William H. Pitsenbarger was born July 8, 1944 in Piqua, Ohio, the son of William and Irene Pitsenbarger. Bill attended public schools in Piqua, participating in the Vocational Industrial Club, intramural sports, and wrestling. He graduated in 1962 from Piqua High School and worked at the Kroger store until enlisting in the United States Air Force December 31, 1963. When Bill was a junior in high school, he tried to enlist in the Army as a Green Beret, but his parents refused to give their permission.
After completing Pararescue training in 1965, Staff Sergeant Pitsenbarger received orders to report to Detachment 6, 38th Air Rescue and Recovery Squadron at Bien Hoa Air Base near Saigon. His unit was composed of five aircrews that flew three HH-43F Kaman Huskie helicopters. His commander, Maj. Maurice Kessler later said, “Pits was one of a special breed, alert and always ready to go on any mission.”
While assigned to Air Rescue and Recovery Service (ARRS), Military Airlift Command (MAC) he flew almost 300 rescue missions in Vietnam, as a Pararescue Jumper (PJ). He risked his life nearly daily during the war rescuing downed airmen and soldiers. But the 21-year-old, known as “Pits” to his Air Force buddies, was killed while defending some of his wounded Army comrades.
On April 11, 1966, tfie Joint Rescue Coordination Center (JRCC) dispatched two Huskies from Detachment 6 to extract a half-dozen or more Army casualties pinned down a few miles east of Saigon near Cam My. When they reached the site of the ambush, Pits was lowered through the tropical forest canopy to the ground where he provided aid to the wounded before having them lifted out by helicopter. After six wounded had been airlifted to an aid station, the two Air Force helicopters returned for a second load.
When one helicopter lowered its litter basket to Pitsenbarger it was hit by a burst of enemy small-arms fire. When the helicopter’s engine began to lose power, the pilot knew they had to get away from the area as soon as possible. Instead of climbing into the litter so he could leave with the helicopter, Pits elected to stay on the ground and he gave a “wave-off” to the helicopter which flew away. The helicopters didn’t return to rescue the PJ that day because of heavy ground fire.
Pitsenbarger continued to attend to wounded soldiers, making splints out of snarled vines and building improvised stretchers. Pits gathered ammunition from the dead and distributed it to those capable of fighting. Pitsenbarger. after being wounded three times, was finally killed by Viet Cong snipers later that night. Pitsenbarger didn’t escape alive, but nine other men did, partially thanks to his courage and devotion to duty.
On December 8, 2000, the airman’s father, William F. Pitsenbarger, and his wife, Alice, accepted the Medal of Honor from Secretary of the Air Force, Whit Peters. During the same ceremony he was also posthumously promoted to the rank of Staff Sergeant, and was the first enlisted airman to receive both the Medal of Honor and the Air Force Cross after death.
The audience included battle survivors, hundreds of pararescue airmen, a congressional representative and the Air Force chief of staff. He is buried in Miami Memorial Park Cemetery Covington, Ohio.
Staff Sergeant William H. Pitsenbarger selflessly gave his life to the Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Service (ARRS) mission of Military Airlift Command (MAC) leaving a legacy of bravery that would reverberate, not only throughout the United States Air Force, but throughout militaries around the world.
Leadership, Job Performance and Noteworthy Accomplishments
SSgt Pitsenbarger began his leadership role by advising the on-scene Air Rescue commander on the best and fastest way to provide rescue and medical support to members of U.S. 1st Infantry Division, 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment. He determined he should be lowered to the ground versus work from a hovering helicopter. SSgt Pitsenbarger assumed a major leadership role of an Army Infantry Company when numerous leaders were wounded. Through his leadership nine wounded were extracted and numerous wounded on the ground were treated and their lives were saved.
There was no communication between the Army troops on the ground and the Rescue crew in the helicopter, except hand signals, and extraction of the wounded was difficult and took too long. As the rescue crew completed the first extraction they flew the wounded to medical aid at an Army hospital eight miles to the south. On the second extraction Pitsenbarger determined that he could provide better assistance to the Army troops with extractions if he was on the ground. He said to the aircraft commander, “Once I’m down there I can really help out, I can show those guys how to rig the Stokes litter and load it right. It’ll be much faster and you can put more people in the bird.”
The helicopter crew wished Pitsenbarger good luck and the pilot maneuvered the helicopter into the pickup hole as crew chief strapped Pits onto the penetrator and disconnected his mike cord. The crew took their last glimpse of Pitsenbarger as the crew chief swung him out of the cabin. He was holding his medical kit, his M-16 rifle, and an armful of splints. Down he went as the crew chief snaked him down through the trees to the wounded and survivors waiting below. They would have been surprised to see someone come down into their hellhole. The crew chief hoisted the penetrator back up and sent a Stokes litter down to Pits.
When the crew chief saw Pitsenbarger he was signaling for another litter, which was lowered to him. The crew could hear the heavy gun fire on the ground but Pitsenbarger was ignoring it and motioned for another litter.
Significant Contributions to the Advancement of Air Mobility
Based on SSgt Pitsenbarger’s effort airmen know that they will not be left behind, at all cost. His valor and unselfish sacrifice reflects directly on the Air Mobility family making him an Air Mobility Hero.
Besides several buildings being named for him, the United States Navy Container Ship MV A1C William H. Pitsenbarger (T-AK 4638) was christened in his honor. The ship will preposition Air Force ammunition at sea near potential war or contingency sites.
Recently, the SSgt Pitsenbarger story was published in a British aviation magazine, Fly Past, December 2010, page 117, titled “Above and Beyond.”
In addition, Community College ofthe Air Force (CCAF) awards a $500 Pitsenbarger Scholarship, the Professional Military Education Center at Beale AFB, California and Airman Leadership School, Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany have been named to honor SSgt William H. Pitsenbarger.
All of these actions bring attention the Air Mobility Mission and Personnel.
Significant Changes to Air Mobility Mission, Culture and History
Despite his wounds, he valiantly fought on, simultaneously treating as many wounded as possible. In the vicious fighting that followed, the American forces suffered 80 percent casualties as their perimeter was breached, and Airman Pitsenbarger was 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, (reference MOH citation).
His actions led to the change in training standards for aircrew and pararescue personnel training for rescue missions. The entire culture and history of not only MAC (now AMC), but the entire Air Force was changed forever. SSgt Pitsenbarger’s actions are used as examples of duty first, selflessness, dedication, professionalism and leadership in professional military training throughout AMC and the entire Air Force.
Decorations include Medal of Honor (MOH), Air Force Cross, (AFC), Two Purple Hearts, Airman’s Medal with 14 oak leafs, Republic of Vietnam Medal of Military Merit, Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross with Bronze Palm. In addition, SSgt William H. Pitsenbarger’s uniforms are on display in the Southeast Asia War Gallery at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force representing Military Airlift Command (MAC); now Air Mobility Command (AMC).
Truly Deserving of Induction
A member of the Great Lakes Chapter interviewed former PJ AIC Harry O’Beirne who described his mission that day. There have been several versions of what took place and we wanted to hear it from a witness. He told our chapter member, “When I found Pits he was covered with a poncho, quite dead and crumpled up in a heap. He was wearing a steel helmet and a gas mask. This was because of some tear gas being thrown about by either side. He and his uniform were filthy having been in the jungle mud floor.
“When I took the gas mask off, Pit’s face was covered in dried blood – coming from the bullet hole in the center of his forehead – he had been shot four times – in the small of the back by a VC in the trees, in the front of his right leg, in his left shoulder, and in the center of the forehead. I believe that the bullet to the forehead killed him, and because it bled freely I believe it was his last wound. That means he was wounded three times and still going around treating other soldiers. I cleaned up his face, took off his web belts, put him in a body bag, and took him to the edge of a clearing for transportation back to the Saigon morgue.”
“ Bill Pitsenbarger was an ordinary man,” O’Beirne said later. “He just did extraordinary things when called upon to do so. He liked country music, loved to hear Roy Acuff sing ‘The Wabash Cannonball,’ liked a beer, and had a healthy interest in girls. Being brave is not the absence of fear but being able to work and do the needed thing in spite of it.”