A Last Full Measure

I don’t do book or movie reviews because I’m not qualified.  Occasionally, however, I do offer summaries, not so much of the book or film, but of events that I find interesting, touching, or otherwise significant.  One of these is the story of U. S. Air Force Staff Sergeant William H. Pitsenbarger (1944-1966).  It truly is an extraordinary story and I enthusiastically recommend the 2019 film The Last Full Measure.

Pitsenbarger grew up in a small town just outside Dayton, Ohio.  While still in high school, Bill Pitsenbarger contacted a local Army recruiter about enlisting with an option for Special Forces (Green Beret) training.  When he spoke to his parents about his interests, they refused to give their permission.  Upon graduation from high school, Bill Pitsenbarger joined the Air Force on the delayed entry program.

Pitsenbarger 001At the completion of basic training at San Antonio, Texas, Pitsenbarger volunteered for pararescue training[1].  In 1963, this included Army parachute school, survival, evasion, resistance, and escape training, and air crash rescue and firefighting.  Bill Pitsenbarger’s first assignment after his initial training was Hamilton AFB, California.  While assigned to Hamilton AFB, Pitsenbarger performed a period of temporary additional duty in the Republic of Vietnam.  At the conclusion of this temporary assignment, Pitsenbarger volunteered to return to Vietnam for a regular tour of duty where he reported for duty with Detachment 6, 38th Air Rescue and Recovery Squadron at Bien Hoa Air Base just outside Saigon (now, Ho Chi Minh City).  Detachment 6 included five aircrews that flew three Kaman HH-43F “Huskie” Helicopters commanded by Major Maurice Kessler, USAF.

The 2nd Battalion, 16th US Infantry arrived at Vung Tau, South Vietnam, on 10 October 1965 attached to the 3rd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division (The Big Red One).  Initially, 2/16 encamped at Ben Cat, north of Saigon.  The division wasted no time getting this newly arrived brigade adapted to the combat environment.  Operations Bushmaster and Bloodhound involved aggressive patrolling adjacent to Highway 13 and the Michelin Rubber Plantation, followed by Operation Mastiff (February 1966) and Abilene (March-April 1966).

Operation Abilene was a search and destroy mission targeting the 274th and 275th Viet Cong Regiments of the 5th Division.  Abilene employed two brigades of the US 1st Infantry Division with the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment and 161st Battery, Royal New Zealand Artillery assigned in support.  Initially, the Viet Cong avoided battle and contact with the communists was sporadic.

Major General William e. DePuy[2], as commander of the Big Red One, devised a plan to lure the VC into attacking his force.  He assigned Company C, 2/16 to act as the bait.  Once the VC attacked Company C, DePuy planned to rush in additional rifle companies to surround and destroy the Viet Cong force.  At the time, the strength of Company C was 134 soldiers; it was only marginally effective as a US rifle company.

On 11 April 1966, as Charlie Company moved through the Courtenay Rubber Plantation, its understrength platoons encountered sporadic fire from communist snipers who attempted to kill the Americans one at a time.  This intermittent fire allowed VC forces to maneuver around the outnumbered Americans.  By 1400, it became apparent that VC officers were systematically directing their men to encircle the Americans.  The communists had taken DePuy’s bait, but through “piss poor” planning, thick jungle prevented the 2nd Battalion’s other companies from surrounding the VC or reinforcing Charlie Company.  Worse, friendly artillery fire further decimated the few men now surrounded by a superior enemy force.

Desperate fighting continued through the night; the soldiers of Charlie Company threw everything they had at the Viet Cong, including tear gas grenades.  While established in a tight perimeter with mutually supporting crew-served weapons fire, the enemy was still able to breach the company’s lines —in the process of exfiltration, slitting the throats of soldiers wounded and awaiting medical evacuation.  After five hours of brutal combat, what remained of Company C formed a tight perimeter protected only by supporting artillery, delivered at the rate of five rounds per minute.

Kaman HH-43 001
USAF HH-43 Huskie

It was in this setting that the Joint Rescue Center dispatched two HH-43 Huskie helicopters to extract wounded soldiers of C/2/16INF near Cam My, 35 miles east of Saigon.  Upon reaching the extraction site, the helicopter crew lowered Senior Airman Bill Pitsenbarger, USAF to the ground to prepare wounded soldiers for evacuation.  It was then that Pitsenbarger learned that the company medic was one of the wounded, that his wounds were enough to warrant aeromedical evacuation, and that he needed to remain on the ground to provide medical support to the men of Charlie Company.  Pitsenbarger continued to provide life-saving treatment to the wounded and load them aboard returning helicopters.

The Air Force crew wanted Pitsenbarger back aboard the aircraft, but he elected to remain with the beleaguered company.  Enemy small-arms fire struck one of the helicopters and its engine began to lose power.  Pitsenbarger waived the helicopter off and continued administering to the wounded soldiers.  The intensity of the enemy fire precluded further evacuations.  For the next several hours, Pitsenbarger tended the wounded, hacking splints out of jungle vines, building improvised stretchers out of saplings, and when the infantry troops began running out of ammunition, Pitsenbarger gathered it from the dead and distributed it to those remaining alive.

With the arrival of darkness, Bill Pitsenbarger borrowed a rifle from a fallen soldier and joined with members of Charlie Company in forming a night perimeter.  During the night, enemy fire took the life of Bill Pitsenbarger.  The next morning, reinforcements arrived at the battle site to discover the young Airman’s body on the perimeter, his rifle in one hand, his medical kit in the other.

While serving in Vietnam, Senior Airman Bill Pitsenbarger completed 250 pararescue missions.  His selfless courage under fire at Xa Cam My prompted his command to recommend him for the Medal of Honor.  Instead, the Air Force posthumously awarded Pitsenbarger the Air Force Cross (AFC).  Not everyone agreed with this decision.  For the next 34 years, Air Force squadron mates and surviving members of Charlie Company worked tirelessly to have his AFC upgraded to the Medal of Honor.  They accomplished their mission on 8 December 2000 when the Secretary of the Air Force presented his surviving and still-grieving parents with their son’s much deserved Medal of Honor and a posthumous promotion to Staff Sergeant (E-5).

Medal of Honor Citation:

USAF Medal of Honor 001
USAF Medal of Honor

Airman First Class Pitsenbarger distinguished himself by extreme valor on April 11, 1966 near Cam My, Republic of Vietnam, while assigned as a Pararescue Crew Member, Detachment 6, 38th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron.  On that date, Airman Pitsenbarger was aboard a rescue helicopter responding to a call for evacuation of casualties incurred in an on-going firefight between elements of the United States Army’s 1st Infantry Division and a sizable enemy force approximately 35 miles east of Saigon.  With complete disregard for personal safety, Airman Pitsenbarger volunteered to ride a hoist more than one hundred feet through the jungle, to the ground.  On the ground, he organized and coordinated rescue efforts, cared for the wounded, prepared casualties for evacuation, and insured that the recovery operation continued in a smooth and orderly fashion.  Through his personal efforts, the evacuation of the wounded was greatly expedited.  As each of the nine casualties evacuated that day were recovered, Pitsenbarger refused evacuation in order to get one more wounded soldier to safety.  After several pick-ups, one of the two rescue helicopters involved in the evacuation was struck by heavy enemy ground fire and was forced to leave the scene for an emergency landing.  Airman Pitsenbarger stayed behind, on the ground, to perform medical duties.  Shortly thereafter, the area came under sniper and mortar fire.  During a subsequent attempt to evacuate the site, American forces came under heavy assault by a large Viet Cong force.  When the enemy launched the assault, the evacuation was called off and Airman Pitsenbarger took up arms with the besieged infantrymen.  He courageously resisted the enemy, braving intense gunfire to gather and distribute vital ammunition to American defenders.  As the battle raged on, he repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire to care for the wounded, pull them out of the line of fire, and return fire whenever he could, during which time, he was wounded three times.  Despite his wounds, he valiantly fought on, simultaneously treating as many wounded as possible.  In the vicious fighting which followed, the American forces suffered 80 percent casualties as their perimeter was breached, and airman Pitsenbarger was finally fatally wounded.  Airman Pitsenbarger exposed himself to almost certain death by staying on the ground and perished while saving the lives of wounded infantrymen.  His bravery and determination exemplify the highest professional standards and traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, and the United States Air Force.

Staff Sergeant Pitsenbarger’s combat awards include the Medal of Honor[3], Airman’s Medal, two Purple Heart medals, Air Medal, and the Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross.

See also: A Jolly Green Miracle.

A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces, but also by the men it honors.

–John F. Kennedy.

Sources:

  1. Tilford, E. Search and Rescue in Southeast Asia, 1961-75, Office of USAF History, 1980 (PDF)
  2. Deeter, J. William H. Pitsenbarger: A Hero of Piqua and America.  This local life, Troy Ohio, undated

Endnotes:

[1] Pararescue training began in 1946 in the U. S. Army Air Corps.  The mission of ARS was saving the lives of airmen downed as a result of disasters, accidents, crash landings at locations beyond their assigned air base.  The far-flung nature of Army/Air Force operations created a demand for a larger pararescue service, which was separate and distinct from local base rescue units.  Pararescue teams include a physician, and four medics additionally trained in field medicine, rescue operations, parachute training, and basic infantry tactics.  The Vietnam war was a pivotal conflict for USAF PRTs; the demand for qualified pararescue men was high and the program significantly expanded.  The use of helicopters enlarged  areas of operations and demanded a shift in tactics.  The USAF created “rescue packages,” some of which involved forward air controllers, escort helicopters and A-1 “Sandys,” airborne rescue coordination flights and heavy helicopters commonly referred to as Jolly Green Giant (HH-3 and HH-53).

[2] A highly decorated infantry officer with service in World War II, the Korean War on detached duty with the Central Intelligence Agency, as an attaché in Hungary, Chief of Staff Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, and from March 1966, as Commanding General, 1st US Infantry Division.

[3] Although the Air Force upgraded Pitsenbarger’s Air Force Cross to the Medal of Honor, he was the first USAF enlisted man ever to receive the Air Force Cross.  In total, only four USAF enlisted men have received the Medal of Honor.

Published by

Mustang

US Marine (Retired), historian, writer.

12 thoughts on “A Last Full Measure”

    1. Institutionally, the Air Force has always been pilot/officer focused, never treating their enlisted personnel with the respect that they deserve. This probably explains why the Air Force doesn’t have a warrant officer program. In this case, senior USAF officers downgraded the recommended Medal of Honor to an Air Force Cross because, they said, the initial recommendation lacked substantiating information. This position is incredible because without substantiation, they could not have awarded the Air Force Cross, either. The USAF Medal of Honor has only existed since mid-April 1965. Since then, only four (4) enlisted men have received this award … one of them being Pitsenbarger, and then only after 34 years of delay and the sustained efforts of his combat mates. I suspect that the USAF hierarchy was determined not to award its newly created highest medal to a mere enlisted man, which is utterly shameful and unforgivable.

      I believe there are men serving in the Air Force today who emulate the courage, devotion, and tenacity of Pitsenbarger; it is only that we never seem to hear about them … which also appears to be an unspoken/unwritten USAF policy. Again shameful.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. We still have many that in any given situation would do what needs to be done. What we lack is leadership at the national level. And allied cohesion internationally.

    As I look at young people now, I think about the comment that we all sleep well because strong men and women stand ready around the world prepared to do harm on our behalf.

    Semper fi.
    081834

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Tears. Bill could have been any American from Anytown, USA. Sucked up into the fog of war he obviously took things seriously. I imagine many souls are happy they met up with Bill. If anyone was MOH, it was this guy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I completely agree with you, Kid. These are America’s precious resources that fat cats in Washington seem prone to waste. Greater love hath no man but this: that a man lay down his life for his friends.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Doesn’t get any better. Hell with the rest of them. They wren’t there and they don'[t matter anyway.
    One man. One mission. Mission accomplished.

    Like

  4. It is always eye-opening to read about such courageous young men who truly give their all for their brothers… including their own lives.

    As I have never donned a uniform, I will never know the fear a man endures while mustering every ounce of fortitude to protect his brothers as airman Pitsenbarger did.

    I have not heard of this movie. I will look it up…

    Liked by 1 person

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