This Day in History: The Medal recipient who wasn’t “supposed” to serve
On this day in 1966, a United States Marine leaps to the defense of his comrades. Lance Corporal Richard “Rick” Pittman would receive the Medal of Honor for his valor, but it would be years before he really knew, in his heart, that he’d done some good in Vietnam. For a while, he wasn’t so sure.
Pittman had been inspired to join the military by one particular President. “[A]sk not what your country can do for you,” John F. Kennedy had challenged the country, “ask what you can do for your country.”
Pittman loved it. He wanted to serve! But he had just one problem. He was blind in one eye. The Army and Navy turned him away, so he lied about his eyesight and joined the Marine Reserves instead. Soon, he’d transferred out of the Reserves and enlisted in the Marines.
On July 24, 1966, Pittman was in Vietnam. His platoon was headed down a narrow jungle trail when the lead company was ambushed. Pittman was at the very rear of the column, a position jokingly called “tail-end Charlie.” He was initially ordered to stay at the rear, but as the attack became more intense and calls for more firepower came, Pittman leapt into action.
“Believe it or not, I had the last functioning machine gun,” Pittman later recounted. “So I was just trying to do what I’d been trained to do.”
Pittman’s citation describes the “withering hail of enemy mortar and small-arms fire” that he endured as he rushed into danger, carrying the machinegun and several belts of ammunition. When he finally reached the Marines who had fallen at the front of the action, he was attacked by 30 to 40 of the enemy.
Apparently, Pittman took it all in stride. He calmly established a position in the middle of the trail, and he began raking the area with machine gun fire. When he ran out of ammunition, he picked up an enemy submachine gun where it had fallen. When that weapon ran out of ammunition, he grabbed a pistol and began using that. He kept firing and firing until finally the enemy withdrew. By then, he was out of ammunition, but he still had a single grenade.
He threw that at the retreating enemy, too.
He’d saved many lives—or so he thought. But in later years, Pittman was left wondering if he’d done any good in Vietnam. He’d visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in D.C., and he knew too many names on that wall.
“I never knew how many were killed and wounded until I went to the Vietnam Memorial,” Pittman later recounted. He was telling the story decades later, but the memory still choked him up. “I saw a couple of names that I knew, and that were in my squad. And then the day of the action, and then all the names that were right there together. Difficult. It was shock[ing]. I was in shock. We were all buddies, you know. We were all close. And there was a lot. Just a lot of casualties.”
Fortunately, fate intervened, helping him to see the value of his actions.
A friend called one day and urged him to grab a copy of the latest edition of Leatherneck, a Marine Corps publication. A platoon sergeant had written a letter to the editor. The sergeant credited Pittman with saving his life.
“That made me feel a lot better,” Pittman said. “Cause I just wondered, I always wondered, I have a medal, but did it do any good? Especially after I saw the number of people who had been killed and wounded. I just always said, you know, what was it worth? And then you find out it was worth a lot. A lot of people wouldn’t be here, a lot of families wouldn’t be here. It actually makes me feel like I did some good . . . .”
America’s Heroes: Medal of Honor Recipients from the Civil War to Afghanistan (James H. Willbanks ed.; 2011)
Daniel Slotnik, Richard Pittman, Marine Who Fended off Vietnam Ambush Dies at 71 (NY Times; Oct. 29, 2016)
Edward F. Murphy, Vietnam Medal of Honor Heroes (rev. ed. 2005)
Interview with Richard A. Pittman (Pritzker Military Museum & Library)
Medal of Honor citation (Richard Pittman)
Medal of Honor: Oral Histories (Richard Pittman; Vietnam War)
Peter Collier et al., Medal of Honor: Portraits of Honor beyond the Call of Duty (2d ed. 2006)