacuation of the wounded was greatly expedited. As each of the nine casualties evacuated that day was recovered, Airman Pitsenbarger refused evacuation in order to get more wounded soldiers to safety. After several pick-ups, one of the two rescue helicopters involved in the evacuation was struck by heavy enemy ground fire and was forced to leave the scene for an emergency landing. Airman Pitsenbarger stayed behind on the ground to perform medical duties. Shortly thereafter, the area came under sniper and mortar fire. During a subsequent attempt to evacuate the site, American forces came under heavy assault by a large Viet Cong force. 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 vital ammunition 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 return fire whenever he could, during which time he was wounded three times. Despite his wounds, he valiantly fought on, simultaneously treating as many wounded as possible. In the vicious fighting that followed, the American forces suffered 80 percent casualties as their perimeter was breached, and Airman Pitsenbarger was fatally wounded. Airman Pitsenbarger exposed himself to almost certain death by staying on the ground, and perished while saving the lives of wounded infantrymen. His bravery and determination exemplify the highest professional standards and traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, and the United States Air Force.

Later in 1966, Pitsenbarger was awarded the Air Force Cross - below the Medal of Honor - for his courageous acts and sacrifice. Over thirty years later, the Air Force reviewed Pitsenbarger's case, and determined that his Air Force Cross should be upgraded to the higher award. His family received his Medal at the National Museum of the US Air Force on December 8, 2000.

William Pitsenbarger is honored on Panel 06E, Line 102 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. He rests in peace at Miami Memorial Park Cemetery, Covington, OH. The descendant of his Vietnam unit, the 38th Rescue Squadron, continues to stand ready to execute combat rescues as part of the 347th Rescue Group with helicopters, fixed wing aircraft, and PJs from Moody Air Force Base in Georgia.

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