This Day in History: William “Pits” Pitsenbarger, pararescue medic & Medal of Honor recipient

On this day in 1944, a hero is born. William “Pits” Pitsenbarger once tried to quit high school to join the Army! Instead, he finished high school, then joined the Air Force. He would go on to serve in Vietnam, completing hundreds of rescues as a pararescue medic.

“He wanted to go where the action was,” his father would say.

Airman 1st Class Pitsenbarger’s Medal action came on April 11, 1966. The day should have been relatively uneventful: It was his day off. Instead, Pits volunteered for a dangerous rescue mission. American soldiers were under fire near the village of Cam My. Our boys were outnumbered, and the casualties were mounting.

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this mission,” Pits told a friend, but he boarded one of two HH-43 Huskie rescue helicopters anyway. The crews were to hover above the trees and drop litters down for wounded soldiers. Not that it would be easy. The rescuers arrived on the scene, only to discover that the gap in the trees was pretty small. Soldiers on the ground were struggling, and they were loading the wounded into the litters incorrectly.

Pits resolved to go down and help during the second round of rescues.

“Once I’m down there I can really help out,” Captain Hal Salem remembered him saying. “I can show those guys how to rig the Stokes litter and load it right. It will be much faster, and you can put more people in the bird.”

You can imagine the soldiers’ surprise when they saw a member of the Air Force coming down through the trees! One soldier would later say that Pits must have been “out of his mind” to leave the helicopter. “There was only one man on the ground that day that would have turned down a ride out of that hellhole,” another soldier concurred, “and that man was Pitsenbarger.”

And a hellhole it was.

First Lt. Martin Kroah would later describe just how terrible the battle was: “At times the small-arms fire would be so intense it was deafening and all a person could do was get as close to the ground as possible and pray. . . . a fire team leader in my platoon curled up in a fetal position and sobbed uncontrollably. He had seen combat in both World War II and Korea. The psychological pressure was beyond comprehension.”

But Pits was unflappable. He took charge, ensuring that rescue operations ran more smoothly. The helicopters made multiple trips, getting nine soldiers out, before it became too difficult for them to operate. Salem made one last effort to get Pits aboard his Huskie, but Pits would have none of it. The helicopter was taking too much fire.

“[Pits] appeared to be hollering for us to get the hell out of there,” Salem later reported. “This was his second wave-off.”

By the time that helicopter returned to base, it had taken nine hits and the rotor blades were ruined. Would the helicopter have gotten back safely without Pits’s wave-off?

Back on the ground, Pits was everywhere. He helped the wounded. He gathered weapons and ammunition from dead men, then redistributed them. He joined the battle against the Viet Cong, but was unfortunately killed in the fire fight that night.

The casualty rates were staggering, which made it hard to collect eyewitness statements later. But during the 1990s, a few veterans of the battle took up the cause, and Pits’s Air Force Cross was upgraded to a Medal of Honor.

“Simply ask yourself,” an Air Force video concludes, “Why did he stay? This was not a man who died the right way. It was a man who lived the right way.”

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