MIGHTY HISTORY

This airman gave his life to rescue soldiers from a massive firefight

This article is sponsored by The Last Full Measure, now playing in theatres! Get your tickets here.

The Air Force Pararescue community lives according to the motto, "These Things We Do, That Others May Live." There may be none who lived that motto more fully than Airman 1st Class William Pitsenbarger who was killed in action in March, 1966, after intentionally placing himself in harm's way to rescue infantryman pinned down by snipers, mortars, and machine gun fire.

For his valor, he became the first enlisted airman to receive the Medal of Honor.


A1C William Pitsenbarger

Pitsenbarger, or "Pits," as he was known, first tried to join the military as a Green Beret when he was 17, but his parents prevailed upon him to wait until after high school. In 1962, he became a graduate and answered the call — this time, with the Air Force instead of the Army. As a pararescuemen, he would be responsible for grabbing downed airmen and others from contested and enemy-held areas around the world. Becoming a PJ was no easy feat, and it wasn't a job for the timid.

After completing SCUBA training with the Navy, paratrooper training with the Army, and survival and medical training with the Air Force, he was ready to go to work. Before his deployment to Vietnam, he was called upon to help rescue two hunters stuck in the California wilderness. After rappelling down a sheer cliff face to reach them, he and another pararescueman encountered an angry bear. Pits charged the bear, yelling and screaming, chasing it off. It was immediately clear that he was cut out for this kind of work.

Pitsenbarger finally got orders overseas — to Okinawa, Japan. Wanting to go where his help was needed most, he requested to go to Vietnam instead, and his request was approved. Before shipping out, his parents later said that they were sure they would never see him alive again. Sadly, they were right.

In Vietnam, Pits proved himself an exceptionally capable medical and rescue professional. He helped treat lepers at a colony in Vietnam, escorted singer Mary Martin during a USO tour, and inserted into a burning minefield to rescue a South Vietnamese soldier who had lost a foot trying to stomp out a grass fire. For the minefield rescue, Pitsenbarger was awarded the Airman's Medal.

A1C Pitsenbarger receiving the Airman's Medal in Vietnam.

But Pitsenbarger's most consequential moments came in 1966. On April 11, three companies of the Big Red One, the Army's 1st Infantry Division, were engaged in a risky sweep across two provinces in search of Viet Cong units. Charlie Company was on one end of the formation and realized too late that it had drifted from the others — and was exposed to sniper fire.

Company leadership realized they were in danger and set up a defensive perimeter, but they were already outnumbered and surrounded. The North Vietnamese triggered their attack, sending mortar and sniper fire ripping through the American formation. The other companies attempted to come to their aid, but mounting casualties quickly made it clear that Charlie Company needed a rescue.

The Air Force sent two rescue helicopters to begin getting the wounded out. The first flight was challenging but, for a jungle firefight in Vietnam, fairly uneventful. Both helicopters took the first flight of wounded to a nearby hospital and doubled back for more. Once back in the field, it became clear to Pits that the Army soldiers no longer had the manpower necessary to hold back the attacks, treat the wounded, and put them on litters for extraction. He volunteered to insert into the jungle and help out.

The pilot reluctantly agreed to the risky request, and Pits began sending men up to the two helicopters despite bursts of fierce mortar and machine gun fire. Pitsenbarger was responsible for getting nine wounded men out in three flights, refusing his own extraction each time, before ground fire nearly downed one of the helicopters and forced them to leave.

Poster art for 'The Last Full Measure' depicting Pitsenbarger's rescue in Vietnam.

On the ground, Pits continuously exposed himself to enemy fire to recover rifles and ammunition from the dead to redistribute to the living. He was wounded at least twice before he reached his final position. He had given away his pistol to a soldier too wounded to use any other weapon, and so Pits used one of the recovered rifles to resist a North Vietnamese advance until he was hit again — this time fatally.

The Army fought on through the night, relying on danger close artillery and airstrikes to survive the night. When the Air Force was able to get rescue helicopters back in the next morning, an Army captain told the next pararescueman on the ground what had happened to Pits.

Charlie Company had 134 men when the battle started. 106 of them were wounded or killed in the fighting, but Pits had gotten an extra nine of them out and kept others alive overnight.

Five months later, on Sept. 22, 1966, the Air Force presented the Air Force Cross to Pitsenbarger's parents. It was the first awarding of the Air Force Cross to an enlisted airman for service in Vietnam. After decades of campaigning from the men he saved from what seemed like certain demise, Pitsenbarger's citation was finally upgraded to the Medal of Honor. Pitsenbarger is the first enlisted airman to receive such an award.

Now, Pits' story is headed to the big screen. The Last Full Measure is scheduled to release on Jan. 24, 2020. Be sure to watch the trailer below and secure your tickets to honor this true American hero.

This article is sponsored by The Last Full Measure, now playing in theatres! Get your tickets here.