Hamburg native and Vietnam War casualty Richard L. Etchberger was honored by President Obama by posthumously receiving the Medal of Honor. The Chief Master Sergeant heroically defended a mountain top radar installation from attack saving his fellow technicians from a massive enemy attack. Because the installation was in Laos in violation of international law the U.S. wouldn’t admit the event or recognize Sgt. Etchberger’s heroism for decades. The Pentagon and White House at the time routinely lied to the American people about our penetration of neutral country’s territory during that conflict. Now the story of this Berks County man’s exploits can be aired and commended at the highest levels. Remarks by the President yesterday:
Dick Etchberger was a radar technician and he had been hand-picked for a secret assignment. With a small team of men, he served at the summit of one of the tallest mountains in Laos — more than a mile high, literally above the clouds. They manned a tiny radar station, guiding American pilots in the air campaign against North Vietnam.
Dick and his crew believed they could help turn the tide of the war, perhaps even end it. And that’s why North Vietnamese forces were determined to shut it down. They sent their planes to strafe the Americans as they worked. They moved in their troops. And eventually, Dick and his team could look through their binoculars and see that their mountain was surrounded by thousands of North Vietnamese troops.
Dick and his crew at that point had a decision to make — ask to be evacuated or continue the mission for another day. They believed that no one could possibly scale the mountain’s steep cliffs. And they believed in their work. So they stayed. They continued their mission.
There were 19 Americans on the mountain that evening. When their shift was over, Dick and his four men moved down to a small, rocky ledge on a safer side of the mountain. And then, during the night, the enemy attacked. Somehow, fighters scaled the cliffs and overran the summit. Down the side of the mountain, Dick and his men were now trapped on that ledge.
The enemy lobbed down grenade after grenade, hour after hour. Dick and his men would grab those grenades and throw them back, or kick them into the valley below. But the grenades kept coming. One airman was killed, and then another. A third airman was wounded, and then another. Eventually, Dick was the only man standing.
As a technician, he had no formal combat training. In fact, he had only recently been issued a rifle. But Dick Etchberger was the very definition of an NCO — a leader determined to take care of his men. When the enemy started moving down the rocks, Dick fought them off. When it looked like the ledge would be overrun, he called for air strikes, within yards of his own position, shaking the mountain and clearing the way for a rescue. And in the morning light, an American helicopter came into view.
Richard Etchberger lived the Airman’s Creed — to never leave an airman behind, to never falter, to never fail. So as the helicopter hovered above and lowered its sling, Dick loaded his wounded men, one by one, each time exposing himself to enemy fire. And when another airman suddenly rushed forward after eluding the enemy all night, Dick loaded him, too — and finally, himself. They had made it off the mountain.
That’s when it happened. The helicopter began to peel away. A burst of gunfire erupted below. Dick was wounded. And by the time they landed at the nearest base, he was gone.
Of those 19 men on the mountain that night, only seven made it out alive. Three of them owed their lives to the actions of Dick Etchberger. Today, we’re honored to be joined by one of them — Mr. John Daniel.
Vietnam was a tumultuous time, I remember because I lived the era. The people were being lied to repeatedly and there came to be known a “credibility gap” due to all the lies and propaganda. Unfortunately true heroes were denied their due because of bad policies driving a bad war. Unfortunately we’re still seeing such conduct with the likes of Pat Tillman when a propaganda driven White House saw a golden propaganda opportunity and tried to twist the NFL star’s death as something it wasn’t. There’s very little I believe coming these days from the CIA. The credibility gap in this war is as bad as it was in Vietnam. I wanted to be happy last week when Iran released an American “hiker” but I have no confidence she wasn’t a spy. What crazy person goes hiking in Afghanistan these days?
I do commend the Etchberger family for finally being honored for Richard’s deeds but let’s strive to be able to honor our heroes when they die heroically instead of forty years later and let’s do it legitimately.