Years after hushed-up death, airman's sacrifice recognized
Serviceman who died during 1968 top-secret mission awarded
Medal of Honor
updated 9/21/2010 3:03:42 PM ET
weren’t supposed to be there. Then again, neither were their
enemies. The 16 U.S. airmen of the 1st Combat Evaluation
Group were stationed atop a 5,600-foot mountain that towered
above the Laotian jungle. Before daybreak on March 11, 1968,
the first rocket dropped. Then grenades were hurled and
gunshots came whizzing by. North Vietnamese soldiers had
infiltrated the Air Force's secret “Lima Site 85” – and few
Americans would leave alive.
The Air Force used the covert U.S. radar base, which was 20
miles from the Vietnamese border, to guide U.S. bombers to
and from targets in North Vietnam and Laos. But because Laos
was officially a neutral country in the conflict, the U.S.
troops were there in violation of the Geneva Agreement. So
before sending them to Lima Site 85, military officials told
the airmen they would operate in Laos under the cover of
being civilian technicians who worked for Lockheed Aircraft
Services.During the fierce attack that day in March
More than 42 years ago, 11 U.S. airmen lost their lives. But
five survived — at least three of them thanks to the heroic
actions of Chief Master Sgt. Richard L. "Dick" Etchberger,
who never made it home. As the Vietnamese closed in on the
outnumbered Americans, Etchberger put himself in the line of
fire to load wounded servicemen into the rescue chopper
before scrambling in himself. But just as the helicopter
climbed to safety, a final round pierced the bottom, hitting
and killing Etchberger, 35.
On Tuesday, the Hamburg, Pa., native was awarded the Medal of
Honor by President Barack Obama for his bravery and
sacrifice at Site 85.
“He was the ranking man. It was all on his shoulders,” said
retired Tech. Sgt. John G. Daniel, one of the men Etchberger
shuttled to safety. “He got us out alive. If it hadn’t been
for him, I would have been dead.”
A clandestine job – and death – revealed
The Laos mission was so secret that the only other people
briefed on it were the airmen’s wives – and they weren’t
allowed to tell their children what their fathers had been
doing, even after they died.
Hillary Price, a spokeswoman for Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D.,
who has been advocating for Etchberger to receive the Medal
of Honor, said the airman was nominated for the award when
he was killed, but then-President Lyndon Johnson rejected
the recommendation because of the secrecy of the mission in
Instead, he received the Air Force Cross, the service's
second-highest military decoration.
Cory Etchberger was 9 when his dad was killed.
“For years, I had thought he died in a helicopter accident,”
he said. “People ask me all the time, ‘Didn’t you think it
was kind of strange that your dad got the Air Force Cross
for a helicopter accident?’ And I would say, ‘Doesn’t
everyone in a helicopter accident get that?’”
It wasn’t until 1983, when the Air Force declassified the
mission, that Etchberger’s three sons found out the real
story from their mother, Catherine. “She kept her promise to
the Air Force,” Cory Etchberger said.
Before being deployed to Vietnam, Etchberger was stationed in
Bismarck, N.D., a connection that prompted Rep. Pomeroy to
take up his cause in 2004.Price, Pomeroy's spokeswoman, said
the congressman has several signed affidavits and letters
from Defense Department employees on file pressing for
Etchberger to receive the Medal of Honor.
But when msnbc.com asked the Pentagon for more information,
officials said they could find no records of a nomination
prior to the current one.
"The Air Force has no record that anything ever went beyond an
Air Force Cross
Lt. Col Ann Stefanek, a Pentagon media officer, told
msnbc.com on Tuesday. "A lot of media outlets, including
some official Air Force documents, have incorrectly reported
that shortly after his death, the Medal of Honor submission
went all the way up to President Johnson." In fact, the Air
Force vice chief downgraded the nomination to an Air Force
Cross, she said, and a quiet ceremony was held shortly
Retired Col. Jack Jacobs, a Vietnam vet, NBC military analyst
and 1969 Medal of Honor recipient, said that political
calculations could plausibly have torpedoed the effort to
honor Etchberger at the time.Acknowledging that Etchberger
was serving in Laos would be admitting the U.S. had violated
international agreements, which would almost certainly have
inflamed the growing anti-war sentiment in the country, he
had about half a million troops in Vietnam and we had a
draft on, too, which made the war wildly unpopular,” Jacobs
said. “We were in combat all the time, and it was not
unusual for us to have dozens of casualties in an
engagement. We would attack a hill and lose 40 guys.”
The calculations that took place at Site 85 were swifter,
and had more immediate consequences. American commanders
suspected Vietnamese troops had reached Site 85 before the
attack and dispatched choppers, hoping to reach the airmen
before their opponents did. But the choppers hadn’t arrived
yet when the men “heard a lot of voices we didn’t
understand, and a lot of grenades,” said Daniel, the retired
tech sergeant who was with Etchberger that night.
Daniel watched two bullets kill the airman next to him, then
he got hit in both legs. He yelled to Etchberger – the
highest-ranking officer at Site 85 – who was about 10 yards
away, and uninjured.
“I said, ‘Dick, what do we do?’ At that time, I had the only
working radio. I couldn’t move because I didn’t have no
Etchberger instructed him to radio in an airstrike. The bombs
dropped, but were hardly effective. When dawn broke, Daniel
saw American casualties everywhere. “We thought, ‘Well,
that’s it, we’re done for.’” Minutes later, a rescue chopper
was hovering over them, extending slings down to the ground
to pull the men out of danger. Etchberger pulled Daniel off
the ground and loaded him and two other airmen into the
sling, one-by-one.“There was this one other guy on top of
the hill, alive, that we didn’t know about. He and Dick both
got in the sling.” Then another round of bullets came, these
ones directed at the chopper. “Somebody in the ground got up
and emptied his rifle, and one hit Dick
(through the bottom of the chopper), and he bled to death.”
Daniel blacked out after getting on the helicopter, and didn’t
learn of Etchberger’s death until he woke up in a hospital
in Thailand. He attended Etchberger's Medal of Honor
ceremony Tuesday at the White House.
“He was a good sergeant; we’d chat when we were working. He
was just an excellent human being.”
Maj. Stanley Sliz, the only other airman rescued from Site 85
that day who is still living, served with Etchberger for
eight years. Now 78 and living in California, he was unable
to attend Etchberger’s ceremony.
“I considered him the consummate professional. He stood up
above everybody else,” Sliz said.
“All of us were selected for the job, so we were the cream of
the crop. I’m so proud of him getting the Medal of Honor
because I consider him the pointman for all of us. Everybody
up there on the hill deserves a Medal of Honor.”
It wasn’t until 2008, when Congress waived the two-year time
limit for Medal of Honor eligibility, that Etchberger’s
youngest son Cory started to believe his father would
finally be recognized.
President Obama presented the award to Cory and Etchberger’s
two other sons, Rich Etchberger and Steve Wilson.
Etchberger’s wife died in 1994.
"Today, Steve, Richard, and Cory, your nation finally
acknowledges and fully honors your father. It's never too
late to pay tribute to our Vietnam veterans and their
families," Obama said to a packed room of attendees. "The
greatest memorial of all to Dick Etchberger is the spirit
that we feel today: the love that inspired him to serve, the
love for his country,
the love for his family."
Etchberger's sons received a standing ovation when they took
the stage to receive their father's medal and shake hands
with Obama and Vice President Biden. First lady Michelle
Obama was there too, greeting audience members, many in
uniform, with hugs.
The White House presents the award to military members who
distinguish themselves “conspicuously by gallantry above and
beyond the call of duty.” By “exposing himself to
enemy fire in order to place his three surviving wounded
comrades in the rescue slings,” Etchberger displayed
“immeasurable courage and uncommon valor.”
A quiet man who never lost his temper, Etchberger always led
by example, whether it was on the battlefield or at home
with his family, Cory Etchberger said.
“He grew up in the Depression era,” Cory said. “To go from a
small town to Medal of Honor recipient is pretty special and
Etchberger is not the only serviceman to be honored many years
after his death. The Union Army's 1st Lt. Alonzo Cushing is
scheduled to receive the Medal of Honor later this year —
147 years after he died at age 22. Badly wounded in the
Civil War battle of Gettysburg, he refused to give up on his
short-handed unit and fought until the final moments of his
life, according to his commendation.