Conspicuous Heroism Celebrated Here
By Jan C. Scruggs
Crowds are flocking to see “Redtails”, a great action movie currently in theaters with enough aerial combat and excitement to keep anyone on the edge of their seats. The movie is a profound, true story of World War II American heroes – the Tuskegee Airmen – who proved to everyone that they could fly airplanes with skill and courage. But the humiliation each of these black airmen experienced is not easy to digest. I once heard a lecture by one of the Tuskegee heroes who noted that one morning he watched two captured German pilots laughing and enjoying breakfast with white U.S. pilots, while the black pilots were forced to dine in a separate dining area. At that time, discrimination and prejudice were endemic in American society.
However, thankfully things begin to change and during the Korean War, The U.S. Army led the way in a profound manner, when President Truman desegregated the Army. The days of racially segregated military units would come to an end, but society continued to lag behind the Army, and African Americans were unable to eat in many restaurants or stay in many hotels. There were even separate drinking fountains. Economic disparity clearly flowed from such prejudice. There were few options available for employment for people of color, fewer still for those who were ambitious and talented.
As the Civil Rights struggles continued in the 1960s, society was changing and America was considering passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. There was still plenty of opposition and strife. There was some violence, but the Reverend Martin Luther King felt that non-violence would bring about change needed.
During that era there was the Vietnam War, which was also bitterly divisive. The Army was years ahead of society at large. People of all races slept in the same barracks and shared the same foxholes in combat. As we commemorate Black History Month, let us remember some forgotten military heroes whose example of courage, duty and integrity should inspire all of us.
Does anyone remember Ralph H. Johnson? In March 1968, when under enemy attack, a hand grenade landed next to his fellow Marines. Private First Class Johnson yelled a warning, hurled his body over the explosive charge and immediately died. When he jumped on the grenade, he was not thinking about the ethnicities of the Marines who he was saving. He died to save his friends. PFC Ralph H. Johnson received the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Riley Pitts is another person whose sense of duty to his country deserves to be both highlighted and celebrated. Riley graduated with a degree in journalism and was doing his tour in Vietnam as an Army officer. The Army needed him to lead a combat unit in 1967, and he distinguished himself by exceptional heroism while serving as company commander during an air mobile assault.
As the official citation reads, “Immediately after his company landed in its area of operations, several Viet Cong opened fire with automatic weapons. Despite the enemy fire, Captain Pitts forcefully led an assault which overran the enemy positions.
Shortly thereafter, Pitts was ordered to move his unit to the north to reinforce another company heavily engaged against a strong enemy force. As Captain Pitts’ company moved forward to engage the enemy, it received intense fire from three directions, including fire from four enemy bunkers, two of which were within 15 meters of Captain Pitts’ position. The severity of the incoming fire prevented Pitts from maneuvering his company. His rifle fire proving ineffective against the enemy due to the dense jungle foliage, he picked up a grenade launcher and began pinpointing the targets.
Seizing a Chinese Communist grenade which had been taken from a captured Viet Cong soldier’s web gear, Captain Pitts lobbed it at a bunker to his front, but it hit the dense jungle foliage and rebounded. Without hesitation, Pitts threw himself on top of the grenade which, fortunately, failed to explode. Captain Pitts then repositioned the company to permit friendly artillery to be fired. Upon completion of the artillery fire mission, Captain Pitts again led his men toward the enemy positions, personally killing at least one more Viet Cong. The jungle growth still prevented effective fire to be placed on the enemy bunkers. Captain Pitts, displaying complete disregard for his life and personal safety, quickly moved to a position that permitted him to place effective fire on the enemy. He maintained a continuous fire, pinpointing the enemy’s fortified positions, while at the same time directing and urging his men forward, until he was mortally wounded.
Captain Pitts’ conspicuous gallantry, extraordinary heroism, and intrepidity at the cost of his life, above and beyond the call of duty, are in the highest traditions of the U.S. Army and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, and the Armed Forces of his country.”
President Lyndon B. Johnson presented the Medal of Honor to Captain Riley Pitts’ family in 1968, saying, “What this man did in an hour of incredible courage will live in the story of America as long as America endures – as he will live in the hearts and memories of those who loved him. He was a brave man and a leader of men. No greater thing could be said of any man.”
As we celebrate Black History Month, we need to remember the difficulties faced by many who have overcome adversity and obstacles. “E Pluribus Unum” is onAmerica’s coinage – this is Latin translated as “From Many – One”. Americans come from all over the world and we are a people of varied and diverse religious and ethnic groups. A good way to celebrate America’s diversity this month is to see the movie, “Redtails”. As we celebrate, let’s always remember the people who have fought for our freedom and way of life.
When completed, The Education Center at The Wall will proudly display the photographs of Ralph H. Johnson and Riley L. Pitts, as well as those of all of the 58,272, around 7,200 of them were African Americans, who sacrificed all inVietnam. TheEducationCenter will be the place on our National Mall where our military heroes’ stories and sacrifices will never be forgotten.
Go to www.buildthecenter.org to donate, get involved and learn more.