Monday, May 26, 2014

Memorial Day 2014

Memorial Day is the day we remember, we reflect, upon a loved one, friend, or acquaintance, who was killed for some obfuscated principle.  A somber day, as compared to Armed Forces Day, when we puff up our pride and display our military hardware with festive "open houses."

The acrimonious rancor running rampant in Congress and the Senate besmirch the sacrifice of those who gave their lives in the name of what was once a Grand Nation.

Shame on John Boehner and his republican cohorts. They have a shameful track record of  denying veterans everything, from new hospitals to relieve the backlog of treating damaged bodies and souls, to increasing Job Training benefits.

Remember in February, the War Mongers defeated a comprehensive Veterans Health Care & Education Program - as being too expensive!   They have no compulsion about sending our youth into harms way, and ignore the human cost of war.


On Memorial Day,  I recall a buddy, A1C (Airman First Class) William H. Pitsenbarger, known to us as "Pits." Pits was a rescue-paramedic. He was killed in Viet Nam on April 11, 1966.


Fresh out of boot camp, I was sent to my permanent duty station at Hamilton AFB in California as a 732X0, Personnel Specialist, assigned to Western Air Rescue Center (WARC).


WARC was a rescue coordination center covering the 8 western states plus Alaska.  Any incident, civilian or military, involving a missing aircraft, was coordinated through our rescue coordination center.

The rescue center ran 24/7.  It featured a massive mapping table (12'12') with topo maps covering every square inch of our coverage area,  and a telephone banks plugged into every single rescue group, bloodhound owners, and search volunteers in the eight western states!

My responsibility was to maintain personnel records of our officers and airmen in all aspects of their careers, from training, to shots, to weapons qualification, not only for the Center, but every officer and airmen stationed at our local base rescue units.

We had 14 Detachments covering the 8 western states. Each Detachment had two Kaman Huskie HH-43B rescue helicopters, standing by to support local training flights.  And in those days, activity was high.  Things were heating up in Southeast Asia.

It was a total rush watching the "Pedro" launch. The aircraft crew - pilot, co-pilot, flight engineer and two aluminum suited firefighters - could be air borne in 90 seconds, poised to pick up a fire suppression kit.


We were considered a Tenant Group, on an Air Defense Command base. There was a group of Phantom F4C's, poised in alert hangers, to protecting San Francisco and environs.

And they were awesome to watch, especially when they took off in pairs, hitting afterburners right across from our office, located next to the runway! Roaring blow torches!

When we were fully staffed, there were less than three dozen of us in the building, and only a handful of us living on base. Six of us shared billet with the 41st Air Rescue Squadron. 

The field of blue represents the Sky from which our mission is accomplished, with a star for each of the Air Rescue Detachments, plus Alaska, within Western Air Rescue Center. The thunder bolt and olive branch symbolize our mission in time of war or peace, and the Airman and Space capsule; those who depend on us.

After reporting to the barracks chief for my assigned "living" space, I am struggling with my duffel bag containing my worldly possessions, when this fellow comes over to help me.


"Hi! I'm Pits!"

Turned out my bunk area was next to his. Open bay barracks were sparse; a bunk, a locker, a dresser  and a lot of roommates! Worse, I was the only one from WARC amongst the 41st Air Rescue dudes.  They were 24/7, so it took a while to learn how to sleep with mechanics coming an going all night long!  There were 4 WARC guys who had a room to themselves!

I realized Pits had been leaving the barracks when I stumbled in, but he was extremely helpful getting me established.  Then he offered to take me over to the Airman's Club for a cool one, and introduce me around.


William Pitsenbarger - "Pits" - was assigned to the 41st Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron on Hamilton AFB, as an  Paramedic - Jumper (PJ) - jump and combat qualified - to be dropped in to rescue people in distress and administer top of the line first aid.

This is the Pits I remember.  Ready smile. His bunk was next to mine.

Think of PJ's as jump qualified paramedic;  medically trained, jump qualified first responders. A select group if ever there was one, rivaling the US Army Green Berets.


Our commonality was we were both under ARS - Air Rescue Service - headquartered in Orlando, Florida.

For the most part we didn't see that much of each other. The 41st running at full speed three shifts, with a full complement of mechanics and support personnel, caring for a couple of  Grumman Geese!

Pits and his fellow Pararescuemen were constantly flying training missions, preparing to send Paramedics to Viet Nam. Following a six week survival school in Panama, Pits went with one of the groups.

We had a hell of a send off party for him, and decorated his bunk area with memorabilia. It was generally speculated that Pits probably didn't sober up until he got to the Philippines!


We were a tight group. Our aircraft and pilots were constantly running rescue missions in Viet Nam, with Paramedics assigned to each mission. One day just after lunch, our Commanding Officer called us into a conference room.

In a barely audible voice he read aloud a classified message, that I had just picked up from the Western Union Message Center, notifying all Air Rescue Service Personnel that "Pits" wasn't coming home.

The message went on to explain that Pits had been killed during Operation Abilene, in Xa Cam My. Pits had been lowered on a jungle perpetrator to render medical aid to army troops.

A Capt Hal Salem was the Rescue Crew Commander of the HH-43F, (armor plated, modified jet turbine upgrade of the 43B) who placed Pits down in the midst of a fierce fire fight.

Well, there wasn't a dry eye in the building. It was painfully incomprehensible. Lives were being lost In Country daily. We saw it on the evening news with Walter Cronkite.  You got numb to it. Until you recognize a name and match it to a face, a real personality.

A1C (Airman First Class) William H. Pitsenbarger received the Air Force Cross posthumously on June 30, 1966.


Upon his return from Viet Nam, the very same Capt. Salem was assigned to us at Western Air Rescue Center as our Flying Safety Officer, responsible for training and check riding pilots and crews at our Local Base Rescue (LBR's)  in the eight western states.


We never talked about that day.



But "Pits" story didn't end there.

Some 34 years later, through the persistence of many, his award was upgraded to the Medal of Honor.  It is a fascinating epoch, told in Air Force Magazine, 2001.  Ironically John Boehner, who is now screwing our troops, was instrumental in the upgrade.

On Dec. 8, 2000, the Medal of Honor was presented posthumously to A1C William H. Pitsenbarger in a ceremony at the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio, not far from his hometown of Piqua.


Secretary of the Air Force F. Whitten Peters presented the award, which was accepted by William F. Pitsenbarger senior and his wife Alice, on their son's behalf.



Citation to Accompany Medal of Honor

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. Airman First Class Pitsenbarger distinguished himself by extreme valor on 11 April 1966 near Cam My, Republic of Vietnam, while assigned as a Pararescue Crew Member, Detachment 6, 38th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron. 


On that date, Airman Pitsenbarger was aboard a rescue helicopter responding to a call for evacuation of casualties incurred in an ongoing firefight between elements of the United States Army's 1st Infantry Division and a sizeable enemy force approximately 35 miles east of Saigon. With complete disregard for personal safety, Airman Pitsenbarger volunteered to ride a hoist more than one hundred feet through the jungle, to the ground.


On the ground, he organized and coordinated rescue efforts, cared for the wounded, prepared casualties for evacuation, and insured that the recovery operation continued in a smooth and orderly fashion. Through his personal efforts, the evacuation of the wounded was greatly expedited. As each of the nine casualties evacuated that day was recovered, Airman Pitsenbarger refused evacuation in order to get more wounded soldiers to safety. 

After several pick-ups, one of the two rescue helicopters involved in the evacuation was struck by heavy enemy ground fire and was forced to leave the scene for an emergency landing. Airman Pitsenbarger stayed behind on the ground to perform medical duties. Shortly thereafter, the area came under sniper and mortar fire. During a subsequent attempt to evacuate the site, American forces came under heavy assault by a large Viet Cong force. When the enemy launched the assault, the evacuation was called off and Airman Pitsenbarger took up arms with the besieged infantrymen. 

He courageously resisted the enemy, braving intense gunfire to gather and distribute vital ammunition to American defenders. As the battle raged on, he repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire to care for the wounded, pull them out of the line of fire, and return fire whenever he could, during which time he was wounded three times.

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.


During the same ceremony Pits was also posthumously promoted to the rank of Staff Sergeant. 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.

His grave can be found in plot 43-D, grave #2.


"Pits" was further honored by the M/V A1C William H. Pitsenbarger, a civilian-crewed container ship operated by Red River Shipping Corporation of Rockville, Maryland, under charter to Military Sealift Command from 2001-2008.

The vessel was launched in 1983 as the Therese Delmas.


She was acquired by US Navy, 1 March 2001 from Red River Shipping Corp. of Rockville, Maryland, and placed under long term contract to the Military Sealift Command (MSC).

M/V Therese Delmas was renamed MV A1C William H. Pitsenbarger (T-AK-4638).

A pair  of F-15E Strike Eagles from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C., flew over the ship on November 28, 2001,  when the ceremonial bottle of champagne was broken, officially renaming the ship.

The Pitsenbarger carried containerized ammunition for the US  Air Force.  About 720 containers fit under the deck and 135 in compartments above deck. Both cargo areas were air-conditioned and dehumidified in peculiar deck structures, to protect the ammunition.

The Pitesenbarger was returned to her owner on August 29, 2008.


Not only on Memorial Day, but whenever I recall my grand experience in the USAF, I always remember, ""Hi! I'm Pits!"

4 Comments - Click here:

oamundsen@aol.com said...

Robert, this is a wonderful tribute to your friend and to the memory of so many "good guys" who gave their most to their buddies and their nation. Thank you so much.

Eric said...

Excellent post of gritty gravitas, Robert. Thanks for sharing this amazing story.

I was privileged to be able to see last night's Memorial Day Tribute on PBS from the Capitol in Washington, DC. A fine presentation as always, with music both patriotic and touching mixed with tributes to brave Americans like 'Pits'. First-person accounts add to the humanity of this loss.

Eric

Rod said...

Thank you.

l.hofley@yahoo.com said...

What a privilege to have known this 'young' man. Thank you for a wonderful memorial story about one of our disgraceful periods of history and part of the human history of several people you knew.

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