Flying on almost 300 rescue missions in Vietnam, Bill Pitsenbarger risked his life almost daily during the war rescuing downed soldiers and fliers. On April 11, 1966, the 21-year-old, known as “Pits” to his friends, was killed while defending some of his wounded comrades. For his bravery and sacrifice, he was posthumously awarded the nation’s highest military decorations, the Medal of Honor and the Air Force Cross, becoming the first enlisted airman to receive the medals posthumously.
Pitsenbarger was born in 1944 and grew up in Piqua, Ohio, a small town near Dayton. When Bill was a junior in high school, he tried to enlist in the U.S. Army as a Green Beret, but his parents refused to give their permission. After he graduated from high school, he decided to join the Air Force, and on New Year’s Eve 1962, he was on a train bound for basic training in San Antonio.
During his basic training in early 1963, Bill volunteered for Pararescue. He completed the very difficult qualifying requirements and was one of the first group of airmen to qualify for Pararescue right out of basic training. After completing the very trying and difficult pararescue training, Bill was assigned to the Rescue Squadron assigned to Hamilton AFB, California. He was later sent on TDY (Temporary Duty) to Vietnam. Upon completing his first TDY assignment, he volunteered to return and received orders in 1965 to report to Detachment 6, 38th Air Rescue and Recovery Squadron at Bien Hoa Air Base near Saigon. His unit was composed of five aircrews that flew three Kaman HH-43F Huskie helicopters. His commander, Maj. Maurice Kessler called him “One of a special breed. Alert and always ready to go on any mission.”
On April 11, 1966, the Joint Rescue Center dispatched two Huskies from Detachment 6 to extract a half-dozen or more Army casualties pinned down in a battle near Cam My, a few miles east of Saigon. Upon reaching the site of the ambush, he was lowered through the trees to the ground where he attended to the wounded before having them lifted to the helicopter by a cable. After six wounded men had been flown to an aid station, the two Air Force helicopters returned for their second load.
As one of the helicopters lowered its litter basket to Pitsenbarger, who had remained on the ground with the 20 infantrymen still alive, it was hit by a burst of enemy small-arms fire. When its engine began to lose power, the pilot realized he had to get the helicopter away from the area as soon as possible. Instead of climbing into the litter basket so he could leave with the helicopter, Pitsenbarger elected to remain with the Army troops under enemy attack and he gave a “wave-off” to the helicopter which flew away to safety. With heavy mortar and small-arms fire, the helicopters couldn’t return to rescue the rescuer.
For the next hour and a half, Pitsenbarger attended to wounded soldiers, hacking splints out of snarled vines and building improvised stretchers out of saplings. When the others began running low on ammunition, he gathered ammunition from the dead and distributed them to those still alive. Then, he joined the others with a rifle to hold off the Viet Cong. Pitsenbarger was killed by Viet Cong snipers later that night. When his body was recovered the next day, one hand still held a rifle and the other clutched a medical kit.
Although Pitsenbarger did not escape alive, nine other men did, partially thanks to his courage and their devotion to duty. He is buried in Miami Memorial Park Cemetery Covington, Ohio. His grave can be found in plot 43-D, grave #2.