Medal of Honor: Richard Etchberger

Richard Etchberger, Saint Johns Cemetery, Hamburg

The Medal of Honor symbolizes the ideals of patriotism, courage, sacrifice, and integrity and is the highest award presented for military valor in action. Those recipients have shown bravery in combat, going above and beyond the call of duty, risking – and often sacrificing – their lives for the welfare of others.

First introduced for the Department of the Navy in 1861, the Medal of Honor would be created for the Department of the Army’s Medal of Honor in 1862. The Department of the Air Force, which originally used the same Medal as the Department of the Army, introduced their own Medal of Honor in 1965. Since its inception during the U.S. Civil War, more than 3500 recipients have been honored with the Medal of Honor.

This is the story of a Medal of Honor recipient

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Hamburg was a disaster as I attempted to drive through it. Old Route 22, known as State Street in the community, was being worked on and after following the maze of detour signs, I arrived at Saint Johns Cemetery. I knew there was an entrance along State Street and slowed down to enter the grounds. To my disappointment, the entrance along State Street was chained off.

Unsure if I could easily get to the entrance along Church Street, I found a place to park along State Street and crossed the busy road. Scanning the tombstones, I spotted the name I sought and carefully walked among the memorials of the sacred grounds to stand before the grave of a man whose heroic actions would be remembered with the Medal of Honor.

Richard Loy Etchberger was born March 5, 1933 in Reading to Donald and Catherine Etchberger. Etchberger was raised in Minersville and Hamburg, where he worked at his father’s general store. Etchberger joined the U.S. Air Force after his graduation from Hamburg High School in 1951. After he completed basic training in October 1951 Etchberger was sent to Kessler Air Force Base in Mississippi for more training in radar operations.

By 1965, Etchberger was stationed at the Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, where he helped set up radar stations across southeastern Asia. Due to his leadership and experience, Etchberger volunteered for a top-secret mission in Laos.

The mission was Lima Site 85, a top-secret base on Phou Pha Thi, a mountain in Laos, just fifteen miles from the border with North Vietnam. In 1967, the U.S. Air Force added radar, which guided bombing missions into North Vietnam. Etchberger would be among the men who would be stationed at this top-secret base.

The only problem with this top-secret mission was the men would be operating in a neutral country. The base would break the international agreement signed in 1962, which stated Laos would remain neutral in the conflict in southeastern Asia. Almost immediately, all parties ignored the agreement. The United States decided to use convert actions in setting up a station in Laos – they wanted it to appear to the rest of the world they were following the agreement, although they too were guilty of it.

The United States came to an agreement with the Royal Government of Laos to set up a secret radar base to direct bombing missions into North Vietnam. However, the station could not be manned by military personnel. To stay within the agreement, the U.S. Air Force personnel who agreed to the mission would step down from their positions and work the site as “private technicians.” Etchberger was one of nineteen men who stationed at Lima Site 85.

The men stationed at Lima Site 85 were supposed to remain unarmed due to an agreement between the United States and the Kingdom of Laos. The Americans running Lima Site 85 would be guarded by Hmong fighters and CIA operatives. Major Richard Secord, the man responsible for the security of Lima Site 85, was successful in his argument the operatives should be armed for their safety due to the enemy forces in the region and the men were permitted to carry weapons.

In late 1967, Secord suggested all personnel should be removed from Lima Site 85, but higher-ups in the military command did not want the base – which had been vital to their bombing runs – abandoned. The suggestion to reinforce Lima Site 85 was also denied.

On February 18, 1968, an artillery group of the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) was ambushed near Phou Pha Thi. Among those killed was a major who carried a notebook revealing plans to attack Phou Pha Thi.

Phou Pha Thi had three steep cliffs and one easier way up the mountainside, which was defensively reenforced by the men. On March 10, 1968, the PAVN attacked from the mountain. That night, Secord decided the nineteen men who had remained on the mountain would be evacuated in the morning.

As the shelling of the base continued, the men sought refuge, but did not realize that the cliffs nobody thought could be climbed, was currently being scaled by a unit of PAVN. Around three that morning the PAVN soldiers who scaled the steep mountainside attacked, killing the Hmang guard that had been stationed there.

By the time help arrived on the morning of March 11, it was too late and only eight of the Americans had survived the night. Etchberger and three others had sought refuge on a ledge a short distance from the station. Here they exchanged fire with the PAVN forces throughout the night.

The first helicopter arrived and Etchberger helped load two wounded onto slings to be lifted into the hovering aircraft. Once they were aboard, he commanded another man to get onboard before he too boarded the helicopter. As the helicopter was leaving the site, Etchberger was struck when a PAVN soldier began firing into the underside of the helicopter. One of the bullets hit Etchberger, killing him instantly.

Of the nineteen Americans at Lima Site 85 at the beginning of the attack only three survived. The radar station, which was rigged with explosives, was not detonated and the PAVN took over the site.

In the aftermath of the top-secret mission, Etchberger received the Air Force Cross. The citation reads: “The enemy was able to deliver sustained and withering fire directly upon this position from higher ground. His entire crew dead or wounded, Chief Etchberger continued to return the enemy’s fire thus denying them access to the position. During this entire period, Chief Etchberger continued to direct air strikes and call for air rescue on his emergency radio, thereby enabling the air evacuation force to locate the surrounded friendly element. When air rescue arrived, Chief Etchberger deliberately exposed himself to enemy fire in order to place his three surviving wounded comrades in the rescuer slings permitting them to be airlifted to safety.”

The paperwork the nineteen men signed to step down would become a major issue after their deaths. The U.S. Air Force refused to reinstate the men. Etchberger was nominated for the Medal of Honor in the aftermath of the battle, but it was denied due to him not officially being in the U.S. Air Force at the time. Added to the denial was the problem that he – and the rest of the men – were operating in a neutral country at the time of his actions. To recognize Etchberger’s bravery, the U.S. government would have to reveal it had broken the 1962 Geneva Agreement. It would not be until September 21, 2010, when the Medal of Honor was posthumously awarded to Etchberger and presented to his family by President Obama.

The citation for Etchberger’s Medal of Honor reads: “The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pride in presenting the Medal of Honor (Posthumously) to Chief Master Sergeant Richard Loy Etchberger, United States Air Force, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty. Chief Master Sergeant Etchberger distinguished himself by extraordinary heroism on 11 March 1968, in the country of Laos, while assigned as Ground Radar Superintendent, Detachment 1, 1043d Radar Evaluation Squadron. On that date, Chief Etchberger and his team of technicians were manning a top secret defensive position at Lima Site 85 when the base was overrun by an enemy ground force. Receiving sustained and withering heavy artillery attacks directly upon his unit’s position, Chief Etchberger’s entire crew lay dead or severely wounded. Despite having received little or no combat training, Chief Etchberger single-handedly held off the enemy with an M-16, while simultaneously directing air strikes into the area and calling for air rescue. Because of his fierce defensive and heroic and selfless actions, he was able to deny the enemy access to his position and save the lives of his remaining crew. With the arrival of the rescue aircraft, Chief Etchberger, without hesitation, repeatedly and deliberately risked his own life, exposing himself to heavy enemy fire in order to place three surviving comrades into rescue slings hanging from the hovering helicopter waiting to airlift them to safety. With his remaining crew safely aboard, Chief Etchberger finally climbed into an evacuation sling himself, only to be fatally wounded by enemy ground fire as he was being raised into the aircraft. Chief Etchberger’s bravery and determination in the face of persistent enemy fire and overwhelming odds are in keeping with the highest standards of performance and traditions of military service. Chief Etchberger’s gallantry, self-sacrifice, and profound concern for his fellow men at risk of his life, above and beyond the call of duty, reflect the highest credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.”

I finished paying my respects to Etchberger, remembering his bravery in the face of death before leaving him to rest in the sacred grounds of Saint Johns Cemetery.

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