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Profiles of Heroism: CMSgt Richard Etchberger

Richard Etchberger was born on March 5, 1933 in Hamburg, Pennsylvania. Through the younger years, he worked at his father’s five and dime store in Little Hamburg. He was active as a kid and enjoyed hunting, fishing, playing on the school basketball team and he was even his class Senior President. “He was smart, he was witty, and he was funny. I remember the teachers liked him as we did. He was a fine student.” said childhood friend James Stutz.

Richard, also known as “Dick” or “Etch” graduated from Hamburg High in 1951. Corey Etchberger, Dick’s youngest son recalls, “He and his high school buddy Don Yokum decided they were going to join the Navy because they loved those white uniforms.

For some reason that nobody can figure out, he decided to go with the Air Force instead.”

Dick had a knack for electronics and entered the radar bombing scoring field. The goal of his job was to figure out how to get more accuracy from dropping bombs in enemy territory. It took him 16 years to earn the rank of Chief Master Sergeant.

As Dick was building his career, he also met the love of his life, Catherine. They married, and merged their worlds and families. Catherine had a 12-year-old son, Steven, who Dick took under his wing and treated as his own. Along with Steven, Catherine also gave birth to two more boys, Richard and Corey. The family traveled as a unit to many places within the United States and overseas. Richard recalled,“I really enjoyed growing up in that lifestyle. I was actually born in Salt Lake City two weeks before we left for Marrakesh. (I) lived there until I was about 3-years-old, then to Bismarck, North Dakota. There for a while some other places in the United States then off the Philippines. I cannot imagine a better way to grow up.”

TSgt John Daniel

In 1967 the military contacted Dick and offered him a secret, unique mission in Laos. He did not have to accept the offer, but he wanted to and felt he could make a difference and possibly end the war early. The quest involved using his expert radar bombing skills and assembling a hand-picked team to build a secret operations center on top of a mountain in Asia. TSgt John Daniel was one of the men hand-picked by Dick, and remembers, “The mission in Laos was dropping bombs close to… enemy territory, enemy targets.”

Corey remembers what his mother was asked to do before his father left for Laos. “When my father went on this mission she was asked to go to the Pentagon to sign a confidential statement saying she wouldn’t disclose anything that she knew about the mission until it was declassified, so she kept that promise to my father in the Air Force for another 18 years.” Corey said all of the wives were brought in to make sure they backed their husbands for this mission.

Along with signing secret paperwork and making arrangements to be away from the United States for an undetermined amount of time, Chief Etchberger also made a decision to move his family back to the place where he grew up in Hamburg. “I think it was real telling that when he was gone on the last mission that he took us back to Hamburg,” said Corey. Dick wanted his sons to be near his parents and in a safe place for them to grow up while he was away.

The mission delivered a couple other odd twists as well. Dick and his select team were actually discharged from the Air Force and hired back as civilians. Dick was technically an employee of Lockheed Aviation while on this assignment. TSgt Daniel said it was called being “sheep dipped.”

Dr. Timothy Castle, author of “One Day Too Long” researched this mission for years, and even visited the place where Dick and his team were sent in Asia. “The situation with the Air Force was because of the prohibition having uniformed military in Laos. The Secretary of the Air Force and the Chief of Staff of the Air Force decided that they could not send Air Force people in to run this site, so they decided to go ahead and make them employees of the Lockheed Aircraft services corporation in Ontario, California. In this extraordinary situation, they took about 50 Air Force people and discharged them out of the Air Force. They sent them to Thailand where they put their uniforms back on and became a part of this radar evaluation squadron, which was their cover unit in Thailand, but their real job was up in Laos, and up there they wore civilian clothes,” said Castle.

At the time this mission was underway, Dick’s step-son Steven was also in the military, “When I was in the Air Force, part of the package when he signed up for this, like I said I wasn’t aware of, he had to put it in my files that I would not go over there while he was there, it was actually in my Air Force records that I would not go into a war zone while he was there. All the time I was an aircraft mechanic they were rotating in and out of Vietnam all the time. I didn’t know why I didn’t go; I just knew that I didn’t. They made it part of the contract that he signed with them.”

Dr. Castle said, “In 1967 the Air Force had a serious problem and that was President Johnson wanted the Air Force to conduct a bombing campaign against North Vietnam to stop the flow of men and material down the Ho Chi Minh trail. The problem for the Air Force was that President Johnson had also decided for political reasons that the B-52 bombers could not be used in that air campaign. They had to come up with a way to conduct bombing in very very poor weather conditions, often at night, without the B-52 all weather bomber. So they had to come up with a different strategy, what they decided to do was turn to a radar bombing system.”

The Air Force moved forward with its plan and received presidential permission to place millions of pounds of equipment in Laos. The site was known as Lima Site 85. “Site 85 was a unique facility because it gave the Air Force something they otherwise didn’t have. It gave them capability to conduct all weather bombing. Site 85 is a very, very isolated location, it’s only 12 nautical miles south of the border with North Vietnam, this is a very, very isolated area, there were enemy patrols that often times would maneuver around near the mountain,” said Dr. Castle. About 150 tons of equipment was flown to the top of the mountain, and Dr. Castle said the Air Force had to dynamite part of the ledge to make space for the equipment. “That attracted a lot of attention; I think it’s pretty clear that during the summer of 1967 the enemy knew something was going on. There was lots of helicopter activity going on flying in and out, construction of the site, and when it began to go active and directing missions during North Vietnam that was on the first of November 1967, I think it was clear to the Vietnamese there was something going on at Site 85,” said Castle.

By the spring of 1968, the enemy was making its mark on the mountain. TSgt John Daniel said, “We were becoming a defensive weapon, instead of an offensive weapon. We was dropping bombs to protect ourselves, we were dropping bombs all the time, closer and closer.”

The enemy was building roads closer to the site and scaling the hillside and in the early morning hours of March 11, 1968, all hell broke loose. “The North Vietnamese without any warning at all began to fire AK-47s rifles into those buildings, they started firing rocket propelled grenades and RPG’s into those trailers and they just slaughtered those people. They pushed them to the cliff side, those who weren’t already there those men did not have a chance and in the midst of the dark, and the cold and the clouds, these were technicians, these were not hard skilled trained combat forces. Sadly the technicians had no chance at all,” said Castle. This was not a fair fight. Dr. Castle goes on to say, the men did not have weapons combat training, and in the weeks prior to the final assault the technicians were finally given a few weapons to defend themselves. There were not supposed to be any armed military personnel in Laos, but thankfully the men had something to use when they were ambushed. “It was a complete surprise, it was devastating, and all you can say is that no one ever expected on the American side that those people would have been able to climb that cliff, but they did and the results were a lot of Americans dead.”

Stan Sliz

Chief Etchberger defended his team for four hours at Site 85. Many of his men were missing and injured, but he never gave up. TSgt John Daniel remembers, “Gish was hit again, his was fatal, I was hit in both legs, Stan was hit and he said Monk is gone.

Stan was alive, I was alive and so far Dick hadn’t gotten wounded. That slowed down and they started throwing grenades at us, they would hit you know and I could reach some of them. I can’t move I got both legs shot out. If I can’t reach them, they were going to go off in my face. I would reach out and grab it and throw it back up over the hill.” TSgt Daniel said he would grab any grenade he could and toss it off the hillside, or throw it back up over the hill or take his rifle and kick it off.

In the early morning, an Air America helicopter flew in to help make rescues on the side of the cliff, “It came in, went into a hover, and dropped a hoist down to Dick and the people next to him at that point. There were three people there at the time the Air America helicopter arrived. Daniel and Sliz was both wounded, Etchberger was not at this point. So again, defending his wounded teammates, Dick Etchberger placed each of those men on a hoist and waited while they were hoisted up into the air.”

As gun fire was still erupting, Dick waited on the side of the cliff as each man was lifted to safety, then he loaded himself on the hoist, “As Dick Etchberger finally got reach to go up as the last person, Willie Husband, another technician who had been hiding throughout the battle, ran down the path and jumped on the hoist with Dick Etchberger, so the two of them went up into the hoist. So finally after fighting off the North Vietnamese for hours, Dick Etchberger was pulled into the helicopter and moved safely inside,” said Castle.

As the helicopter began to pull away, the North Vietnamese began to shoot into the bottom of the chopper. In an instant, Chief Etchberger was hit, and was mortally wounded. He died before the helicopter landed. TSgt Daniel, “So today Stan and I are the only two alive that Dick helped to get off the hill and thanks to Dick, I’m alive.”

Corey Etchberger

“We were sitting at the dining room table in Hamburg, Pennsylvania and my mother received a phone call, and she took the phone off the wall, and about a minute later she started crying. She broke the news to my brother Richard and I that he had been killed, and we had just gotten done eating dinner, and she had just got done serving us strawberry shortcake. I’ve never eaten strawberry shortcake since then, we didn’t know any details at that time,” said Corey. The same day Catherine received word that her husband had been killed was the same day her first grandchild was born. Steven and his wife gave birth to a baby girl, “I was real conflicted on my emotions, “Steven recalls.

“I was heartbroken at what happened, I cried about it, but when I learned of the circumstances I was very proud of the man’s courage and dedication to duty and the fact that he was a real American fighting,” said childhood friend James Stutz.

The story the military stuck to for years was that Chief Etchberger was killed in a helicopter accident in South East Asia. Dick’s two children believed that story for two decades, but Catherine, his wife knew differently.

Chief Etchberger’s family was called to the Pentagon for a secret ceremony where he was awarded the Air Force cross. Dr. Castle said, “This is a man who was an exceptional leader, but he was also an exceptional family man and he loved his family dearly. I know that when his wife went to the Pentagon to receive the Air Force Cross, the second highest declaration that the military can bestow, that she was incredibly proud of her husband and what he had accomplished.”

“Many folks have asked me since then didn’t you think it was rather strange that you were taken to the Pentagon for a secret Pentagon ceremony for your dad being killed in a helicopter accident? My answer is, I was 9-years-old, didn’t everybody’s dad get an Air Force Cross for dying in a helicopter accident? “ Corey said.

Although an open casket may have been normal to Dick’s two youngest children, Steven knew otherwise, “I pretty much knew it wasn’t just a helicopter crash that killed him, I was not surprised, I knew there was more to it than what we were told.” The ceremony was such a secret that it wasn’t even a part of Dick’s file, Dr. Castle had to go searching for the original records.

It took nearly two decades for the military to declassify the secret mission at Site 85, and more than four decades for Chief Etchberger to be awarded the Medal of Honor. He was initially nominated for the medal years before, but President Lyndon B. Johnson declined the paperwork because it was still a classified secret mission. 19 men were on the mountain that day, and today 11 are still missing.

Photo courtesy of White House Press Service.

On September 21, 2010 Chief Master Sgt. Richard Etchberger was awarded the Medal of Honor, posthumously at the White House. President Barack Obama presented his three children the military’s highest honor.

Richard is sad that his father is not here today, but glad for the choices he made, “It makes me personally feel very proud of him, it makes me very happy that I have a daughter that can share this. It makes me feel really good that he made a decision up there, and it was the right decision for him to make that. I think the recognition he is getting for this is something that inspires other people.”

Posted in Medal of Honor: Souls of Valor.

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