Valor Friday

| April 1, 2022

Chief Master Sergeant Richard Etchberger

During the Cold War there were numerous tales of valor and bravery occurring in places the US officially wasn’t. Francis Gary Powers, a former Air Force captain, was a CIA pilot overflying Russia in a U-2 spy plane when he was shot down and created an international incident with the Soviet Union. After the USS Liberty was mistakenly attacked by Israeli aircraft while monitoring the Six-Day War, the captain of the ship was awarded the Medal of Honor in a secret ceremony so as not to sour relations with the ally who had attacked them. Similarly, during the Vietnam War, American troops were in Cambodia and Laos, but officially they were not.

American involvement during the Laotian Civil War, in which we backed the royal family by organizing resistance forces (particularly Hmong peoples) against the communist Pathet Lao, saw involvement of not just CIA personnel but DoD as well as our allies from South Vietnam. Officially though, by the terms of the 1962 International Agreement on the Neutrality of Laos, the US had no military involvement.

Today’s tale is about a Department of Defense airman who, by virtue of officially not existing, didn’t receive proper recognition for his act of valor for decades.

Immediately upon graduating high school in 1951, Richard Etchberger enlisted into the US Air Force. He made it a career, earning the top enlisted rank of chief master sergeant by 1 April 1967. He was trained as a ground radar operator.

In August 1966, a mountain top in Laos was set up with a USAF TACAN bearing and range transmitter system. This allowed US military aircraft to more accurately target North Vietnamese sites and afforded all-weather attack capabilities. Since the US was prohibited from having a military presence in the country, the men who staffed the desolate outpost were “former” airmen. Among that group of hand-picked men was Chief Etchberger.

The base, called Lima Site 85, was staffed by sixteen Americans and defended from the valley below by the Hmong “Secret Army.” From November 1967 until March 1968, this one site directed 27% of the missions bombing North Vietnam and Laos. When said attacks were happening despite heavy cloud cover (which would preclude ground-based or airborne forward air controllers from guiding in the attacks), the North Vietnamese correctly deduced there was a radar site nearby. They soon began to zero in on Lima Site 85.

With the enemy encroaching, plans were made to evacuate and destroy Lima Site 85, but they were not implemented fast enough. While the American “civilians” posted there were supposed to be unarmed, they had secretly been given small arms and grenades to help defend themselves. As the NVA forces moved closer and closer, Lima Site 85 was spending more and more time directing air strikes in defense of the site itself.

By 9 March Lima Site was surrounded by about 3,000 NVA and Pathet Lao troops. At about 1800 hours on 10 March, Lima Site 85 was subjected to heavy enemy artillery barrages. As they came under fire, the men within the site abandoned their air traffic controlling equipment to grab rifles and man their defensive fighting positions.

After about two hours of shelling, and sustaining no injuries, the enemy stopped barraging them and they returned to their posts. With minimal damage to their systems, the defenders were able to coordinate airstrikes on enemy positions at the base of the mountain.

The enemy resumed bombarding the Lima Site from about 2100 hours on. At 0100 hours on the 11th, the RVN troops were in position and pressed their attack on the hilltop outpost. By 0200, communication with the men on the mountain had been lost and CIA observers from the airfield at the base of the mountain reported hearing gunfire from within Lima Site 85.

Up to now, most of the defensive fighting had been undertaken by the Hmong soldiers below. However, as the enemy pushed to the very top of the hill and to the edge of the outpost, they began launching rocket propelled grenades at key infrastructure. At 0300, they were within a few hundred yards of the compound and by 0345 they were close enough to effectively fire the RPGs into the site’s TACAN antenna and generators.

Hearing the explosions, the American technicians came out of their building to be met with immediate enemy small arms fire. The American commander, Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Clarence Blanton (a veteran of both World War II and the Korean War) was trying to produce his civillian identication when shot at point blank range. Blanton was killed, as was Tech. Sgt. Patrick Shannon. Master Sergeant James Calfee, who had also accompanied Blanton outside, was seriously wounded, but was able to crawl underneath the building with his weapon. The remaining men retreated to the west side of the mountain, where they took refuge at a cliff face.

The Americans, using their M16s and grenades fought back against their enemy, though they were outnumbered several hundred to one. Below them, their Hmong allies were holding the airfield against the communist attack.

With their commander dead, the American airmen found direction from their senior-most enlisted man, Etchberger. The withering direct fire from the enemy cut into the unprepared Americans. With little combat training they fared surprisingly well against their foe. The enemy was advancing on the outpost with supporting fire from artillery and mortars, raining munitions down on the retreating airmen.

On the hilltop, the American defenders and their Hmong allies were unable to hold back the enemy. The RVN and Pathet Lao had control over all the Lima Site’s facilities. Hmong forces tried to counterattack twice but were repelled.

About 0400, calls went out for close air support aircraft to get into position to cover the evacuation of those still alive at Lima Site 85. The evac would have to wait for daylight. Meanwhile, A-1 Skyraider close air support planes got close.

The Americans were all either dead or seriously wounded. Etchberger during this time single-handedly held off the enemy with only his M16. While in a fighting retreat, Etchberger showed the calmness and level-headedness that you need to lead men in combat during a hopeless fight. Despite being a single-man thorn in the side of the communist attackers with just his M-16, the chief also called in airstrikes from the circling attack aircraft above.

Chief Etchberger’s dogged defense of his position kept the enemy from completely overrunning what remained of his men, ensuring that at least some of them would make it off the mountaintop alive.

At daybreak an Air America (the CIA front for air operations in the region) helicopter arrived on station. Covered by the A-1s, they evacuated two CIA officers, one forward air controller, and five technicians.

As the helicopter arrived on the embattled hilltop outpost, Etchberger repeatedly exposed himself to heavy enemy fire to bring the wounded men under his command to the helicopter. There was not enough space and the post was sustaining so much enemy fire that the rescue helicopter was unable to land, instead winching the survivors up.

Etchberger dragged a wounded comrade out to the waiting sling, becoming the sole focus of the enemy that surrounded him, not just once, nor twice, but thrice. Due to his heroism three men who were severely wounded made it out.

Covering Etchberger’s repeated runs into the open was Calfee. Despite his own injuries, he poured covering fire into the enemy positions, drawing their attention away from the rescue. Though Calfee didn’t make it off that mountain, Etchberger and the wounded did. As one of those resuced tells it, “Calfee was the hero.”

Only once all the others had been loaded did Etchberger himself jump into the rescue sling. Amazingly, he had survived the battle without major injury. As the helicopter swung away with Etchberger the last evacuee, he would become the final casualty of the battle. An enemy rifle round, fired from below, struck Etchberger, killing him.

One of the men Etchberger saved, Staff Sergeant John Daniel, had been shot twice in the legs and was carried to the rescue chopper by Etchberger. Daniel regained consciousness as the helicopter was flying back to Thailand and was told of the chief’s death. Shocked, Daniel said, “Hell, he hasn’t been injured, he hasn’t been shot. How is he dead?”

As 11 March continued on, Air America was later able to account for the remains of several of the missing Americans. It wouldn’t be until 2003 that most of the others were accounted for, and finally in 2012 that the remains of Colonel Blanton would be identified. The battle had claimed 12 of the 19 men at Lima Site 85. Eleven of those were killed on the ground and Etchberger during the evacuation.

After accounting for as many of the missing men as possible, Air America and Air Force aircraft bombed the highly classified Lima Site 85 later that day in an attempt to deny the equipment to the enemy.

For his heroism that day, Chief Etchberger was recommended for the Medal of Honor. The Chief of Staff of the Air Force downgraded the award to the Air Force Cross, since we weren’t officially in Laos militarily. A public Medal of Honor awarding event, the first to an enlisted man of the Air Force since World War II, would draw attention to the actual military nature of our operations in the country.

Even the Air Force Cross award was made in secret at the Pentagon to Etchberger’s family, to draw as little attention to the operation as possible. Etchberger was one of 20 enlisted Air Force Cross recipients for the Vietnam War.

The existence of American military personnel in Laos wasn’t declassified until 1982. It was only then that Etchberger’s family discovered their loved one’s real manner of death. His sons had been told he’d died in a helicopter crash.

In the 2000s, veterans of Etchberger’s parent unit, the 1st Combat Evaluation Group, started the ball rolling on getting his Air Force Cross upgraded to the Medal of Honor. With support from Congress, the Secretary of the Air Force, and the Lao Veterans of America the upgrade finally came through, more than 40 years after Etchberger’s heroism.

Etchberger’s family received the upgraded Medal of Honor in 2010 in a ceremony at the White House. He is one of only three USAF enlisted Medal of Honor recipients from the Vietnam War. Etchberger is one of only seven enlisted Medal of Honor recipients from the Air Force since the start of the Air Service (three in World War II, three Vietnam, and one from Afghanistan). I’ve explored a few of them here, here, and here.

Calfee was posthumously awarded a Bronze Star Medal in 1983 and the “V” valor device for that award the following year. As the survivors and family started to get together in the 2000s to share stories, the family lobbied to have his award upgraded too. In 2012, his medal was upgraded to the Silver Star.

Nine other men who died at the Battle of Lima Site 85 also received the Bronze Star Medal w/ “V”.

 

Category: Air Force, Historical, Medal of Honor, Valor, Vietnam, We Remember

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ninja

Some background information:

https://www.cmohs.org/news-events/medal-of-honor-recipient-
profile/richard-etchberger-one-of-the-best-the-air-force-had/

“When he was not in school or working in the 5 and dime, Etchberger hiked and camped along the Appalachian Trail with his friends. In school he was president of his senior class, played basketball, participated in several clubs and was on the staff of the school newspaper. He graduated from Hamburg High School in June 1951 and in August of that year, enlisted in the Air Force.”

“Unaccustomed to failure, and perhaps because of it, Etchberger left the Air Force at the completion of his four-year commitment. Ten weeks later, however, he re-enlisted and for the next 12 years he rose rapidly in rank and responsibility. He was promoted to Chief Master Sergeant, the most senior of the enlisted ranks, after just 16 years in the Air Force.”

Not all Heroes wear capes.Thank You, Mason for sharing and honoring an Unsung Hero. Salute.

Green Thumb

Hardcore.

26Limabeans

For a good read I recommend “Tragic Mountains..the Hmong,
the Americans and the secret wars for Laos, 1942-1992”
Jane Hamilton-Merritt.

Rest in peace Chief Etchberger

Planet Ord

What a badass! Great article.

KoB

“…that such men lived…” A Battery Gun Salute followed by a missing man formation flyby for this Warrior.

Great, but sad read, Mason. Thanks for doing what you do to Honor these Warriors.

Last edited 2 months ago by KoB
Hondo

More info/background concerning Lima Site 85 and its fall – including a brief account of the only air-to-air shoot-down of fixed-wing aircraft by a US rotary wing aircraft during the Vietnam war – can be found here:

https://valorguardians.com/blog/?p=34965

Last edited 2 months ago by Hondo
Roh-Dog

Just wow. Thank you for this story.

Thank you to the personnel that did the stuff that “didn’t happen” and the sacrifices they made.

Rest In Peace Warriors.

Hondo

As an update, per DPAA here is the current status of US personnel at Lima Site 85 when it fell, or who died during operations there shortly thereafter. Service USAF unless noted otherwise:

Rescued from Site on 11 Mar 1968:

SSgt John Daniel
CMSgt Richard L. Etchberger (KIA during evac)
Sgt Roger D. Huffman
SSgt Bill Husband
Capt Stanley Sliz
SSgt Jack Starling
Howard Freeman (CIA)
John “Woody” Spence (CIA)

Presumed KIA, now Accounted for

LtCol Clarence F. Blanton – Accounted for 2012
TSgt Patrick L. Shannon – Accounted for 2005
Col Donale E. Westbrook (KIA during post-loss air operations to destroy remains of site) – Accounted for 2007

(continued)

Last edited 2 months ago by Hondo
Hondo

Presumed KIA, Currently Unaccounted-for

MSgt James H. Calfee
SSgt James W. Davis
SSgt Henry G. Gish
TSgt Willis R. Hall
TSgt Melvin A. Holland
TSgt Herbert A. Kirk
SSgt David S. Price
TSgt Donald K. Springsteadah
SSgt Don F. Worley

The USAF also has multiple memorials to those lost at Lima Site 85. One is at Andersen AFB and is co-located with the memorial for lost Arclight airmen. Another is located at Gunter AFS Enlisted Heritage Memorial Park.

The latter memorial, though somber, is IMO particularly beautiful; it also lists those lost and rescued that day. A hi-res photo of the Gunter AFS memorial may be viewed here.

Last edited 2 months ago by Hondo