Medal of Honor Hero Chief Etchberger Tells Dad's Story
by U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Curtis Beach
July 21, 2018
Outnumbered and stranded on an enemy-littered mountain on March
11, 1968, Chief Master Sgt. Richard Etchberger fought for his life.
His entire team lay dead or injured around him. With no significant
combat training, he grabbed a rifle to hold off enemy forces closing
in on his location, while simultaneously directing air strikes.
Without hesitation, Chief Master Sgt. Richard Etchberger
repeatedly exposed himself to heavy enemy fire to load his wounded
comrades onto rescue slings hanging from a hovering helicopter. With
his crew safely aboard, the chief finally climbed into an evacuation
sling himself, only to be fatally wounded by enemy ground fire.
Cory Etchberger and Tracy Megenney, son and granddaughter of
Richard, visited Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, to share
the story of their loved one with Airmen May 7-10, 2018.
Cory Etchberger and Tracy
Megenney, son and granddaughter of Medal of Honor recipient
Chief Master Sgt. Richard Etchberger with Airmen at Joint
Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska on May 7, 2018 with an
inset of Chief Etchberger's Medal of Honor centered in
front. Cory and Tracy visited JBER to share their loved
one’s story with Airmen. Etchberger’s acts of extraordinary
heroism during the Vietnam War at Lima Site 85, in Laos,
March 11, 1968, saved the lives of three Airmen. He is the
only E-9 of any U.S. military branch to receive the Medal of
Honor. (Image created by USA Patriotism! from U.S. Air Force
photos by Senior Airman Curt Beach)
Cory recalled the moment he and his family learned of his
“We were sitting at the dining room table in
our Pennsylvania home,” Cory said. “We had just finished eating
dinner, and my mother had just served us strawberry shortcake when
we got the call. About a minute later, she broke down crying.”
In 1967, when American involvement in Vietnam was reaching its
peak, U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson and U.S. military officials
sought to bring an end to the Vietnam War with airstrikes near the
capital of Hanoi.
“In order for this to happen, the Air Force
needed a radar site within 120 nautical miles of Hanoi, and also an
unobstructed line of sight to the airspace over the capital,” Cory
Such a place existed at Phou Pha Thi, a mountain in
Laos west of Hanoi that was high enough to give the radar a straight
shot to Hanoi.
However, Laos was a neutral military location,
so in order to not violate any treaties, Etchberger and his team
were discharged from the military, in order to perform their pivotal
mission as civilians working for a defense contractor.
men of the radar bomb scoring team and their wives signed secrecy
agreements to not speak of the mission. The events that took place
at Lima Site 85 were classified top secret.
Etchberger’s eldest son, recalls his wife had given birth to their
daughter, Tracy, the day Etchberger was killed.
“We had just
left the hospital with my first baby,” Wilson recalled. “I called my
mother and told her of the news. About two hours later, she called
me back, and told me Dad had been killed.”
Nine months after
her husband’s death, Katherine Etchberger received the Air Force
Cross in his honor, though many believed his actions warranted a
Medal of Honor.
Cory said his mother took the Air Force Cross
and placed it in her closet, so she wouldn’t have to go through the
pain of lying about her husband’s death.
“We didn’t know any
of the details about what happened to Dad,” Cory said. “We didn’t
talk about it. We knew better. Nothing was ever said. No memorabilia
or photos were displayed, except for a sole photo that mom kept on
her bedside table.
“The story I was eventually told was that
he was killed in a helicopter crash somewhere in Southeast Asia, and
I believed that story for another 18 years.”
After 18 years
of secrecy, the events that took place at Lima Site 85 were finally
declassified in 1986, and Etchberger’s three sons, and the rest of
the world, learned the truth about their father.
1968, was not the first time Dick Etchberger ever helped someone,”
Cory said. “In his senior yearbook, one-third of the people who
signed it said Dad had helped them in one way or another. That same
sentiment is echoed across the small town of Hamburg. Helping people
was who he was, what he did.”
More than four decades after
the fact, Etchberger’s heroism was honored when his Air Force Cross
was upgraded to a Medal of Honor, which President Barack Obama
presented to Etchberger’s three sons Sept. 21, 2010.
Etchberger is the only E-9 in any military service to be awarded the
Medal of Honor.
Cory now visits military installations across
the country, telling his father’s story and said the message he has
for Airmen is simple: “Look after one another.”
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