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
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The family of
Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Richard "Dick" Etchberger will
receive a posthumous Medal of Honor from President Barack
Obama on Tuesday — 42 years after he was killed in a firefight
at a secret U.S. military outpost in Laos.
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
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 Laos.
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 thereafter.
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
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family photo shows Chief Master Sgt. Richard "Dick" Etchberger,
his wife, Catherine, and sons Cory, Rich and Steve.
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 ngagement. 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 legs.”
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
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
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
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
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.