Medal of Honor Recipients Portrayed On Film
Classic Heroism


Rank, duty position and unit at time of action:

Airman First Class, Pararescue Jumper, Detachment 6, 38th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron, US Air Force


Vietnam War


Place and date of action:

Xa Cam My, Dong Nai Province, Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), 11 April 1966


Portrayed by:

Jeremy Irvine

In the film:

The Last Full Measure (2019)

Text of Citation:

*The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, March 3, 1963 has awarded in the name of the Congress the Medal of Honor posthumously to:


for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty near Cam My, April 11, 1966:

Rank and organization: Airman First Class, U.S. Air Force, Detachment 6, 38th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron, Bien Hoa Air Base, Republic of Vietnam.

Place and date: Near Cam My, April 11, 1966

Entered service at: Piqua, Ohio

Born: July 8, 1944, Piqua, Ohio


Airman First Class Pitsenbarger distinguished himself by extreme valor on April 11, 1966 near Cam My, Republic of Vietnam, while assigned as a Pararescue Crew Member, Detachment 6, 38th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron. On that date, Airman Pitsenbarger was aboard a rescue helicopter responding to a call for evacuation of casualties incurred in an on-going firefight between elements of the United States Army's 1st Infantry Division and a sizable enemy force approximately 35 miles east of Saigon. With complete disregard for personal safety, Airman Pitsenbarger volunteered to ride a hoist more than one hundred feet through the jungle, to the ground. On the ground, he organized and coordinated rescue efforts, cared for the wounded, prepared casualties for evacuation, and insured that the recovery operation continued in a smooth and orderly fashion. Through his personal efforts, the evacuation of the wounded was greatly expedited. As each of the nine casualties evacuated that day were recovered, Pitsenbarger refused evacuation in order to get one more wounded soldier to safety. After several pick-ups, one of the two rescue helicopters involved in the evacuation was struck by heavy enemy ground fire and was forced to leave the scene for an emergency landing. Airman Pitsenbarger stayed behind, on the ground, to perform medical duties. Shortly thereafter, the area came under sniper and mortar fire. During a subsequent attempt to evacuate the site, American forces came under heavy assault by a large Viet Cong force. When the enemy launched the assault, the evacuation was called off and Airman Pitsenbarger took up arms with the besieged infantrymen. He courageously resisted the enemy, braving intense gunfire to gather and distribute vital ammunition to American defenders. As the battle raged on, he repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire to care for the wounded, pull them out of the line of fire, and return fire whenever he could, during which time, he was wounded three times. Despite his wounds, he valiantly fought on, simultaneously treating as many wounded as possible. In the vicious fighting which followed, the American forces suffered 80 percent casualties as their perimeter was breached, and airman Pitsenbarger was finally fatally wounded. Airman Pitsenbarger exposed himself to almost certain death by staying on the ground, and perished while saving the lives of wounded infantrymen. His bravery and determination exemplify the highest professional standards and traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, and the United States Air Force.


A1C William H. "Pits" Pitsenbarger was initially recommended for a posthumous Medal of Honor based on the accounts of the surviving members of Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry "The Big Red One" Division, and his crew and squadron mates of the 38th ARRS (who flew Kaman HH-43 Huskies in real life, for which Bell UH-1 Iroquois, aka "Hueys", were substituted in the film due to the scarcity of the former type). The Air Force chain of command downgraded the award to the Air Force Cross, the second-highest USAF award for valor, equivalent to the Army Distinguished Service Cross and the Navy Cross, the rationale from the chain of command stated as insufficient documentation. (In 1966, Airman First Class was a 3-stripe rank and Staff Sergeant was 4-stripes, the next-higher rank, with the rank of "Buck" Sergeant then nonexistent. He received a posthumous promotion to Staff Sergeant when the award was finally upgraded.)

After Charlie Company had been ambushed and surrounded by a much larger Viet Cong force in an area that was not designated a helicopter Landing Zone and was under enemy fire, Army aviation medevac helicopters were unable to respond to the call to evacuate casualties; the Air Force's Detachment 6, 38th ARRS, trained and equipped to drop penetrator seats and litters on a cable and winch through jungle canopy to rescue downed aircrews in hostile territory, responded. After realizing that the company medic was one of the casualties being evacuated, Pitsenbarger volunteered to ride the penetrator to the ground and replace the wounded medic in administering medical aid to the other casualties still on the ground and place them in the extraction litter. He was under no military obligation to do so and this was a clear example of action "above and beyond the call of duty" which would cost him his life.

[Just five months earlier at the Battle of Ia Drang in the Vietnam Central Highlands, a similar situation had occurred regarding the inability of Army dedicated medevac helicopters to go into what was a hot LZ to pick up casualties. This led Major Bruce P. Crandall and Captain Ed W. Freeman, the two ranking officers of the assault helicopter company responsible for regular transport of the 1st Battalion 7th Cavalry Regiment (the unit engaged at Ia Drang) and their crews to assume the medevac duties at the hot LZ, for which the two officers also eventually received the Medal of Honor.]

This film offers a different perspective from the others in the Classic Heroism section of this website. The action for which Pitsenbarger received his posthumous Medal of Honor is seen through several flashbacks throughout the length of the film from the perspectives of several members of Charlie Company and from those of the other members of his rescue helicopter crew. The focus of the film was much less on Pitsenbarger's heroism than on the struggle of his crew mates, and the men whose lives he saved, to have his case reviewed and the award upgraded to the originally recommended MoH over thirty years after the fact, spurred on by the fact that his father Frank Pitsenbarger (played by Christopher Plummer) is terminally ill and wants to live to see the award upgraded. The focus is such that actor Jeremy Irvine's name appeared in the opening credits after that of at least a half-dozen members (the authors weren't keeping an exact count) of the "all star cast" (at least of actors who were popular in movies  and TV series of a decade or more ago). Furthermore, as a disclaimer in the end credits points out, with the exception of William Pitsenbarger and his parents (his mother Alice was played by Diane Ladd), all the characters in the film were fictionalized "for the purposes of dramatization".

This opened the floodgates for fabrication and misrepresentation under the guise of dramatic license. History vs Hollywood, a like-minded and similarly structured website to ours with a more generalized scope on fact-based movies of all genres, points out that the real-life driving force for the review of Pitsenbarger's case and upgrade of the award was a young historian named Parker Hayes. In the late 1990s, Hayes was employed by the Air Force Sergeants Association as the curator of the (now defunct) Airmen Memorial Museum in Suitland, Maryland. He published a biography of Pitsenbarger on the museum website and quickly found himself receiving several emails from, and becoming the point of contact for, several veterans of Charlie Company 2/16th Infantry and the 38th ARRS seeking his help in getting Pitsenbarger's award reviewed. Hayes picked up the ball by interviewing several of the veterans, during which he formed a bond with them, and compiling their statements onto the proper Department of Defense form to request the review.

For the film, Hayes was replaced by a fictional civilian lawyer (played by Sebastian Stan) at the Office of the Secretary of the Air Force, who becomes the central character of the film and who reluctantly and evasively takes on the request from another Pararescue Jumper, now retired, (played by William Hurt) from Pitsenbarger's helicopter crew on behalf of his parents. All of this takes place on the heels of the Secretary (played by Linus Roache) announcing his resignation and both the Secretary and the lawyer's immediate supervisor (played by Bradley Whitford) pressuring him to brush the case aside and pay more attention to the transition to a new Secretary and resulting changes in their assignments, all during a presidential election year. As Sebastian Stan's character interviews Frank and Alice Pitsenbarger and the veterans who witnessed the actions, he gains more sympathy for them while encountering increasing obstacles put up by the military bureaucracy. The History vs Hollywood website characterizes these obstacles as Conspiracy Theories, including a coverup of a Friendly Fire incident during the battle; interservice rivalry because Pitsenbarger and the Air Force made the Army look bad during the operation; and a higher-ranking officer in the Big Red One Division at the time, now a United States Senator (played by Dale Dye), failing to do a quid pro quo for another senator who then on the Senate floor blocks his efforts to advance the review of the case; this culminates in the lawyer going public with all the obstruction.

None of which, except for the Friendly Fire incident, matches anything in the historical record; no Secretary of the Air Force has ever resigned during a presidential election year since the office was created by the National Security Act of 1947 which separated the Air Force from the Army. Over the course of this drama, Pitsenbarger's heroism fades into the background and the film becomes about military bureaucracy, while the characterization of the veterans straddles the line between bringing due attention to the plight of combat veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress, and perpetuating the Hollywood stereotype of the emotionally scarred, dysfunctional Vietnam veteran. 

The film is evasively vague over the timeline of the narrative and the review and upgrade of Pitsenbarger's award, starting with Pitsenbarger's action being "thirty years ago" and it being an election year (therefore presumably 1996), to the action being "over thirty years ago" and then "thirty two years ago" while still being an election year, to Sans's character going public with the obstruction while still being an election year, to Frank and Alice Pitsenbarger receiving their son's Medal of Honor on December 8, 2000 (the actual real-life date of the presentation), a few days before the result of that year's unusually protracted presidential election was settled by a US Supreme Court decision. Frank Pitsenbarger lived for exactly 14 more months after receiving the award.

In actuality, Parker Hayes had quietly submitted the award review packet to the Department of the Air Force sometime in 1999; the review and upgrade over the course of between one and two years was rather remarkably expedited, compared to many other cases of many other reviews of previously rejected/downgraded Medal of Honor nominations several decades after the fact, to include Major Crandall and Captain Freeman mentioned above.

The authors actually gave serious consideration to placing this film in the Notable Fiction category, under the same criteria as the cameo insertion of the Medal of Honor actions of World War II B-29 Superfortress bomber crewman Staff Sergeant Henry E. Erwin, in the otherwise totally fictional 1951 film The Wild Blue Yonder. We gave even more consideration to placing it in the Hollywood Abominations category because of the factual distortions. This film, however, did accurately depict A1C Pitsenbarger's Medal of Honor earning actions in short segments over the length of the film, although we wish that more time had been spent in giving his character and his background much more depth. The authors have a combined total of over half a century of service as commissioned officers in the Armed Forces of the United States, and government bureaucracy is difficult enough in real life without having to be fictionally fabricated and exaggerated as this film did. We decided to be generous in leaving it in the Classic Heroism category to honor William Hart Pitsenbarger but not the film itself.


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