On April 11, 1966, Air Force Airman First Class William H. Pitsenbarger of Dayton, Ohio descended from a helicopter into one of the bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War.
He was shot three times but kept going, dragging wounded Army soldiers to a litter to be lifted to safety. The fourth shot killed him.
It was 34 years before Pitsenbarger received the Medal of Honor for his efforts in Operation Abilene. Pitsenbarger’s sacrifice and the battle the survivors fought to get him that medal are commemorated in the movie “The Last Full Measure,” to be released in theaters nationwide Jan. 24.
It’s a story with Douglas County connections.
1957 Roseburg High School graduate Dave Milsten knew Pitsenbarger — known to his brothers as Pits. Milsten was on that mission in another helicopter, and he helped with the effort to ensure Pits posthumously received the Medal of Honor.
Milsten currently lives in Florida and operates a clam farm in the Gulf of Mexico at Cedar Key.
In the summer of 1957, he left for Air Force basic training and never looked back, though he does still return annually for a family reunion at Diamond Lake. He was a survival instructor for five years and volunteered for pararescue when the program was new. He spent 25 years as a pararescueman.
In the movie, Milsten and another person are mingled into the character Tulley, played by William Hurt.
Milsten also appears in person in the film’s recreation of the Medal of Honor ceremony.
So does John Pierson of Roseburg, president of Military Honors by the Pipes, Inc. Pierson appears briefly marching with his bagpipes.
Pierson, like Milsten and Pits, was a pararescueman who jumped from planes and helicopters during rescue missions and he said he became a bagpiper performing at military funerals in 2005 because he wanted to honor his brothers who had made the ultimate sacrifice for freedom. His organization includes eight active bagpipers who perform at about 1,000 funerals every year.
Milsten was Pits’ immediate supervisor so they didn’t pal around together, but he remembered him as “full of vim and vinegar.”
“He was super gung-ho about everything he did,” Milsten recalled.
Milsten said Operation Abilene started when 134 members of Charlie Company, called the Mud Soldiers, were sent into the jungle in an effort to determine where the Viet Cong’s battalion bases were. They were in jungle so thick they couldn’t see the next man in front of them and were caught in enemy fire before they knew how close they’d gotten.
Pits and Milsten were on two separate helicopters of three sent into rescue soldiers. The helicopters had 210-foot steel cables they could lower with rescue baskets. They could hover 200 feet above ground, but after they had trouble getting a stretcher up with a man on board, Pits elected to remain on the ground.
About 600 guns were shooting at the Mud Soldiers. The bullets were so thick a man who held up his hand could expect to have several fingers shot off.
Those who survived stayed close to the ground. But Pits didn’t. He kept moving. Milsten said he’s not sure how many men Pits saved. Some have told him 15 or 20, others say 60. There was an 80% casualty rate in Operation Abilene.
Pits received the Air Force Cross but was initially turned down for the Medal of Honor. He could have been the first airman to receive the honor if it had been approved then, but he wound up being the second.
Milsten said those working to get the medal reconsidered had to get congressional support, which came from Ohio Rep. John Boehner, and they had to collect new evidence. That came from his fellow airmen but also from the Mud Soldiers he’d saved.
The movie is a powerhouse of talent with big-name actors like Samuel L. Jackson, Ed Harris and Sebastian Stan joining Plummer and Hurt. It’s written and directed by Todd Robinson, who Milsten first met in 1999 at a pararescue school graduation ceremony. That’s where Robinson first heard about Pits’ story.
Getting the story told would take another 20 years and a series of misadventures, from difficulty obtaining the film’s funding to a studio burning down to a shooting relocation to Thailand after Costa Rica refused to allow the guns needed for the filming to enter the country, Milsten said.
The real Medal of Honor ceremony was held at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in 2000. Pararescuemen came from all over the United States and the world, including Japan, England, Korea and Spain, Milsten said.
Milsten said he can be spotted in the movie when the secretary of the Air Force asks members of the air rescue squadron to stand and then standing nearby after the ceremony when Pits’ father, played by Christopher Plummer is being wheeled out.
“I couldn’t play myself in the movie because William Hurt was playing me, so I pretended I was one of the other members of the unit,” he said.
Pierson and Milsten recalled that shooting the ceremony took all day long and about 20 takes.
Pierson first heard about the movie through a pararescueman association, which spread the word that they were being invited to appear as part of the audience in the movie.
He was with his friend and fellow bagpiper Gordon Convoy in that recreated ceremony.
“My 15 minutes of fame only lasted about 5 seconds. Gordon and I were playing and marching away from the stage there, and it’s clearly Gordon and I, but it was a montage of different scenes during the medal of honor ceremony,” he said.
They’re playing the marching song “Wings” at that moment, he thinks, but the music can’t be heard in the montage.
He got to meet several actors, including Hurt, who walked up and stood behind him while he and Convoy were warming up their pipes. Hurt impressed him as quiet and humble.
“We had a really neat conversation and he loved what we were doing and that was cool,” he said.
As a pararescueman veteran himself, Pierson said the whole thing felt very personal. Pierson’s father took him out to an airbase when he was a junior in high school and while there he saw the pararescue section, eight parajumpers had their gear laid out inside a Quonset hut. It took him three years to join up, but he was already hooked that day.
“That’s when I woke up. That’s when I knew there was something that I needed to do,” he said.
Pierson was part of a pararescue team based in Portland starting in 1970, four years after Operation Abilene took place, and tried to volunteer for active duty during Vietnam but didn’t get to go. Though he never knew Pits, he said every pararescueman knew his story. He first heard it while in training.
He said he hopes moviegoers come away from the film with the understanding that freedom is not free.
“There is a real cost for freedom and there is great value in the freedom this country is founded on and this country has lost touch with that,” Pierson said.
Milsten has seen the movie 10 or 11 times now, traveling with the director to screenings at Air Force bases. He thinks the movie’s great and he hopes viewers get a better understanding of what combat is like for the soldiers.
“To have to be in combat for a full year and then come back and forget it all. They don’t forget it. It lives with them their whole life and the movie really brings that out,” he said.