The Last Full Measure was a movie released in 2020 about William H. Pitsenbarger Jr., who was awarded the Medal of Honor 34 years after his death. An award that he should’ve gotten from the very beginning.
Eager to Enlist
Pitsenbarger, or simply “Pits,” grew up in the small town of Piqua in Ohio as an only child. He wanted to enlist in the Army when he was junior high, but his parents did not allow him. He finished high school and pushed through with the enlistment— only this time, he decided to join the U.S. Air Force, where he volunteered to be Pararescueman. He completed the Airborne School, SCUBA, survival school, and a rescue and survival medical course. He was assigned to the Rescue Squadron in Hamilton Field, California.
Volunteered In Vietnam
Pits was then sent on Temporary Duty Assignment in Vietnam. Once he completed that, he volunteered to return as part of the Detachment Six, 38th Air Rescue and Recovery Squadron at Bien Hoa Air Base near Saigon. This unit performed the dangerous mission of recovering downed pilots hitting targets in North Vietnam.
A1C William Pitsenbarger preparing for a water jump. (U.S. Air Force/Wikimedia Commons)In Vietnam, Pits demonstrated that he was born to be a pararescue jumper. He completed over 250 missions, including rescuing a South Vietnamese soldier who lost a limb in a minefield, and he did so by hanging from the HH-43’s hoist cable. For that rescue, he was awarded the Airman’s Medal.
“These Things We Do, That Others May Live”
A1C William Pitsenbarger’s final and most selfless act in his career happened on April 11, 1966. It was his day off, but he volunteered to help extract a half-dozen or so wounded soldiers near Cam My. He boarded one of the two Kaman HH-43F Huskie helicopters sent for the mission on a battlefield where 134 Americans were fighting against some 500 Viet Cong.
As Army infantryman, Johnny Libs said, “I saw the guy coming down through the trees, and I said ‘What is he doin’ comin’ down here?'”
Pits did not waste time and immediately tended to the wounded on the ground. He was able to get nine of the wounded soldiers loaded into the helicopter using the rescue hoist and basket. He stayed on the ground with them while the two Air Force Huskie helicopters flew back and forth to transport the wounded troops.
Waved Off His Way Out
At one point, one of the helicopters was lowering its basket to extract Pitsenbarger when it was hit by enemy fire. The engine was beginning to lose power, so the pilot knew he had to either return to base of find a safe landing area. Instead of getting into that basket and getting out of harms way way, Pits reportedly waved his ride off and continued helping the soldiers by making makeshift stretchers and splints out of vines. He did so while gathering ammo from the fallen to distribute to those still in the fight. He also helped fight off the Viet Cong with his own rifle. The action was so close that Pits hid a wounded soldier named Fred Navarro under two dead bodies. Navarro said Pit’s descent was like “seeing an angel come down through the jungle to save us.” He recalled how Pitsenbarger took off his flak vest to put on him.
When Pits was hit, Navarro wanted to get to him, but the weight of the dead bodies covering him and his injuries made it impossible for him to do it. In the morning, he found out Pits died along with 105 others.
When the bloody fighting ceased, and reinforcements arrived, they found Pitsenbarger’s body with his rifle in one hand and his medical kit in the other.
He was awarded the Air Force Cross, which his parents received five months after his death. The men he saved felt that he deserved something more, so they petitioned to upgrade it to the Medal of Honor. It was granted after 34 years on December 8, 2000. His father, William Pitsenbarger Sr., received his son’s posthumous award in a ceremony at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.
As USAF Pararescue’s motto, “These Things We Do, That Others May Live,” Pitsenbarger did exactly just that.