April 11, 1966 near near Cam My, Vietnam
Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment finds itself fighting for survival in the rubber plantations of Cam My village. Ambushed by the Vietcong, 80 percent of the company will became casualties. The Joint Rescue Center dispatches two Huskies to extract the fallen men. Airman First Class Pitsenbarger is lowered from one of the choppers to attend to the wounded before having them lifted to the helicopter by cable.
Described by his commander, Major Maurice Kessler, as “One of a special breed. Alert and always ready to go on any mission,” Pitsenbarger had 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.
After the first group of men were evacuated, the rescue chopper returned for more. As one of the helicopters lowered its litter basket to Pitsenbarger, who had remained on the ground with the 20 surviving infantrymen, it was struck by a burst of enemy small-arms fire. The pilot realized the helicopter had to leave immediately, as its engine was losing power.
Instead of climbing into the litter basket to evacuate with the helicopter, Pitsenbarger made the courageous decision to remain with the Army troops under enemy attack. He gave a “wave-off” to the helicopter, which flew away to safety. Despite heavy mortar and small-arms fire, the helicopters were unable to return to rescue Pitsenbarger.
Undeterred, Pitsenbarger tended to the wounded soldiers, showing resourcefulness and resilience in the face of adversity. He hacked splints out of snarled vines and built improvised stretchers out of saplings to provide much-needed medical aid. When the survivors began running low on ammunition, Pitsenbarger gathered ammunition from fallen soldiers and distributed it to those still fighting. With unwavering resolve, he took up a rifle and joined his comrades in holding off the relentless Viet Cong assault.
Tragically, Pitsenbarger’s unwavering courage and selflessness led to his ultimate sacrifice. He 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. While Pitsenbarger did not escape alive, his actions ensured the survival of 60 other men.
The magnitude of Pitsenbarger’s heroism and sacrifice was recognized posthumously. Initially awarded the Air Force Cross, the second-highest military decoration for valor, his commendation was later upgraded to the Medal of Honor. In 2000, President Bill Clinton presented the Medal of Honor to Pitsenbarger’s parents, acknowledging his exceptional bravery and sacrifice.