It took 34 years to get A1C William H. Pitsenbarger’s Air Force Cross upgraded to a Medal of Honor—the first-ever bestowed upon an enlisted airman. And the struggle to tell that Vietnam War story in a movie took nearly 20 years more.
Now, more than five decades after Pitsenbarger gave his life for the sake of his fellow service members, his story is about to make the big screen.
Writer and director Todd Robinson first learned about the pararescue jumper’s (PJ) story while doing research for another movie in 1999. Robinson was visiting Air Force training schools to learn how PJs are made, and he kept hearing one name evoked to express their ethos.
“Nearly every place I went, the young trainees wanted to be sure that I knew the story of William Pitsenbarger,” Robinson told Air Force Magazine.
Pitsenbarger was a 21-year-old PJ aboard an Air Force rescue helicopter called in for medical evacuation duty to rescue wounded airmen after an Army unit was ambushed on April 11, 1966, near Xa Cam My. When the helicopter was ready to head home, he volunteered to stay to care for the wounded and dying.
Within 90 minutes, he was dead, but many credited their survival to the man they remember as “Pits.”
The story intrigued Robinson, and not just because Pitsenbarger had selflessly put himself into harm’s way. He was just as fascinated with the aftermath, when wives of the soldiers who’d fought in that battle learned that Pitsenbarger had earned an Air Force Cross for his heroism, rather than a Medal of Honor. Once their spouses had helped the men reconnect, they “put forth this effort to petition Congress to reconsider it,” according to Robinson.
Later, he heard William F. “Frank” Pitsenbarger, the airman’s father, speak on his son’s legacy at Kirtland AFB, N.M.
“The whole thing gelled for me in that moment, and it made it very personal because I had a little boy, and I suddenly had to consider what it might be like to send a child into harm’s way and maybe not get them back, or maybe not get them back whole, and that’s when I knew that there was a story to tell,” Robinson said.
Convincing others wasn’t so easy.
Read the rest of this story at Air Force Magazine.