William Hart Pitsenbarger (July 8, 1944 – April 11, 1966) was a United States Air Force Pararescueman who flew on almost 300 rescue missions during the Vietnam War to aid downed soldiers and pilots. On April 11, 1966, he was killed aiding and defending a unit of soldiers pinned down by an enemy assault during the Vietnam War. Before his death he helped save over 60 men in the battle. He was posthumously awarded the Air Force Cross, which was later upgraded to the Medal of Honor.
Pitsenbarger was later sent on Temporary Duty (TDY) to Vietnam. Upon completing his first TDY assignment, he volunteered to return and received orders in 1965 to report to Detachment 6, 38th Air Rescue and Recovery Squadron at Bien Hoa Air Base near Saigon. His unit was composed of five aircrews that flew three Kaman HH-43F Huskie helicopters. His commander, Major Maurice Kessler, called him "One of a special breed. Alert and always ready to go on any mission."
Pitsenbarger completed more than 250 missions, including one in which he hung from an HH-43's cable to rescue a wounded South Vietnamese soldier from a burning minefield. This action earned him the Airman's Medal and the Republic of Vietnam's Medal of Military Merit and Gallantry Cross with Bronze Palm.
On April 11, 1966, the Joint Rescue Center dispatched two Huskies from Detachment 6 to extract a half-dozen or more Army casualties pinned down in a battle near Cam My, 35 miles (56 km) east of Saigon.
Upon reaching the site of the ambush, he was lowered through the trees to the ground where he attended to the wounded before having them lifted to the helicopter by cable. After six wounded men had been flown to an aid station, the two U.S. Air Force helicopters returned for their second load.
As one of the helicopters lowered its litter basket to Pitsenbarger, who had remained on the ground with the 20 infantrymen still alive, it was hit by a burst of enemy small-arms fire. When its engine began to lose power, the pilot realized he had to get the helicopter away from the area as soon as possible. Instead of climbing into the litter basket so he could leave with the helicopter, Pitsenbarger elected to remain with the Army troops under enemy attack and he gave a "wave-off" to the helicopter which flew away to safety. With heavy mortar and small-arms fire, the helicopters couldn't return to rescue Pitsenbarger.
For the next hour and a half, Pitsenbarger tended to the wounded soldiers, hacking splints out of snarled vines and building improvised stretchers out of saplings. When the others began running low on ammunition, he gathered ammunition from the dead and distributed it to those still alive. Then, he joined the others with a rifle to hold off the Viet Cong. Pitsenbarger was killed by Viet Cong snipers later that night. When his body was recovered the next day, one hand still held a rifle and the other clutched a medical kit. Although Pitsenbarger did not escape alive, 60 other men did, partially thanks to his courage and devotion to duty. He is buried in Miami Memorial Park Cemetery Covington, Ohio. His grave can be found in plot 43-D.
Soon after Pitsenbarger was killed, his Air Force commanders nominated him for the Medal of Honor. An Army general recommended that the award be downgraded to the Air Force Cross, apparently because at the time there was not enough documentation of Pitsenbarger's actions. Pitsenbarger received the Air Force Cross on June 30, 1966. After review and nearly 35 years later, the original award was upgraded.
On December 8, 2000, at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, the airman's father, William F. Pitsenbarger, and his wife, Alice, accepted the Medal of Honor from Secretary of the Air Force Whit Peters. During the same ceremony he was also posthumously promoted to the rank of Staff sergeant. The audience included battle survivors, hundreds of pararescue airmen, a congressional representative and the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force.
Pitsenbarger was the 59th Medal of Honor recipient, and sixth enlisted recipient, from the Air Force and its predecessor organizations. Pitsenbarger was the first enlisted recipient of the Air Force Cross medal, receiving the award posthumously in 1966.The United States Navy Container Ship MV A1C William H. Pitsenbarger (T-AK-4638) was christened in his honor, but was decommissioned and returned to its original owner in 2008 with the new name Black Eagle.
In addition several buildings have been named in his honor including William H. Pitsenbarger Dining Hall, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio; William H. Pitsenbarger Professional Military Education Center, Beale Air Force Base, California; William H. Pitsenbarger Airman Leadership School, Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany; Pitsenbarger Hall, Randolph Air Force Base, Texas and Pitsenbarger Fitness Center, Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas. His name can be found on Panel 06E Line 102 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Civilian authorities have also honored his name. The city of Piqua, Ohio, renamed a recreational park (which includes the municipal swimming pool) the "Pitsenbarger Sports Complex." In 2005, the State of Ohio designated State Route 48 as the "U.S.A.F. Pararescue Memorial Parkway." The highway runs near the hometowns of four pararescuemen who died in service to their country. This includes Pitsenbarger; Sgt. Jim Locker of Sidney, Ohio; Master Sgt. William McDaniel II of Greenville, Ohio; and Airman 1st Class James Pleiman of Russia, Ohio. In addition to being designated Main Street through the city of Dayton—where the Wright Brothers designed their airplane—state route 48 also runs along Miami Memorial Park north of Covington, Ohio, where all four are buried.
Edison Community College in Piqua, Ohio, awards the Pitsenbarger Scholarship to two full-time students per year who can show financial need. The drill team of the AFJROTC unit at Martinsburg High School, Martinsburg WV is known as the Pitsenbarger Rifles. The Community College of the Air Force (CCAF) awards a $500 Pitsenbarger Scholarship to the top 5% of each graduating class that is currently enrolled in a Bachelor’s program and submits a competitive award nomination package.
In 2019 shortly before Veteran's Day, a motion picture, The Last Full Measure was
released which highlights Pitsenbarger's combat exploits and chronicles the upgrade to the MOH. The Last Full Measure is a 2019 American war drama film written and directed by Todd Robinson and distributed by Roadside Attractions. The story follows the efforts of Pentagon staffer Scott Huffman and many veterans to see the Medal of Honor awarded to William H. Pitsenbarger, a United States Air Force Pararescueman who flew in helicopter rescue missions during the Vietnam War to aid downed soldiers and pilots. The film stars Sebastian Stan, Christopher Plummer, William Hurt, Ed Harris, Samuel L. Jackson, Jeremy Irvine and Peter Fonda, in his final, posthumous film role. the film premiered at a special screening for veterans in Westhampton Beach, New York. It was released worldwide on January 24, 2020, and grossed $3 million against a $20 million budget. The film's title is taken from Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, where Lincoln honored the fallen, saying that they "gave the last full measure of devotion."