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40-year anniversary: Airman 1st Class Pitsenbarger died helping others in jungles of Vietnam

Airman 1st Class William H. Pitsenbarger in the doorway of an aircraft.

Airman 1st Class William H. Pitsenbarger in the doorway of an aircraft.

HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. -- Tuesday was the 40th anniversary of the heroic actions of William H. Pitsenbarger, a pararescueman who received the Medal of Honor posthumously in December 2000 for his actions in the jungles of Vietnam.

Honored in the pararescue community, Pitsenbarger is known for leaving the relative security of the HH-43 Huskey helicopter and being lowered through the jungle canopy into a raging firefight between the Viet Cong and the Soldiers of Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division near Cam My, a few miles east of Saigon.

“Amid the gloom and waste of war, we see, occasionally, a brief but brilliant flash of personal valor — of heroism so radiant that it lights up everything and everyone near it,” said former Secretary of the Air Force F. Whitten Peters during the Medal of Honor ceremony held at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. “Even more occasionally, we see one of those flashes so sustained that it outlasts the dark night of war and is visible to us even in the brilliant sunshine of peace. Such is the heroism of Airman 1st Class William H. Pitsenbarger.”

The Medal of Honor recipient has a special place in the heart of a chief master sergeant who works in the retiree activities office at Hurlburt Field. Retired Chief Master Sgt. Ren Vigare was Pitsenbarger’s supervisor from September 1963 to August 1964 when they were stationed at Hamilton Air Force Base, Calif. The now-closed base 45 miles north of San Francisco is where the chief last saw the Airman.

“He was a natural born leader, especially with his counterparts,” Chief Vigare said by phone Tuesday. “Everything he did, he did right.”

Chief Vigare was sent to Vietnam with the first group of pararescuemen, but Pitsenbarger had to wait. “That’s what he was put out about,” Vigare said. “He was at my house at night begging to go.”

Later on, one of the Airmen who went with the chief needed to return in 1965, and Pitsenbarger was selected as the out-of-cycle replacement, Vigare said.

Although the chief didn’t remember speaking to his former subordinate again, even after arriving in country, he said they would pass information back and forth.

Chief Vigare has 243 hours in the same aircraft that Pitsenbarger left that April afternoon. Pitsenbarger’s death, at just 21 years old, was saddening, but it was a reality of the career field. 

“It was very strongly felt in the PJ community, especially among those who knew him,” the chief said. “It was hard, but that’s what happens when you play with the big boys.”

Retired Lt. Col. Harold Salem, from Mesa, Ariz., was the pilot of the helicopter Pitsenbarger flew on. They flew together for about six months, he said. Salem explained that Pitsenbarger wanted to go down to organize the evacuation effort.

“We all (the crew) talked about it,” Salem said to a few of the Charlie Company survivors after the Medal of Honor ceremony.

The pilot said he expressed some reservations about it, but the decision was made to put the pararescueman on the ground.

The Soldiers below were unsure of what to make of the Airman descending into the firefight. 

At the Medal of Honor presentation ceremony, Kenneth Alderson, a first lieutenant that fateful day in 1966, said, “When I saw him (Pitsenbarger) coming down, I thought ‘Does he really know what he’s getting into?’”

Charlie Epperson, a specialist 4 in Charlie Company back in ‘66, had lost some fingers, a piece of his arm and had shrapnel in his leg. Mr. Epperson recalled that when Pitsenbarger got on the ground, “He assigned jobs – he took over.”

For the next 90 minutes or so, Mr. Epperson recalled helping Pitsenbarger drag two injured soldiers out of harm’s way.

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.

“It was getting toward dark the last time I saw him (Pitsenbarger) alive. He was running off to help some guys from 3rd Platoon,” he said.

When the others began running low on ammunition, he gathered ammo clips 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 later that night. When his body was recovered the next day, one hand still held a rifle and the other clutched a medical kit.

“It came as no surprise to anyone who knew him that Bill Pitsenbarger chose to descend from the relative safety of his helicopter into the midst of a mounting firefight,” Peters said during the Medal of Honor ceremony. “And, in his last great act of valor, Bill Pitsenbarger had at least six opportunities to save himself — to return to safety. But each time, he chose instead to stay and help people who desperately needed his assistance.”

Pitsenbarger was the second person to receive the Medal of Honor for heroism that Easter weekend in the jungle near Cam My. Army Sgt. James W. Robinson Jr. was posthumously honored for his gallantry while a member of Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division, on April 11, 1966.

His commander, Maj. Maurice Kessler, called him, “One of a special breed. Alert and always ready to go on any mission.”

He was later posthumously promoted to staff sergeant. The U.S. Navy has also named a chartered ship, the MV A1C William H. Pitsenbarger. The ship prepositions Air Force ammunition at sea near potential war or contingency sites.

(Editors note: Some material taken from Air Force News Agency and the Air Force History Support Office)