Lt. Jack Rittichier and the legacy of Vietnam

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Henry Rittichier visits the Vietnam Memorial Wall where the name of his brother Coast Guard Lt. Jack Columbus Rittichier's name is listed on Oct. 5, 2003.  U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Tom Sperduto.
Henry Rittichier visits the Vietnam Memorial Wall where the name of his brother Coast Guard Lt. Jack Columbus Rittichier's name is listed on Oct. 5, 2003. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Tom Sperduto.

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.

Daring valor

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.

Lt. Jack Rittichier before his deployment to Vietnam. U.S. Coast Guard photo.
Lt. Jack Rittichier before his deployment to Vietnam. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

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.

Giving thanks

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.

The Coast Guard Honor Guard prepares to carry the casket of Lt. Jack Columbus Rittichier Oct. 6, 2003. U.S.Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Tom Sperduto.
The Coast Guard Honor Guard prepares to carry the casket of Lt. Jack Columbus Rittichier Oct. 6, 2003. U.S.Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Tom Sperduto.

It is this part of our nation’s past, this wrong in how our nation reacted to Vietnam’s veterans, that the Department of Defense’s 50th Vietnam War Commemoration aims to right.

With more than 2,500 Vietnam veterans and Gold Star family members in attendance, a Memorial Day ceremony marked the beginning of the national commemoration of the war’s 50th anniversary.

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.

Jack Rittichier, Lt. Cmdr. Charlotte Pittman and Henry Rittichier at the Memorial Day ceremony. Photo courtesy of Henry Rittichier.
Jack Rittichier, Lt. Cmdr. Charlotte Pittman and Henry Rittichier at the Memorial Day ceremony. Photo courtesy of Henry Rittichier.

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.

9 comments on “Lt. Jack Rittichier and the legacy of Vietnam”

  1. Thank you for this powerful story of tenacity and heroism – the kind of “trickle down effect” we desperately need in this country today in the homeland.

  2. Thi is a great example and ispiration about serve your Country, even with your own life to save others life, May in peace  Lt Jack Rittichier rest. Gob bless him.

  3. I also wore Lt Rittichier’s bracelet right up to his repatriation.  His bracelet now sits with the other POW/MIA bracelet I wore for many years. That bracelet was for a Navy jet pilot. As a new Naval Aviator, I found myself in the same major command as that pilot.  I called him one day to tell him that I had his bracelet, and that I was very glad that he was finally home.  I wish that I could have done the same with Lt Rittichier.  The world would be a lesser place without men and women of his caliber. Semper Peratus.

  4. Commemorations of this sort always bring about questions.  Just what is the Coast Guard’s legacy from Vietnam?  What were the lessons learned and how did they, if at all, impact the Coast Guard’s future? 

    As an aside to the article, Lt. Ritticher was not MIA, he was KIA-BNR (body not recovered).

    Too bad the other six Coast Guardsmen killed were not listed in the article.  Then again, a legacy virtually unknown from Vietnam is the heroics of then GM1 Jerry Goff and EN2 Larry Villarreal. They prosecuted the most valiant acts of personal bravery in the Coast Guard’s combat actions in Vietnam and they performed their act twice in one night.

    1. Bill Wells,

      Thanks for commenting and sharing your thoughts. About this article raising questions: I think that’s really important. The more people in our great nation we have asking questions, the more conversations there are. And that is what remembering those who served is all about – talking about their sacrifices and discussing how it affects our respective services today ensures we continue to honor their service. 

      As I am sure you can imagine, it’s not easy to fit an entire service’s history at war in one blog post. We try our best to present many different stories to our Coast Guard Compass readers and look forward to sharing the ones you mentioned above in the future. Also, if you have any story tips, you can always email us at socialmedia@uscg.mil

      In the meantime, check out our historian’s page for the details you mentioned above (the other Coast Guardsmen killed in the war) as well as links to more sources of information on the Coast Guard at war: http://www.uscg.mil/history/h_militaryindex.asp

      Very Respectfully,
      Lt. Stephanie Young
      Coast Guard Public Affairs

  5. Nice article, and great story. While stationed at LantArea as a PA3 I had the privilege of covering ISC Portsmouth’s Commissioning ceremony when its Administration and Electronic Systems Support Unit was renamed the “Rittichier Building” in November 1998. 

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