JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska —
March 11, 1968. Outnumbered and stranded on an enemy-littered mountain, he 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 through 10, 2018.
Cory recalled the moment he and his family learned of his father’s death.
“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 said.
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.
The 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.
Steven Wilson, 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.
“March 11, 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.”