Monday, March 11, 2013

TFH 3/11: Chief Master Sergeant Richard L. Etchberger, USAF

In the 1960s, aerial navigation and accurate, conventional weapons-based, air attacks on enemy targets relied heavily on ground-based navigation aids like Tactical Air Navigation, or TACAN, systems. Today's Global Positioning System (GPS), on which most modern precision-guided munitions rely, was just a dream for the future.

Another such system was the AN/TSQ-81 ground-based bomb direction radar, a development of the AN/MSQ-77 bomb range scoring system. Instead of predicting where a bomb would land after being dropped in practice, the TSQ-81 would predict where an attacking aircraft should drop its ordnance to hit a particular target.

American attack and bombing missions over North Vietnam often faced foul weather and other problems we take for granted in combat today, like simple darkness. They needed additional ground-based TACAN and radar targeting assistance to hit their targets reliably. Their problem? The best location for such a site in 1966-67 was in neutral Laos.

Richard Loy Etchberger was born on March 5, 1933 in Hamburg, PA. After graduating from high school in his home town, he enlisted in the United States Air Force on August 31, 1951 and by April 1, 1967 had reached the rank of Chief Master Sergeant. His military expertise wasn't in flying or as an air crewman, but in radar systems and electronics.

In late 1966, the Air Force solved their navigation problem over North Vietnam by emplacing a TACAN system atop Phou Pha Thi, a 5,600-foot peak in north eastern Laos. The site's presence was approved covertly by the Laotian government, with the understanding that it would be civilian manned and not by American military personnel. In 1967, the site was upgraded with the TSQ-81 bombing radar system.

The "civilians" who manned "Lima Site 85", as the Phou Pha Thi installation was officially known, were in fact under-cover Central Intelligence Agency officers and Air Force airmen.

By late 1967-early 1968, the North Vietnamese had concluded that the increased accuracy and effectiveness of American air attacks had to be attributed to increased ground based navigation and direction capabilities. The North Vietnamese identified Lima Site 85 as the location to attack. In February 1968, they prepared their special forces to take out the site.

On March 9, 1968, Phou Pha Thi was surrounded by the enemy. Even though the US Ambassador in Laos was aware of the gravity of the situation on the ground, he failed to order the site evacuated. On March 10, the North Vietnamese attacked.

The lightly-armed Americans were overwhelmed by the attack. No foot soldier by training or experience, Chief Master Sergeant Etchberger nonetheless picked up a rifle and fought with incredible courage, calling in air strikes, guiding in a rescue mission, and at times, standing alone against the enemy onslaught. He put every other survivor onto a helicopter before himself, and was killed by enemy fire while being hoisted up into a rescue craft.

Chief Etchberger was recommended for a posthumous award of the Medal of Honor. The award was denied due to the highly classified nature of the Lima Site 85 mission, and that the Air Force wasn't legally supposed to have anyone in Laos. Instead, he was posthumously awarded the Air Force Cross, with a nebulous, unspecific citation related to a helicopter crash. The AFC was presented to his family in private at the Pentagon, with no fanfare or public recognition.

It wasn't until 1982 that the Lima Site 85 mission and battle was declassified and Etchberger's family learned what had truly happened to him and the incredible courage he exhibited. In the early 2000s, Etchberger's fellow veterans of the 1st Combat Evaluation Group began petitioning for his decoration to be upgraded. It took until 2009 for both the Secretary of the Air Force and the Congress to concur, congressional action being necessary due to the passage of time.

On September 21, 2010 - 42 1/2 years after the battle at Pho Pha Thi - Chief Etchberger's three sons received their father's Medal at the White House from President Barack Obama.

From Medal of Honor Citations for the Vietnam War (A-L):


Rank and Organization: Chief Master Sergeant, U.S. Air Force, Detachment 1, 1043d Radar Evaluation Squadron. Place and date: Phou Pha Thi, Laos, 11 March 1968. Entered service at: Hamburg, Pennsylvania. Born: 5 March 1933. Citation: For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. Chief Etchberger and his team of technicians were manning a top secret defensive position at Lima Site 85 when the base was overrun by an enemy ground force. Receiving sustained and withering heavy artillery attacks directly upon his unit's position, Chief Etchberger's entire crew lay dead or severely wounded. Despite having received little or no combat training, Chief Etchberger single-handedly held off the enemy with an M-16, while simultaneously directing air strikes into the area and calling for air rescue. Because of his fierce defense and heroic and selfless actions, he was able to deny the enemy access to his position and save the lives of his remaining crew. With the arrival of the rescue aircraft, Chief Etchberger, without hesitation, repeatedly and deliberately risked his own life, exposing himself to heavy enemy fire in order to place three surviving wounded comrades into rescue slings hanging from the hovering helicopter waiting to airlift them to safety. With his remaining crew safely aboard, Chief Etchberger finally climbed into an evacuation sling himself, only to be fatally wounded by enemy ground fire as he was being raised into the aircraft. Chief Etchberger's bravery and determination in the face of persistent enemy fire and overwhelming odds are in keeping with the highest standards of performance and traditions of military service. Chief Etchberger's gallantry, self-sacrifice, and profound concern for his fellow men at risk of his life, above and beyond the call of duty, reflect the highest credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.

Chief Etchberger today rests in peace at the Saint John's Cemetery in his home of Hamburg, PA. A memorial to his life and courage also stands in Hamburg, and a nearby section of Interstate 78 has been renamed in his honor. When I go to visit my parents in New Jersey, I travel that stretch of highway. I'm humbled to now know the story behind the signs.

His name appears on Panel 44E, Line 15 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

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