That Others May Live: The Selfless Stand of William H. Pitsenbarger
Beneath the tall trees of a dense triple canopy forest near the village of Cam My in the Republic of Vietnam, American troops were trapped in a caldron of hell. It was April 11, 1966 and 134 U.S. soldiers were surrounded by a 500-man-strong Vietcong battalion. Pinned to the dark jungle floor, it was difficult to hear anything under the enemy’s relentless fire and even more difficult to move. As one soldier put it, “The psychological pressure was beyond comprehension.” An American fire team leader, who was a combat veteran of World War II and Korea, was so broken by the death and despair in the air that he “curled up in a fetal position and sobbed uncontrollably.” Cast into this frightful scene was Airman 1st Class William H. Pitsenbarger. Like an angel sent from above, the twenty-one-year-old pararescueman was lowered from an Air Force helicopter and hit the ground. Over the course of the ensuing chaos, he lived out the pararescuman’s motto through his superhuman efforts to safeguard his brothers in arms. The selfless words, “That Others May Live,” fueled every movement that Pitsenbarger made throughout the ferocious struggle and would enshrine his name among the pantheon of immortal American heroes.
A native of rural Piqua, Ohio, Pitsenbarger saw the first light of life on July 8, 1944. Described as “an ambitious only child,” he was determined to quit high school and walk the road of the warrior by joining the U.S. Army, learning the way of the Special Forces, and becoming a “Green Beret.” After some convincing from his parents, however, Pitsenbarger decided to stay in school and graduated in 1962. He proceeded to join the Air Force and ultimately volunteered for pararescue, also known as PJs. Through rigorous training across U.S. Army Parachute school, Air Force rescue training and jungle survival school, the U.S. Navy’s scuba diving school, and more, Pitsenbarger became both a medic and a survival specialist. As a PJ, it was his job to rescue and medically treat downed military personnel across any environment.
Airman 1st Class William H. Pitsenbarger preparing for a water jump. (U.S. Air Force Museum)
Pitsenbarger arrived in Vietnam in August 1965, nearly five months after the first U.S. combat troops had landed on Vietnamese soil. He went on to complete more than 250 missions. One of the most remarkable testaments to his bravery occurred in March 1966. With a South Vietnamese soldier wounded after stepping on a land mine, Pitsenbarger hung from the cable of an HH-43 Huskie helicopter and rescued him from a burning minefield. For his valor, he was awarded the Airman’s Medal along with the Republic of Vietnam’s Medal of Military Merit and Gallantry Cross with Bronze Palm.
At 3:07 p.m. on April 11, 1966, a call for help went out to Detachment 6, 38th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron at Bien Hoa, roughly 20 miles northeast of the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon. Out in the thick jungle near the village of Cam My, the 134 men of Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division, were isolated, encircled, and fighting for their lives against 500 Vietcong fighters. Wounded Americans needed to be evacuated, but because there were no clearings in the tall, dense triple canopy forest, Army helicopters could not land on the raging battlefield. “The tallest trees rose 150 feet,” according to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, ”and a second layer stood at about 100 feet, with a third layer below.” Due to these obstacles, only Huskie helicopters, which had special cables and winches, could hoist up the wounded from the forbidding jungle. It thus fell to the airmen of Detachment 6 to come to the rescue of Charlie Company.
Airman Pitsenbarger was inside the alert room at Bien Hoa when the call for assistance came in. Two Huskie helicopters, Pedro 97 and Pedro 73, were to fly out to assist Charlie Company. Pitsenbarger, who was called “Pits” by his comrades, was to be the rescue and survival specialist aboard Pedro 73. He ran into a friend as he prepared to move out and filled him in. “There’s about a million VC in the area,” Pitsenbarger said. “I don’t have a good feeling about this one.” Despite the tension he felt in his gut, the young pararescuman would go forward and perform his duty in a way that few would ever forget.
After roughly 30 minutes of flight, the two helicopters were hovering over the combat zone. Below them, the embattled soldiers of Charlie Company had marked their location with colored smoke. The plan was for Pedro 97 and Pedro 93 to take turns lowering their litters to the ground and hoisting the wounded soldiers back up to the choppers through the forest canopy. The helicopters would then fly the wounded to a nearby Army hospital.
For the pilots in the air, it was a challenge to find a clearing in the jungle wide enough to raise up the wounded from the jungle floor. They managed to find a “little bitty” opening, which was “so tight that the whirling helicopter blades passed within five feet of the trees,” according to the former editor-in-chief of Air Force Magazine. “We had no direct communications with the people below, except through hand signals,” said Captain Hal Salem, the pilot of Pedro 73. Due to those conditions and the inexperience of the soldiers on the ground in loading the wounded, the extraction process took a long time and the helicopters were dangerously exposed to enemy ground fire. Once the first batch of casualties was loaded aboard, the two choppers raced off to the hospital at Binh Ba, roughly eight miles to the south.
Upon returning to the battle area, Airman Pitsenbarger volunteered to be lowered to the ground. “Once I’m down there I can really help out,” he said to Captain Salem. Despite the obvious danger, the crew agreed that Pitsenbarger would be able to make a difference on the ground. “Pits had a big grin on his face,” recalled Salem. “I said a silent prayer for him. I have a feeling the rest of the crew said a prayer for him, too.” Armed with a rile and a pistol, a medical bag, and a supply of splints, Pitsenbarger descended 100 feet into the fiery depths below.
An airman being lowered to the ground from an HH-43 Huskie helicopter. (Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force Museum)
Along the blazing jungle floor, 1st Lieutenant Martin Kroah said that the enemy’s firepower was so overwhelming that “all a person could do was get as close to the ground as possible and pray.” He added, “My own platoon medic, who was later killed, was totally ineffective. He was frozen with fear, unable to move.” The same could not be said about Airman Pitsenbarger. In addition to supervising and speeding up the evacuation, he constantly braved enemy bullets, “moving around and pulling wounded men out of the line of fire and then bandaging their wounds,” according to Kroah. Pitsenbarger’s impact on the ground was significant, allowing the Huskies to rescue nine soldiers across several trips.
Instead of returning to his helicopter after the wounded had been loaded, which was common practice for a pararescuman, Pitsenbarger refused to leave and remained on the ground to support the members of Charlie Company. As the chaotic combat continued, Pedro 73 sustained significant damage from enemy ground fire. The crew chief of Pedro 73 made frantic motions to Pitsenbarger below, urging him to grab onto the Stokes litter and return to the chopper before they had to pullout. Pitsenbarger waved him off. “Without any hesitation,” said Captain Salem, “Pits elected to stay on the ground with the wounded.” In the words of one of the members of Charlie Company, “There was only one man on the ground that day that would have turned down a ride out of that hellhole — and that man was Pitsenbarger.”
As the late afternoon rolled along, the Vietcong intensified their efforts, shredding Charlie Company’s position with machine gun and mortar fire. No place was safe. Even Americans lying prone in the firing position were shot in the back by enemy snipers concealed in the trees. The fire at the battlefront became so hot that helicopters were unable to make any additional attempts to extract the wounded.
Despite the deadly danger that swirled all around him, nothing seemed to faze Airman Pitsenbarger. He remained a tower of strength while under fire, caring for the wounded and distributing ammunition to the survivors. “Pitsenbarger concealed my body with a dead soldier,” recalled Sergeant Charles F. Navarro, “probably to protect me from getting hit again or even from being killed if we were overrun.” Navarro added that the young airman “amazingly proceeded to return fire whenever he could.” Maintaining a sharp mind in the midst of the mayhem, Pitsenbarger also made stretchers out of saplings and splints from vines and branches.
Airman 1st Class William H. Pitsenbarger. (Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force Museum)
Pitsenbarger was everywhere. He ran all over the perimeter, steadfastly putting ammo into the hands of those who needed it and doing everything he could to help the wounded. Sergeant Navarro even saw Pitsenbarger give his handgun to a wounded soldier who was unable to hold a rifle. “He looked at my wound,” remembered one infantryman, “stated that it was not overly serious, and said something to the effect of, ‘Don’t give up; we can get out of this mess.’ He then left and that was the last time I remember seeing him.”
From his tireless efforts across the battlefield, Pitsenbarger was struck by enemy fire in the back, shoulder, and thigh. Despite his wounds, he continued to stand tall and did everything in his power to support his brothers in arms. “It took tremendous courage to expose himself to the possibility of an almost certain death in order to save the life of someone he didn't even know,” said 1st Lieutenant Kroah. Bravest of the brave, Pitsenbarger performed his duty until the very end. He was fighting alongside other survivors in his final moments when an enemy bullet fatally struck him in the head at around 7:30 p.m.
After Pitsenbarger’s death, the remnants of Charlie Company continued to desperately hold on against the relentless Vietcong. The enemy was so close and the chance of being overrun was so great that the Americans were essentially forced to order artillery to fire on top of their position in order to survive. It was a tenuous existence, but the artillery had its effect and the Vietcong backed off at about 9 p.m. American forces finally reached the survivors at midnight. In facing three heavy enemy attacks against their position, Charlie Company had suffered 80 percent casualties.
In what was the most agonizing and terrifying fight of many men’s lives, Airman Pitsenbarger was a light that shined through the darkness. For his awe-inspiring valor, selfless devotion, and supreme sacrifice, he was recommended by Captain Salem for the Medal of Honor, the United States military's highest decoration for valor. Colonel Arthur Beall then nominated Pitsenbarger for that most revered mark of distinction. “However,” explains the former editor-in-chief of Air Force Magazine, “Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, proposed the award of the Air Force Cross instead. The Pentagon went along with MACV.”
Although posthumously awarded the Air Force Cross in 1966, Pitsenbarger’s comrades knew that their comrade was deserving of the U.S. military’s most sacred decoration. For more than 30 years, his fellow PJs and other faithful individuals, including eyewitness like Salem and Sergeant Navarro, petitioned tirelessly for Pitsenbarger’s Air Force Cross to be upgraded to the Medal of Honor. Their hard work paid off. On December 8, 2000, the Medal of Honor was presented posthumously to Airman 1st Class William H. Pitsenbarger in a ceremony at the U.S. Air Force Museum. In his 80s at the time, Pitsenbarger’s father was there to accept the decoration on his son’s behalf. The heroic actions of Pitsenbarger and the story about what it took to get his original award upgraded to the Medal of Honor are displayed in the film, The Last Full Measure, which was released in 2020.
With his wife, Alice, by his side, William F. Pitsenbarger accepts the Medal of Honor on his son's behalf on December 8, 2000. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
When Airman Pitsenbarger descended into the inferno on April 11, 1966, he was in the final months of his enlistment. He had applied to Arizona State and looked forward to studying to become a nurse once his enlistment was over. A bright future awaited him, but in the chaos of battle, he showed that nothing mattered more to him than fulfilling his duty to his brothers in arms, even it it meant sacrificing everything. “I felt at the time, and still do, that Bill Pitsenbarger is one of the bravest men I have ever known,” wrote Lieutenant Johnny Libs. Until he drew his final breathe, Pitsenbarger lived out the Pararescueman’s motto: “These Things We Do, That Others May Live.” Through his selfless stand on the field of battle, he will forever hold an immortal place among the pantheon of heroes who gave their last full measure of devotion for the United States of America.
Air Force: Pararescue.
Air Force Magazine: Pitsenbarger, Medal of Honor.
Military.com: Airman 1st Class William H. Pitsenbarger: Profile.
National Museum of the U.S. Air Force: Airman 1st Class William H. Pitsenbarger.