Overlooked service

Rittichier in front of an HH-52A prior to his deployment to Vietnam--another Coast Guard exchange pilot, LCDR Lonnie Mixon--is to Rittichier's right

Lt. Jack Rittichier in front of an HH-52A prior to his deployment to Vietnam–another Coast Guard exchange pilot, LCDR Lonnie Mixon–is to Rittichier’s right

by Lt. Krystyn Pecora

Every day, dozens of military members, retirees and family members hurriedly pass through the doors of the administration building at the Coast Guard base in Portsmouth, Virginia. For most of these individuals, their goal is simply to obtain an updated identification card before they head off to complete more of their daily errands. In this inevitable rush, it’s easy to overlook the plaque at the building’s entrance or the display tucked just inside the front door dedicated to Lt. Jack Rittichier, one of more than 8,000 Coast Guard members who served in the war zone during the Vietnam War.

This memorial to Rittichier is symbolic of the Coast Guard’s service in Vietnam as a whole. Most citizens associate the Coast Guard with domestic missions, such as search and rescue, rather than by recognizing their contributions during every major conflict since the service’s foundation in 1790. Rittchier’s story, however, reflects the dedication and sacrifices made by Coast Guard personnel during the Vietnam War.

Rittichier, an Akron, Ohio, native, entered the Coast Guard Reserve after leaving the U.S. Air Force in 1962. He served at both Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City, North Carolina, and Coast Guard Air Station Detroit, earning numerous awards for the rescues he performed. However, Rittichier soon found his way back to the Air Force by volunteering for a unique exchange program for Coast Guard pilots during the Vietnam War to serve as part of the U.S. Air Force Combat Rescue Forces.

During the Vietnam War, it was determined a search and rescue team was needed to support the forces. Coast Guard pilots proved to be a perfect fit given their specialized training. These pilots flew HH-3E helicopters, fondly nicknamed “Jolly Green Giants,” deep into enemy territory to rescue downed pilots or isolated forces. Rittichier quickly found himself on one such rescue flight soon after reporting for duty to the 37th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron based in Da Nang, Vietnam.

While Rittichier began flying as a co-pilot, he quickly earned the role of aircraft commander. His rescues under enemy fire netted him three Distinguished Flying Crosses. Despite the awards bestowed upon him, Rittchier remained humble. His selfless nature was reflected in his comments about one of these missions saying, “We do not know who directed this mission. We do not know why we investigated a crash site. We only know that the answers we brought back satisfied someone up the line. We were happy to be of service.”

On June 9, 1968, Lt. Rittichier and his aircrew headed out on a mission, this time to rescue Marine Corps pilot 1st Lt. Walter R. Schmidt Jr. who ejected from his aircraft when his A-4 Skyhawk was downed near a North Vietnamese staging area. Initial attempts to make the approach to rescue the pilot were driven back. Finally, Rittichier made an approach and deployed a pararescue member to the injured Schmidt.

Lieutenant Jack Rittichier returns home.

The remains of LT Jack Rittichier are transferred to a Coast Guard C-130 for return to the United States.

As the pararescue member jumped to Schmidt below, Rittichier’s aircraft came under enemy fire, causing the helicopter he piloted to burst into flames. While Rittichier attempted to fly the helicopter to a nearby clearing, the rotors slowed, and the aircraft lost altitude, exploding as it crashed to the ground. The entire crew was lost in their effort to rescue a fellow servicemember. Rittichier was posthumously awarded a Silver Star.

Rittichier and his aircrew’s remains were lost to the world until 2002, when a military joint task force searched to locate the crash site. Rittichier’s body was recovered and finally laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery in 2003.

Rittichier was one of seven Coast Guard members killed in action during the Vietnam War. While their stories are often overlooked in the historic remembrances of the war, their service was no less important or inspirational to those Coast Guard men and women who serve today.

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