A Real Vietnam Hero: William H. Pitsenbarger - History Key

A Real Vietnam Hero: William H. Pitsenbarger

Many stories of bravery are related to the Vietnam War, but we know them from more or less accurate movies. From time to time, it is necessary to remember true heroes, by telling their story as it was, without special effects or exaggerated facts.

Sometimes, some of the stories might seem exaggerated even if they are not. We must remember that war movies are inspired by real life events, but unfortunately, we will rather remember an actor than the real character.

Who was Pitsenbarger?

William Hart Pitsenbarger was a real character. Born on July 8, 1944, in Piqua, Ohio. He was a United States Air Force Pararescueman who flew in around 300 rescue missions during the Vietnam War.

A1C William Pitsenbarger
A1C William Pitsenbarger © Image Source: U.S. Air Force photo, Wikipedia

Since a young age, Pitsenbarger dreamed to join the army. When he was in high school he wanted to enlist as a Green Beret, but his parents stopped him and refused to give their permission. After high school, he decided to join the Air Force. In short time he found himself on a train directed to San Antonio, where he was programmed for receiving a basic training, it was the 1962 New Year’s Eve.

Pitsenbarger never avoided the hard work. Therefore during the training course, he decided to push it a bit further by completing the very difficult requirements in order to become a Pararescue. He managed to pass the course and was assigned to the Rescue Squadron attached to Hamilton AFB California.

During 1963, immediately after the completed training courses, he was sent to Vietnam for a TDY tour (Temporary Duty). After completing the TDY, Pitsenbarger volunteered to return at the front. In 1965 he returned to Vietnam, where he was attached to the 6th Detachment, 38th Air Rescue and Recovery Squadron, located at the Bien Hoa Air Base, somewhere near Saigon.

A1C William Pitsenbarger with an M-16 outside the HH-43
A1C William Pitsenbarger with an M-16 outside the HH-43 © Image Source: U.S. Air Force photo, thisdayinaviation.com

Rescued his life for his comrades

“Pits”, how his friends nicknamed Pitsenbarger, was deployed on an HH-43F Kaman Huskie helicopter, where along with others 4 soldiers formed a team. Pits was under the command of Maj. Maurice Kessler, who stated about him:

“One of a special breed. Alert and always ready to go on any mission.”

On April 11, 1966, his team was sent on a Huskie helicopter somewhere near Saigon, more exactly at Cam My, where there were several casualties and wounded to evacuate. Pits were lowered from his helicopter by cable, among the trees, so he could start the rescue operation.

He managed to evacuate 6 wounded, but he was still surrounded by 20 infantrymen still alive. When one of the helicopters dropped its litter in order to receive a new load of wounded, it was hit by a fire coming from enemy small-arms fire. Seeing that the helicopter’s engine started to lose power, the pilot decided that he had to leave the area as soon as possible.

Instead of using the litter to evacuate himself, Pitsenbarger gave to the pilot a “wave-off” hand sign, choosing to remain there, with his fellow soldiers who were under attack. During the battle, Pits continued to heal the wounded and at some point, he started to collect ammunition from the dead, in order to supply the U.S. soldiers low on ammo. The situation was tragic, they were under heavy mortar and small-arms fire, without any possibility to be rescued by helicopter.

Kaman H-43 Huskie in action
Kaman H-43 Huskie in action © Image Source: aviastar.org

Probably Pitsenbarger guessed what was going to happen, so he joined the remaining alive soldiers with a rifle, in order to back off the Viet Cong assault. Pits was killed by sniper fire later that night. His body was found the next day, holding in one hand the rifle and in the other one a medical kit.

Medal of Honor posthumously

He lost his life there, but by his bravery in combat he managed to save the lives of nine fellow soldiers. For his actions, on December 8, 2000, he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor and promoted to the rank of Staff Sergeant. Pitsenbarger’s father and his wife accepted the medal award from Secretary of the Air Force, Whit Peters, in the presence of hundreds of pararescue airmen and survivors from that battle.

He is buried in Miami Memorial Park Cemetery Covington, Ohio. His grave can be found in plot 43-D, grave #2.

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