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Medal of Honor upgrade for Chief Etchberger

Posted 10/4/2010   Updated 10/4/2010 Email story   Print story


by Carl Bergquist
Air University Public Affairs

10/4/2010 - MAXWELL-GUNTER AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- Last week, in a ceremony at the White House, Chief Master Sgt. Richard Etchberger was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for heroic action in combat by President Barack Obama. The medal, an upgrade of the chief's Air Force Cross and presented 42 years after the action, was bestowed upon Chief Etchberger's three sons. The chief is the first airman since 2000 to receive the nation's highest military decoration.

Chief Etchberger was 35 years old at the time of his death and was killed in action March 11, 1968, while defending and helping evacuate the top-secret U.S. radar installation Lima Site-85, under siege in Laos. In December 1968, Chief Etchberger was posthumously, and confidentially, awarded the Air Force Cross for his heroism.

During the Medal of Honor ceremony, the president praised Chief Etchberger for his actions, dedication to duty and loyalty to his men and country.

"Dick Etchberger was the very definition of an NCO. A leader determined to take care of his men," President Obama said. "Of those 19 men on the mountain that night, only seven made it out alive. Three of them owe their lives to the actions of Dick Etchberger."

On hand for the ceremony was Joe Panza, Air University Foundation executive director. A retired Air Force colonel, Mr. Panza, then a captain, was co-pilot of Air Force rescue helicopter Jolly Green 67 that evacuated Jack Starling, the last known surviving member of the LS-85 team, while the site was under enemy attack.

Mr. Panza said "the ceremony was wonderful," and it was a thrill and a privilege for him to be there at the White House and with Etchberger's immediate family. But after so many years, it generated happy but strange feelings.

"I was joined at the ceremony by Russ Cayler, the JG 67 pilot, and the situation struck us as a little surrealistic," he said. "It had been 42 years since we flew the mission, and we would never have dreamed that after all that time we would be there in the White House to witness Chief Etchberger finally getting the recognition he deserved."

In describing the rescue, the Etchberger Medal of Honor citation says, "Chief Etchberger single-handedly held off the enemy with an M-16, while simultaneously directing air strikes into the area and calling for air rescue. Because of his fierce defense and selfless actions, he was able to deny the enemy access to his position and save the lives of his remaining crew."

Dr. Timothy Castle, in his book "One Day Too Long: Top Secret Site 85 and the Bombing of North Vietnam" that recounts the attack on radar site LS-85, also known by the code name Heavy Green, said while under heavy enemy fire the chief attended to wounded colleagues and helped load them into an Air America rescue helicopter. Once Chief Etchberger was aboard the rescue ship, he received a gunshot wound from a round that pierced the aircraft's floor, which caused such serious internal damage he bled to death before the crew could get him medical attention.

"It was an act of personal courage and responsibility which typified the (chief master) sergeant's career," Dr. Castle said.

"Within days of the site's loss, (Lt. Col.) Jerry Clayton (LS-85 commander) escorted the body of his long-time friend and colleague, Dick Etchberger, back to the United States."

During the Vietnam War, the CIA's Air America operated from hundreds of mostly dirt runways referred to as Lima Sites. Lima Site 85, located atop the 5,800-foot Pha Thi Mountain in northeastern Laos, became a tempting target for the North Vietnamese.

Dr. Castle said, "One of LS-85's major roles, which began in October 1967 and ended catastrophically in early March 1968, involved the top-secret operation of a U.S. Air Force TSQ-81 ground-directed radar system that provided the United States with a heretofore unavailable all-weather bombing capability in Laos and North Vietnam."

Once the North Vietnamese realized LS-85's value to the enemy, they put a lot of effort into destroying it. After a number of failed attempts, the North Vietnamese devised a night attack that sadly proved successful.

"The North Vietnamese ordered a special sapper unit called Dac Cong into action. In a well planned and orchestrated attack supported by heavy artillery, mortar and rocket bombardment, the sappers climbed the several-thousand-foot southwestern face of the mountain and under the cover of darkness overran the facility," Dr. Castle said. "The clever (People's Army of Vietnam) tactics silenced the Heavy Green program and exacted a terrible human toll -- the largest single ground combat loss of Air Force personnel in the history of the Vietnam War."

To date, there are 10 Americans still unaccounted for at Site 85.

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