A1C William Pitsenbarger. Air Force photo
A common theme for all those who receive the Medal of Honor is that they’re selfless beyond comprehension – that they often put everyone else before themselves. This trait often earns them bewildered admiration from those who witness their incredible bravery.
For the soldiers of Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, Air Force Airman 1st Class William Hart Pitsenbarger was such a man.
Born in Piqua Ohio, Pitsenbarger joined the Air Force right out of high school, but not before first trying to drop out to join the Army Special Forces. His parents convinced him to get his diploma before enlisting.
Friends and family described him as a ladies’ man, a clown, a fun-loving guy, and — most importantly – a guy that showed genuine concern for people.
Pitsenbarger trained rigorously to become a pararescueman, including attending survival school, jungle survival school and the Army’s airborne school, in addition to receiving medical and scuba training.
After training, he was checked into the 41st Rescue Squadron at Hamilton Air Force Base, California. By the time he went on his first temporary mission to Vietnam, he had close to 300 missions under his belt. Pitsenbarger was assigned to Detachment 6 of the Air Force’s 38th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron when he was sent to Vietnam a second time.
On the afternoon of April 11, 1966, his unit received an urgent call for evacuation. About 35 miles east of Saigon, elements of the Army’s 1st Infantry Division suffered heavy casualties and were still fighting off hundreds of Viet Cong.
Pitsenbarger, who was off duty at the time, volunteered to ride on one of the Kaman HH-43 Huskie helicopters to aid the surrounded soldiers. The jungle canopy was so dense that there was no way for the helicopters to land. Pitsenbarger volunteered to ride a wire basket 100 feet down into the jungle to aid and retrieve casualties on the ground. This bold move baffled not only the pilot, who hesitantly agreed to lower Pitsenbarger, but the besieged troops that saw him descend.
“I was stunned that somebody was coming down to put themselves in that situation,” said Daniel Kirby, a rifleman with Charlie Company. “It’s hard to believe that someone would voluntarily come into that battle and stay with it. He had to be the bravest person I’ve ever known.”
Pitsenbarger successfully expedited the evacuation of nine wounded soldiers and stayed to help countless more after he refused to evacuate with the helicopter. For him, evacuating the wounded was the highest priority. He spent the next hour and a half on the ground alternating between providing first aid and returning fire on Viet Cong soldiers.
Dozens of stories regarding Pitsenbarger’s heroism surfaced in the following years, including hiding a wounded soldier under dead bodies to conceal him from enemy troops and sprinting into a flurry of bullets to drag wounded men to safety. Each person who shared a story agreed that Pitsenbarger was “the bravest man I’ve ever known.”
The young airman was hit three times by enemy fire, but still he pressed on. It wasn’t until he was hit a fourth and final time between the eyes that Pitsenbarger was finally stilled. He was found with a rifle clutched in one hand and a medical kit in the other – fighting until the very end.
After the battle, his Air Force commanders nominated him for the Medal of Honor. The request was denied because at the time there was not enough documentation of Pitsenbarger’s heroic actions. Instead, he was posthumously awarded an Air Force Cross and promoted to a staff sergeant.
His award was finally upgraded to a Medal of Honor and presented to his parents 34 years later before an audience of Charlie Company veterans, family and friends and supporters from his hometown. Pitsenbarger, who was only 21 when he died, became the youngest airman and first enlisted member of the Air Force to earn the medal since the service separated from the Army in 1947.
One thing is clear: in life and in death Pitsenbarger embodied the pararescue crewmember’s motto, “That others may live.”