Chief's bravery on secret mission saved lives

by Kelly Deichert
Air University Public Affairs

3/18/2011 - MAXWELL-GUNTER AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- When trapped between enemy fire and a 3,000-foot cliff, an Airman's bravery can mean the difference between life and death.

For Chief Master Sgt. Richard Etchberger, bravery meant saving four lives. But he lost his own in the process.

The nation honored his bravery with the Medal of Honor. Now, the Air Force is honoring his dedication to his fellow Airmen with the Chief Master Sgt. Richard L. Etchberger Team Award, presented during the Air Force Senior Noncommissioned Officer Academy graduation. This award was first presented March 11, 43 years to the day after Chief Etchberger gave his life at Lima Site 85 in Laos.

Retired Col. Joseph Panza still remembers March 11, 1968, when he first saw Site 85.

"I witnessed the carnage that took place there and the extraordinary heroism," Mr. Panza said. "Chief Etchberger placed himself between the enemy and his men."

The mission Chief Etchberger and his crew volunteered in November 1967 for a top-secret mission, code named Heavy Green, to provide radar guidance to Air Force F-105s and position them over critical targets in and around Hanoi during the monsoon season. Lima Site 85, a mile high and a scant 12 miles from North Vietnam, was an ideal location for the radar operations due to the unobstructed line-of-sight to Hanoi.

More than 800 Hmong troops guarded the mountain to the east, and a 3,000-foot cliff provided protection to the west.

"They thought the cliff was impregnable," Mr. Panza said.

But the site was not ideal politically, since both the United States and North Vietnam signed a Laotian neutrality treaty.

"Once the decision to establish and man the site was made, Chief Etchberger and the other technicians who volunteered were discharged from the Air Force and were made employees of Lockheed Martin," Mr. Panza said. They wore civilian clothes.

"They swore an oath of secrecy, and even their spouses were flown to Washington (D.C.) to swear an oath of secrecy, too," he said.

Heavy Green's commander ensured the crew that there would be 24 hours' notice of any possible attack, allowing the crew enough time to blow up the site and evacuate safely, wrote Timothy Castle in his book "One Day Too Long: Top Secret Site 85 and the Bombing of North Vietnam."

The Attack

Their location did not remain a secret for long. By the beginning of 1968, the North Vietnamese started building roads from Hanoi to Site 85. AN-2 Colts, Russian byplanes, flew over the site and dropped mortars.

"They didn't do a lot of damage but irritated the hell out of the men up there," Mr. Panza said. "This was a clear indication (the North Vietnamese) would attack the site."

Sporadic attacks from the east continued through February. By March, the full-scale attack was in swing.

On March 10, the 16-man crew knew the enemy surrounded the mountain, and expected some technicians would be evacuated the next day, Mr. Castle wrote. The men could have left the mountain to seek evacuation at the helicopter pad, but they kept to the mission.

That evening, an aerial attack damaged a bunker and their living quarters. Several technicians, including Chief Etchberger, gathered their weapons and radios and tried to get some sleep in small groups along the cliff on the western edge of the mountain. They hoped this location would protect them from shrapnel.

The cliff was so steep, the technicians thought artillery would fly overhead before causing them any danger.

On the evening of March 10, the North Vietnamese barraged the site during a surprise attack. They killed the Hmong troops on the east and scaled the cliff on the west.

"They got up undetected and surrounded the site," Mr. Panza said.

The North Vietnamese pelted the Airmen with grenades.

"The men would kick the (grenades) over the cliff or knock them away with their rifles," Mr. Panza said.

The enemy attacked the technicians sleeping on the hill. Staff Sgt. Jack Starling was hit but played dead. He thought he was the last surviving American at Site 85.

Chief Etchberger's group also was attacked, and three survived thanks to his efforts to fight off the Vietnamese. He kept the enemy back with an M-16 and radioed for help.

The Rescue

The attack continued for three hours, and Chief Etchburger prevented the enemy from getting too close.

An Air America helicopter spotted Chief Etchberger and two technicians on a ledge, and used a shield of fog to attempt a rescue.

Capt. Stanley Sliz and Staff Sgt. John Daniel reported later that Chief Etchberger put himself in danger to ensure they were lifted in the hoist, according to Mr. Castle's book.

As Chief Etchberger prepared to join them, Staff Sgt. Bill Husband ran out of the fog. The two were hoisted together. He brought good news: Sergeant Starling was still alive.

As their helicopter pulled away from the side of the cliff, six armor-piercing rounds came through the floor, and tragically, one of them hit Chief Etchberger. He died before he could get to medical attention. He was 35 years old.

Captain Russell Cayler, pilot, and then-Captain Panza, co-pilot, flying their HH-53B, call sign Jolly Green 67, searched for Site 85, looking for Sergeant Starling.

"We saw what we thought was a signal. It was a flashlight," Mr. Panza said.

They lowered Sgt. James "JJ" Rogers, the pararescueman, who had a hard time finding Sergeant Starling. "We could see quite a few dead bodies," Mr. Panza said. "We didn't see anyone alive."

As Sergeant Rogers was about to return, he felt a tug on his right shoulder. Sergeant Starling found him, and Sergeant Rogers secured him to the hoist.

Worried the enemy would target the helicopter,the pilots flew away and didn't pull up the hoist until at a safe distance.

"We gave 'em a hell of a ride," Mr. Panza remembered. Assuming no survivors remained at Site 85, the Americans bombed its equipment and ordered napalm strikes on the mountain.

"We lost 12 guys up there, 11 were unaccounted for," Mr. Panza said. "That was the largest loss of Air Force ground personnel during the Vietnam conflict."

The Legacy

More than 40 years passed before Chief Etchberger was awarded the Medal of Honor. Since the military could not nominate him due to sensitivity over the classified location, he received the Air Force Cross Medal in December 1968 during a closed Pentagon ceremony. The four survivors received Purple Heart medals.

On Dec. 7, 2005, the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office announced it identified the remains of Tech. Sgt. Patrick L. Shannon and returned him to his family.

In September 2010, President Barack Obama awarded Chief Etchberger the Medal of Honor, finally acknowledging his heroism.

Mr. Panza had the honor of attending the ceremony and said, "It was a surreal experience, half a century after we flew the mission."

Chief Etchberger's legacy will live on through the Chief Master Sgt. Richard L. Etchberger Team Award presentation during each Senior Noncommissioned Officer Academy graduation. The winning flight is selected based on its dedication to academics, physical fitness, community involvement and volunteerism.