DAYTON – The National Air Force Museum Theatre was packed with local community members who were eager to see the story of one hometown hero come to life on the big screen on Thursday night.
The Air Force Museum Foundation hosted a special screening of “The Last Full Measure,” a movie inspired by the story of Piqua native Airman 1st Class William H. Pitsenbarger, an Air Force pararescue specialist who saved the lives of members of the U.S. Army’s 1st Infantry Division in one of the harshest battles of the Vietnam War. Offered the chance to escape on the last helicopter out of the combat zone, Pitsenbarger stayed behind to save and defend the lives of others. He first received the Air Force Cross before it was upgraded to a Congressional Medal of Honor 34 years after his death on that battlefield. He was also posthumously promoted to staff sergeant.
Julian Adams, producer and co-star in the film, attended the screening on Thursday, saying he spent the last 20 years working on making this movie a reality. Adams, whose father was in the Air Force, has a passion for military films, having also produced and co-starred in “Phantom,” a submarine thriller about a Russian submarine attempting to launch a nuclear missile at Pearl Harbor, set in 1968.
“He’s a hero to me,” Adams said.
Adams noted the “hometown crowd,” recognizing the Pitsenbarger family members and local Piqua residents in attendance, as well as honoring the Vietnam veterans and other veterans who were also at the screening.
After graduating in 1962 from Piqua Central High School, Pitsenbarger joined the Air Force and later flew on nearly 300 combat rescue missions in Vietnam. “The Last Full Measure” follows the story of a group of Army and Air Force veterans who advocated for Pitsenbarger to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor over 30 years after his death. The film also portrays the events that happened during the battle near Cam My in Vietnam on April 11, 1966, where Pitsenbarger risked his life coordinating rescue efforts and was later killed after he stayed on the ground to continue performing medical duties, helping the infantrymen get ammunition, and even return fire when he could. The movie refers to this battle as Operation Abilene, and those scenes of the movie were shot in Thailand.
While aspects of “The Last Full Measure” were dramatized for the purpose of streamlining the story for the movie, Adams noted that many of the lines of the veterans in the movie were direct quotes from the men from the Charlie Company (2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division) who advocated on behalf of Pitsenbarger to receive the Medal of Honor. One such quote was from F. David Peters of the Charlie Company, who said, “There was only one man on the ground that day that would have turned down a ride out of that hellhole — and that man was Pitsenbarger.”
“These were verbatim from talking to these guys,” Adams said. A number of men from the Charlie Company were also incorporated into the movie, having cameos during the Medal of Honor ceremony at the end of the movie.
One of the main characters of the movie, Scott Huffman, is a fictional Pentagon investigator who was played by Sebastian Stan of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” Huffman was based on the real-life historian Parker Hayes, who helped document the accounts of the veterans who had served with Pitsenbarger and helped seek a formal reconsideration for Pitsenbarger to receive the Medal of Honor. Hayes passed away in August 2009 at the age of 36 before the movie was finished.
“This film is exceptional,” Chief Master Sgt. John Nolan Pitsenbarger of the U.S. Air Force, and fifth cousin to William H. Pitsenbarger, said. “I feel very close to William tonight.”
“This story is obviously very emotional,” Adams said. Adams said the goal of the movie was to honor veterans in addition to telling Pitsenbarger’s story.
While the movie was originally set to be released in October by Roadside Attractions, the release date has been pushed back to January in order to release it to a wider audience and hold more special screenings at military bases.
Adams said the writer and director of the film, Todd Robinson, first introduced him to Pitsenbarger’s story after Pitsenbarger was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. The men who were there to witness Pitsenbarger’s actions then became part of Adams’ motivation to pursue this movie for 20 years
“This was a guy who didn’t know these men and gave his life for them,” Adams said. “He was a 21-year-old kid, and look at what he did.”
The cast includes a number of popular actors, such as Samuel L. Jackson, who plays Takoda, one of the veterans from the 1st Infantry Division, and Christopher Plummer, who portrays Pitsenbarger’s father, Frank Pitsenbarger.
Ed Harris of “Westworld” portrays another veteran of the 1st Infantry Division saved by Pitsenbarger. While it was previously reported that William Pitsenbarger was going to be portrayed by Grant Gustin of “The Flash,” Pitsenbarger actually ended up being played by Jeremy Irvine, who is known for movies like “War Horse” and “The Railway Man.”
When an audience member asked how the movie was able to get such popular actors to appear in the film, Adams said the actors connected with the human stories of the film.
“The Last Full Measure” was also the last film Peter Fonda, who played Jimmy Burr, appeared in before he passed away in August. Adams also noted that while Fonda was against the Vietnam War at the time it was happening, he “was in tears about the arc” of the film and told Adams that he was “extremely proud” to be a part of the film.
“It really is a story about every man and woman who serves,” Adams said.