A 34-year-old Coast Guard pilot flew above the war-torn Republic of Vietnam with many uncertainties on his mind. While he and his fellow servicemembers faced the unknown, he was sure about one thing.
“I just want to save lives as much as I can,” the young pilot wrote to his wife.
And so Lt. Jack Rittichier went on to save lives as one of the first three Coast Guard exchange pilots to fly combat search and rescue missions with the Air Force’s 37th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron.
Rittichier demonstrated courage above and beyond the call of duty as he was called into action just 11 days after arriving in Vietnam. He faced enemy fire as his crew rescued an Army helicopter crew of four who had been shot down.
The following two weeks brought more combat missions, and on May 12, 1968, Rittichier twice flew through hostile fire onto a steep mountain slope to rescue nine survivors of a downed helicopter.
On June 9, Rittichier took off on a mission to save a downed Marine. It would be his last.
Rittichier and his crew fell under intense enemy fire as they tried to rescue the Marine, and the entire air crew perished as their helicopter impacted the ground and burst into flames.
Rittichier gave his life performing the most heralded of Coast Guard missions – saving lives. He was the first Coast Guard casualty in Vietnam caused by enemy action and at war’s end his remains were unaccounted for; he was the only Coast Guardsman missing in action from Vietnam.
But, as fate would have it, he finally came home three decades later. An investigation team located Rittichier and his crew’s crash site inside Laos and recovered their remains in 2002. He was repatriated on Feb. 14, 2003, and was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery on Oct. 6, 2003.
More than 30 years after Rittichier was killed in enemy action he was brought home, although he came home to a welcome far different than that of his fellow servicemembers.
And in that crowd of thousands was someone who knew a lot about the sacrifices made in Vietnam, specifically the sacrifice of Lt. Jack Rittichier – Henry Rittichier, Jack’s younger brother.
“Jack’s my older brother and I always looked up to him and the example of service he demonstrated throughout his life,” said Henry. “I miss him greatly, but he will live on in our hearts and memories and instill in us the will to contribute during our life and leave things better than we found them. Jack’s life and service are a testament to that and he’ll never be forgotten.”
A new generation
Henry so looked up to his older brother, that he named one of his sons Jack. As Jack grew up, Henry said his son understood more and more about the sacrifice his uncle made decades ago. Jack attended the ceremony with his father and is part of the next generation of Americans who will not let the stories of Vietnam fade.
“The Vietnam War Commemoration and the recognition of what his uncle did have had a profound effect on young Jack,” said Rittichier. “It has a big impact in his own approach to life.”
Also in attendance, and indelibly impacted by Jack Rittichier’s service, was a current Coast Guard aviator, Lt. Cmdr. Charlotte Pittman. After hearing of Rittichier’s story, Pittman began wearing a missing in action bracelet with Lt. Jack Rittichier’s name on it.
Pittman wore the bracelet in the cockpit of her helicopter, flying countless Coast Guard missions; missions that saved lives, just as Jack Rittichier had decades before her. But, with Rittichier’s body repatriated, the bracelet needed a new home. And Pittman knew just who should have it.
She met with Henry and Jack at the Memorial Day ceremony to pass on the bracelet to the Rittichier family.
“I was so impressed by her devotion and commitment to the Coast Guard. I think her wearing of the remembrance bracelet exemplified that,” said Henry Rittichier upon meeting Pittman. “It’s so worn from wear that my brother’s name is difficult to read, but it is a treasure that I and my son, Jack’s namesake, will wear and keep with pride.”
With the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War, we encourage you to pause and thank our nation’s veterans; listen to their stories of bravery, sacrifice and sometimes of heartbreak. Jack Rittichier, the 34-year-old Coast Guard pilot who volunteered for duty in Vietnam to save lives, is just one of these stories.