Chief Etchberger: First E-9 awarded the Medal of Honor
Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force James A. Roy
Remarks at the induction of Chief Master Sgt. Richard Etchberger into the Hall of Heroes, the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., Sept. 22, 2010
Thank you all for attending today's ceremony.
We've gathered to induct CMSgt Richard Etchberger, a great American and Airman, into the Hall of Heroes having been awarded the Medal of Honor for acts of gallantry in the face of danger that ended his life on March 11, 1968.
In 1968, Chief Etchberger was part of a covert CIA and United States Air Force team sent to a small landing strip and radar site on a remote mountain in Laos called Lima Site 85.
The 17-year veteran and other Airmen needed to go through a process called "sheep dipping" where they were released from the United States Air Force and hired by Lockheed to avoid giving the perception that Laos was involved in the war with the US government. The program became known as Heavy Green.
When their mission was over, they would be welcomed back into the United States Air Force.
From a jungle perch only 12 miles from North Vietnam a team of forty Airmen controlled hundreds of air strikes into North Vietnam and northern Laos during the 1968 Rolling Thunder campaign.
These Airmen were isolated in enemy-held territory, protected only by the cliffs of their mile-high mountain site.
The first North Vietnamese attack on the site came on 12 Jan 1968. Two Russian-built biplanes made three bombing passes. While they unfortunately killed two local civilians and two guerrilla fighters, the North Vietnamese aggressors failed to cause any significant damage to the radar site.
After moving men and equipment into the area for months, the North Vietnamese Army began their attack with a sustained artillery barrage on the night of 10 March 1968.
Mortar, artillery and rocket rounds began falling about 6 p.m., and lasted almost two hours.
Because their quarters were vulnerable to shelling, the chief and his off-duty radar team took their sleeping bags weapons and survival radios and spent the night on a cliffside ledge partially protected by a rocky overhang to avoid incoming rounds.
At 3 a.m., commandos scaled the cliffs and assaulted the compound, killing 11 of the 19 Americans working at the site.
Soon, the North Vietnamese commandos discovered the radar team's hiding place and began shooting down the mountainside with automatic weapons and lobbing hand grenades over the slope.
Two of the Americans on the ledge, Tech. Sgt. Monk Springsteadah and Staff Sgt. Hank Gish, were killed. Two more were seriously wounded -- Capt Stan Sliz and Staff Sgt. John Daniel. Poor health prevented Captain Sliz from attending today, but we are fortunate to have John Daniel here with us.
Remarkably, the chief was uninjured in the attack. Using only his M-16 and a survival radio to call in airstrikes, he fought off the attackers for several hours
A CIA Air America helicopter crew, including pilot Ken Wood and Flight Mechanic Rusty Irons, heard the radio's beacon call for help and rushed to the site. They are both here with us today.
When the helicopter arrived at 7:35 a.m., the chief repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire in order to place his wounded comrades in rescue slings to be hoisted one-by-one to safety.
When Chief Etchberger was finally being hoisted, Staff Sgt. Bill Husband, an American hiding in a different area on the site, ran toward the helicopter and joined the chief on the hoist.
As Sergeant Husband ran past Staff Sgt. Jack Starling, who was wounded and playing dead, Sergeant Starling yelled for him to tell the rescue crew that he was still alive
As Chief Etchberger was finally being rescued, he was mortally wounded by North Vietnamese ground fire.
A Jolly Green Giant crew successfully rescued Sergeant Starling at 9:46 a.m. The crew included: pilot, Capt. Rus Cayler; co-pilot, Capt. Joe Panza, and pararescueman, Sgt. J.J. Rodgers. We are fortunate to have Rus Cayler and Joe Panza with us today.
Of the 19 Americans on the mountain, seven had been brought out alive making this one of the largest, single, ground combat losses in Air Force history.
For his heroic actions, Chief Etchberger was posthumously awarded the Air Force Cross although the details of his mission were kept secret for decades because the United States officially denied any offensive presence in Laos.
Since the founding of the United States Air Force in 1947, there have been only 18 Airmen to receive the Medal of Honor. Chief Etchberger is the first combat support Airmen.
If you include the Airmen of the Army Air Corps and Army Air Force, during the First and Second World Wars, there were 59 who received the Medal of Honor before the chief, only six of whom were enlisted.
Since Congress created the E-8 and E-9 pay grades in 1958, no other E-9 in any of our military Services has been awarded the Medal of Honor. Chief Etchberger is the first.
He saved many lives that day. These facts strengthen a truth that we already knew Chief Etchberger is a highly distinguished Airman among a very, very select few.
Ladies and Gentlemen, our Airmen are proud of this brave senior NCO. As the chief master sergeant of the Air Force, I am determined that all Airmen of today will remember, respect, and rise to the standard set by the actions of Chief Master Sergeant Etchberger. I salute him. Thank you.