PIQUA — Many things can be said about the actions of Piqua’s Medal of Honor Recipient Airman First Class William “Bill” H. Pitsenbarger when he sacrificed his life in the Vietnam War to aid fallen soldiers and fight alongside them. What about who he was as a person outside of war?
Pitsenbarger’s close friend Jerry Sutton, occasionally referring to Pitsenbarger as “Pits,” remembers him as a “neat kid” who would help anyone and who was a good dancer, too.
“He was a great kid,” Sutton said in an interview on Monday. Sutton is formerly of Covington and the Piqua area and currently resides in Bonita Springs, Fla.
“My first time meeting him was on a Saturday down at Mote Park,” Sutton said. “Bunch of us guys used to go down there and play football. We just instantly became friends.”
Pitsenbarger was about three years younger than Sutton and became like a younger brother to Sutton.
“I took him under my wing,” Sutton said.
Sutton found out Pitsenbarger was a good dancer one night after taking him to the Triangle Inn.
“I got him to go up with me to the Triangle Inn,” Sutton said. Sutton explained that Pitsenbarger had a driver’s license but no car, so Sutton offered to drive him.
“He won a twist contest up there one night,” Sutton said.
Sutton also set him up with a girl and went on a double date with Pitsenbarger before Pitsenbarger left for training.
“He was really kind of a bashful boy,” Sutton said. Sutton later added, “He was good-looking boy.”
Sutton not only set up the date, but he let Pitsenbarger drive his car.
“I had a ‘57 Chevy convertible, and he loved that car,” Sutton said. Sutton explained that when he told Pitsenbarger he was going to drive them around that night in Sutton’s car, Pitsenbarger’s “eyes just lit up.”
Sutton said he told Pitsenbarger not to volunteer when they received their draft cards, “but that’s exactly what he did.” Pitsenbarger joined the U.S. Air Force and volunteered for pararescue.
Sutton was a newlywed when he found out that Pitsenbarger had passed away during a battle near Cam My, a few miles east of Saigon, in Vietnam on April 11, 1966.
Pitsenbarger was lowered from a helicopter to where soldiers were caught in an ambush by the Viet Cong. After extracting approximately half of a dozen wounded soldiers, one of the helicopters that returned was hit by enemy small-arms fire.
Instead of leaving with the helicopter, Pitsenbarger stayed to aid the remaining 20 infantrymen still alive. Pitsenbarger was later killed by Viet Cong snipers. It is reported that Pitsenbarger’s actions helped save nine lives that day.
“I just had just gotten married,” Sutton said. “I came home that night, and my wife says, ‘Bill Pitsenbarger was killed.’ And I died.”
Even after 49 years, the pain of losing his friend was still with Sutton.
Sutton said that he received a letter from the commander of the helicopter that Pitsenbarger rode in the day that Pitsenbarger died.
In the letter, the commander told Sutton that Pitsenbarger said, “I have a bad feeling about today, a terrible bad feeling.”
The letter also explained that when nightfall came and the pararescuers were supposed to leave, Pitsenbarger said, “No, no, go on, and I‘ll stay here to help the guys.”
“And they found him dead the next morning,” Sutton said.
The shock of Pitsenbarger’s death was felt throughout Sutton’s family.
“My mom and dad thought the world of Pits,” Sutton said. “They were really upset when they found out he was killed.”
Sutton also recalled Pitsenbarger’s generosity and kindness towards others.
“He’d do anything for you,” Sutton said. “He’d never get mad at you about something … He was just a fun individual.”
Sutton speculated what could have been going through Pitsenbarger’s mind during that battle near Cam My, remembering the time that he told Pitsenbarger that Sutton almost drowned when he was 13 years old.
Pitsenbarger asked Sutton what had been going through Sutton’s mind when he was drowning.
“I was thinking about how my mom is going to be upset when she found out I drowned,” Sutton said. “And I told him this.”
Sutton believed that thought had probably been in Pitsenbarger’s mind, too, the night that Pitsenbarger died.
“And I know what was going through his mind that night,” Sutton said. “He was probably thinking that my mom is going to be upset when she finds out that I died.”
Sutton, too, knows what it is like to lose a child, saying that “nothing is worse than losing a child.”
“I lost my only son seven years ago,” Sutton said. “I wish Pits could have met him … We just had some great times together.”
Pitsenbarger’s memory will always be with Sutton as with many others in the Piqua community.
“He just has always got a place in my heart,” Sutton said. “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about him. I loved him like he was a kid brother … I just miss him, miss him dearly. I wish I could have been with him to help him.”
Sutton went on, saying, “When you met Bill Pitsenbarger, if you didn’t like him, you didn’t like people. Just a neat kid, a neat kid. He was good dancer, too.”
The formal dedication of the life-size statue Pitsenbarger will be held at the Pitsenbarger Sports Complex, 1421 South St., on Saturday, Nov. 14 at 10 a.m.
For his sacrifice, Pitsenbarger was awarded the Air Force Cross and the Congressional Medal of Honor. Many Air Force facilities across America have been named in his honor.
Also attending the dedication will be Col. John Devillier-Wright Patterson 88th Air Base Wing Commander, the Wright Patterson Honor Guard, the Wright Brass Band, and other local and state dignitaries.
Reach reporter Sam Wildow at (937) 451-3336 or on Twitter @TheDailyCall