Heroic story of William H. Pitsenbarger told in ‘The Last Full Measure’


U.S. Air Force A1C William H. Pitsenbarger

The film, “The Last Full Measure,” is in theaters nationwide on Jan. 24. The film is based on the true story of Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Air Force A1C William Pitsenbarger, who was killed in action on April 11, 1966. The dramatization follows his heroism, the men who were saved by his actions and the decades-long effort to posthumously award him the Medal of Honor. ‘Pits’ was an Air Force pararescue medic who had completed more than 300 missions in Vietnam. He was 21 years old when he lost his life, but he is remembered for how honorably and selflessly he lived.

On April 11, 1966 a call came to help 134 men of Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division.  The soldiers were surrounded by a battalion of Viet Cong troops near Cam My, Vietnam. The company was pinned down and casualties were mounting.

Pits joined the rescue efforts after Detachment 6 of the USAF’s 38th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron received a call to help evacuate the wounded. Army helicopters could not land in the battle zone because there were no clearings in the tall, dense “triple canopy” forest, according to the National Museum of the United States Air Force. It only made it possible for U.S. Air Force HH-43 Huskie helicopters to hoist the casualties from the jungle.

Pits volunteered to be lowered down to hoist the wounded, where they would then be sent to a nearby airfield. He descended a hundred feet into the firefight with a medical bag, a supply of splints, a rifle and a pistol. Pits helped organize the rescue efforts and was able to pull out nine soldiers. When Pits had the option to leave with the helicopter, he elected to stay and care for the wounded and dying – all while under fire. On his own, Pits “made stretchers out of saplings and splints from vines and branches.” The fighting grew intense and went into the night. He gathered weapons and ammunition from the dead, and continued to look after the wounded until he was killed.  Charlie Company suffered a devastating 80% casualties.

For his actions, Pits was posthumously awarded the Air Force Cross. It wasn’t until surviving comrades and eyewitnesses put in requests and testimonies for an upgrade, that it was granted. It took 34 years before the Medal of Honor recommendation came to fruition – and his parents accepted the award on his behalf on Dec. 8, 2000.

Medal of Honor Citation: Airman First Class Pitsenbarger distinguished himself by extreme valor on 11 April 1966 near Cam My, Republic of Vietnam, while assigned as a Pararescue Crew Member, Detachment 6, 38th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron. On that date, Airman Pitsenbarger was aboard a rescue helicopter responding to a call for evacuation of casualties incurred in an ongoing firefight between elements of the United States Army’s 1st Infantry Division and a sizeable enemy force approximately 35 miles east of Saigon. With complete disregard for personal safety, Airman Pitsenbarger volunteered to ride a hoist more than one hundred feet through the jungle, to the ground. On the ground, he organized and coordinated rescue efforts, cared for the wounded, prepared casualties for evacuation, and insured that the recovery operation continued in a smooth and orderly fashion. Through his personal efforts, the evacuation of the wounded was greatly expedited. As each of the nine casualties evacuated that day was recovered, Airman Pitsenbarger refused evacuation in order to get more wounded soldiers to safety. After several pick-ups, one of the two rescue helicopters involved in the evacuation was struck by heavy enemy ground fire and was forced to leave the scene for an emergency landing. Airman Pitsenbarger stayed behind on the ground to perform medical duties. Shortly thereafter, the area came under sniper and mortar fire. During a subsequent attempt to evacuate the site, American forces came under heavy assault by a large Viet Cong force. When the enemy launched the assault, the evacuation was called off and Airman Pitsenbarger took up arms with the besieged infantrymen. He courageously resisted the enemy, braving intense gunfire to gather and distribute vital ammunition to American defenders. As the battle raged on, he repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire to care for the wounded, pull them out of the line of fire, and return fire whenever he could, during which time he was wounded three times. Despite his wounds, he valiantly fought on, simultaneously treating as many wounded as possible. In the vicious fighting that followed, the American forces suffered 80 percent casualties as their perimeter was breached, and Airman Pitsenbarger was fatally wounded. Airman Pitsenbarger exposed himself to almost certain death by staying on the ground, and perished while saving the lives of wounded infantrymen.

His story of valor, perseverance and compassion will continue to be told. His memory lives in the men he saved, his family, and the Air Force community. Now, his name and story will be on the big screen and grateful nation will continue to honor his sacrifice.

The name of William Pitsenbarger is inscribed on Panel 6E, Line 102 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. You can visit his Wall of Faces page and leave a remembrance in his honor here.