NEWS | April 20, 2016

After 50 years Pitsenbarger legacy lives on

By Joint Base Charleston Public Affairs

Staff Sgt. William Pitsenbarger, a pararescueman, made the ultimate sacrifice 50 years ago, on April 11, 1966, near Cam My, Vietnam, saving the lives of Soldiers pinned down by enemy fire.

Born July 8, 1944, in Piqua, Ohio, Pitsenbarger joined the Air Force in 1962, right out of high school. He was ordered to Vietnam in 1964, volunteered to return in 1965 and was assigned to Detachment 6, 38th Air Rescue and Recovery Squadron at Bein Hoa Air Base, Saigon, Vietnam.

Pitsenbarger and his unit were dispatched by the Joint Rescue Center to extract Army casualties who from the battle of Xa Cam. During the recovery, Pitsenbarger was lowered from a helicopter to attend to the wounded.

Six men were rescued during the first airlift. However, more wounded men remained. Pitsenbarger remained engaged the enemy while attending the wounded. When the next helicopter arrived on scene, it was hit by small arms fire and needed to leave the area immediately.

Although the aircrew signaled for Pitsenbarger to get aboard the helicopter, he refused to leave the wounded and waved off the helicopter. For the next hour and a half, he fought off enemy forces while providing care to the injured. Eventually, he was killed by enemy fire but  nine men were rescued alive because of his sacrifice and heroism.

Pitsenbarger was 21 years old at the time of his death and was an Airman 1st Class. He was the first enlisted member to be awarded the Air Force Cross. ; On Dec. 8, 2000, the AFC  was upgraded to a Medal of Honor. Additionally, Pitsenbarger was posthumously promoted to the rank of Staff Sergeant.

His Medal of Honor citation reads:

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.

Airmen at Joint Base Charleston honor Pitsenbarger's heroic actions, sacrifice, and embodiment of the Pararescue motto, "that others may live."

"Staff Sgt. Pitsenbarger's was willing to give up his life, even though he was so young, and stay behind to help others during the heat of battle," Airman 1st Class Kaitlyn Henderson, a 628th Communications Squadron knowledge manager. "He was the same rank as me when he died and his story is truly inspirational."