b. 05/03/1933 Hamburg, Pennsylvania. d. 11/03/1968 Phou Pha Thi, Laos.
DATE OF MOH ACTION: 11/03/1968 Phou Pha Thi, Laos.
A native of Hamburg, Pennsylvania, Etchberger graduated from Hamburg High School in 1951. He joined the Air Force on August 31 of that year, and was promoted to Chief Master Sergeant on April 1, 1967.
In the early morning hours of March 11, 1968, the site came under attack from North Vietnamese soldiers who had scaled the surrounding cliffs. By 3 a.m., Etchberger and six others were the only surviving Americans out of the original 19. Etchberger tended to the wounded and fought off the advancing North Vietnamese troops until a rescue helicopter arrived. He then helped load the wounded onto slings to be lifted into the hovering aircraft before coming aboard himself. As the helicopter headed towards an air base in Thailand, an enemy soldier below fired his AK-47 into the underside of the aircraft, fatally wounding Etchberger.
John Daniel had been shot twice in the legs and was taking shelter amidst the bodies of other casualties when Etchberger recovered him and fitted him into the helicopter sling. Upon regaining consciousness and learning that Etchberger himself had been killed, Daniel voiced his disbelief: “Hell, he hasn’t been injured, he hasn’t been shot. How is he dead?” Decades later, when Etchberger was awarded the Medal of Honor, Daniel, in an interview with Stars and Stripes, suggested: “It should have happened 42 years-plus ago, and he should have gotten a damn 55-gallon drum full of them if he wanted them.”
Etchberger was recommended for the Medal of Honor shortly after his death, but the nomination was rejected. Numerous accounts blame President Lyndon B. Johnson, but the decision was made by Gen. John D. Ryan, the Air Force vice chief of staff, who was the USAF approving authority for top awards. The Lima Site mission was still classified at the time, and the U.S. was not supposed to have soldiers in Laos. Etchberger was instead awarded the second highest decoration, the Air Force Cross. The decoration was presented to his family during a secret ceremony at the Pentagon.
It was only after the Lima Site mission had been declassified fourteen years after Etchberger’s death that his sons learned their father’s true fate; they had previously been told that he died in a helicopter accident. In the early 2000s, veterans of the Air Force’s 1st Combat Evaluation Group began requesting that Etchberger’s Air Force Cross be upgraded to the Medal of Honor. The upgrade was approved by Secretary of the Air Force Michael B. Donley in 2008, and by the U.S. Congress in 2009, spearheaded by the leadership of U.S. Congressman Tim Holden (D-PA) and the Lao Veterans of America in Washington, D.C. The Medal of Honor was presented to Etchberger’s sons by President Obama at a White House ceremony on September 21, 2010.
Etchberger is buried in Saint John’s Cemetery, Hamburg, Pennsylvania.
Chief Master Sgt. Richard L. Etchberger distinguished himself by extraordinary heroism on March 11, 1968, in the country of Laos. While assigned as Ground Radar Superintendent, Detachment 1, 1043rd Radar Evacuation Squadron. On that day, 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 defense 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 wounded 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 the evacuation sling himself, only to be fatally wounded by enemy ground fire as he was being raised into the aircraft.
BURIAL LOCATION: ST JOHN’S CEMETERY, HAMBURG, PENNSYLVANIA.
CEMETERY 3, BLOCK 501 LOT 3 GRAVE 6.
LOCATION OF MEDAL:
AIR FORCE SENIOR NON-COMMISSIONED OFFICER ACADEMY, GUNTER ANNEX, MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, MAXWELL, ALABAMA.