A rifle and a medical kit: The William H. Pitsenbarger story

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Reggie Manning
  • 341st Missile Wing Public Affairs
Editor's Note: This is part seven of an eight-part series that highlights some of the men and women who have been influential in the early history of the United States Air Force. Part eight will feature The Tuskegee Airmen.

Born in 1944 in Piqua, Ohio, as an only child to William F. and Alice Pitsenbarger, 'Pits' better known to his comrades, was a pararescuer with more than 300 successful rescue missions under his belt. He was killed in action on April 11, 1966, while defending his post, his friends and several wounded troops. For his heroic actions and noble display of courage, Pitsenbarger was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor and the Air Force Cross.

As a junior in high school, Pitsenbarger wanted to drop out and join the Army as a Green Beret, but his parents refused to give him permission through signature. After graduation, New Year's Eve 1962, he was celebrating quite differently from his peers; he was on a train headed to Air Force Basic training in San Antonio.

Pitsenbarger would then learn his military skills by completing a series of demanding training schools such as: U.S. Army parachute school, survival school, jungle survival school, U.S. Navy scuba diving school and a rescue medical course.

In August 1965, Pitsenbarger was awarded the Airman's Medal and the Republic of Vietnam's Medal of Military Merit and Gallantry Cross with Bronze palm, for a mission which he hung from an HH-43's cable and rescued a South Vietnamese soldier from a burning minefield. With 250 missions in his past, Pitsenbarger stayed focus and continued to step up whenever his expertise was needed.

As the rescue and survival specialist aboard "Pedro 73," Pitsenbarger came to the assistance of an infantry company on April 11, 1966. The 1st Infantry Division consisted of 134 soldiers surrounded by a Viet Cong battalion of more than 500 troops. With no clearings in the thick jungle location, no helicopters could land and evacuate the Soldiers. The only help available was the HH-43 Huskie helicopter's cables and winches to hoist the injured--and of course, Airman 1st Class Pitsenbarger.

After he noticed that the troops below needed medical aid and assistance extracting the wounded, Pitsenbarger volunteered to be lowered into the war zone, with only his rifle and medical kit.

As soon as his boots touched surface, Pitsenbarger began devising a plan. While on ground he helped nine critically injured Soldiers on several trips, while still holding off the enclosing Viet Cong force. Once the Huskie had received too much damage to continue, Pitsenbarger refused to follow protocol and retreat with the helicopter; instead he chose to stay on the ground with the injured and wounded and continue rendering aid.

During nightfall, Pitsenbarger treated the wounded, distributed ammo among those who were still capable of fighting and helped stand their ground as the opposing battalion desperately tried to close the gap. Later that night, Pitsenbarger was killed by sniper fire. When his body was found, one hand grasped his rifle and in his other hand was his trusty medical kit.

Pitsenbarger did not leave that jungle with his life, but nine other troops did because of his courage, quick thinking and determination to aid. His selfless actions and honorable display of courage helped save lives and also motivate those around to continue to fight. Waving off his escape ride home, Pitsenbarger opted to stay on ground in hopes of getting every man home safely or dying right by their side.

Pitsenbarger's parents were presented their son's Medal of Honor from the Secretary of the Air Force, Whit Peters, on Dec. 8, 2000.

Content in this article was taken from the following websites: www.af.mil, www.nationalmuseum.af.mil, and www.mishalov.com.