Medal of Honor Awarded to Airman 1st Class William H. Pitsenbarger
On December 8, 2000, at a ceremony held at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, the nation awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously to Airman 1st Class William H. Pitsenbarger, who gave his life to save others during a Vietnam War battle in 1966.
Secretary of the Air Force F. Whitten Peters presented the award, for "conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty," to the airman's father, Frank Pitsenbarger. The Pitsenbarger family are Ohio natives.
Secretary Peters spoke of the courage shown by A1C Pitsenbarger, a pararescueman (PJ) who relinquished his seat on an HH-43F Huskie helicopter to remain on the ground and fight alongside embattled U.S. Army troops. "For our pararescuemen, Peters said, "[this] is a validation of their dedication to a supremely demanding profession." The Air Force Chief of Staff, General Michael Ryan, and Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Finch also spoke at the ceremony.
The award ceremony took place in the Air Force Museum's Modern Flight Hangar. Among the 1,100 in attendance, plus about 600 watching on video in a nearby overflow area, were 400 current and former PJs, the largest number ever assembled in one place. Some believe that it was the largest Medal of Honor ceremony ever held.
During the Vietnam War, PJs teamed up with other helicopter crew members to save 3,883 lives. PJs attending the ceremony said they saw the award as long-awaited recognition for all who wear their distinctive maroon berets, bloused trousers, and combat boots.
The combat action occurred on April 11, 1966, when Pitsenbarger's helicopter was called in to help evacuate American casualties from a jungle fire fight waged thirty-five miles east of Saigon. An Army outfit, known as Charlie Company, 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, was caught up in a battle with Viet Cong guerrillas. Pitsenbarger volunteered to ride a rescue hoist 200 feet down, through triple-layer canopy jungle. Struck by an AK-47 rifle round while descending, he reached the ground and began organizing rescue efforts. He helped many seriously wounded to be flown to safety. One of the embattled soldiers, Sgt. Charles S. Navarro, described how Pitsenbarger repeatedly exposed himself to care for the wounded: "He risked enemy gunfire to gather and distribute vital ammunition to the American defenders.... As he crept from one isolated position to another across the broken perimeter, Pitsenbarger fired his M-16 [rifle], gathered ammunition, and tended to wounded men."
Another Charlie Company veteran, who attended the ceremony, said, "Most of us didn't know him but he became one of our own." Secretary Peters called Pitsenbarger's role in the battle a "brilliant flash of personal valor, of heroism so radiant that it lights up everything and everyone near it."
Lt. Col. Harold "Hal" Salem, USAF (Ret.), pilot of Pitsenbarger's helicopter and a captain at the time, believed the pararescueman's bravery warranted the Medal of Honor. Col. Arthur W. Beall, USAF (Ret.), commander of air rescue forces in Southeast Asia, recommended Pitsenbarger for the Medal of Honor. Instead, Pitsenbarger was awarded the Air Force Cross. From the time of the Vietnam War action, many in the PJ community believed that the higher award was deserved. In recent years, efforts to upgrade the award were spearheaded by Colonel Salem; Pitsenbarger's fellow PJ, Lt. Col. Harry O'Bierne, USAF (Ret.); and Secretary Peters, who took a strong personal interest and enlisted help from Joseph Lineberger, Director of the Air Force Review Board Agency. The group managed to obtain "the necessary signatures," and the upgraded award was included in the Fiscal Year 2001 Defense authorization bill signed by President Clinton on October 30, 2000. Peters called the opportunity to present the award "a highlight of my life."
The Air Force Museum mounted a display honoring Pitsenbarger and other Vietnam War-era PJs. The display includes an HH-43B, similar to the helicopter piloted by Salem and crewed by Pitsenbarger--that was lost in combat in 1967--as well as personal memorabilia from Pitsenbarger's Air Force service.
About 3,400 Americans have received the Medal of Honor, most for action during the Civil War. Since World War II, seventeen Air Force members have received the award, including one other enlisted member--AIC John L. Levitow. There are currently 489 pararescue jumpers in the Air Force, with about 100 more slots vacant, a figure that includes 108 in the Air National Guard, and 110 in the Air Force Reserve.
[Source: Air Power History, Publication Date: 22-MAR-2001 - Submitted by a Friend of Free Genealogy]