April 1, 2016 will mark the centennial anniversary of Coast Guard aviation. Throughout the year, Coast Guard Compass will be honoring the legacy of Coast Guard aviation in preparation for the 100th anniversary. The below post highlights one of the many ways the Coast Guard honors the history of past aviators and will continue to do so throughout the year. Stay tuned and be sure to follow #CGFlies100 for all the action!
Nearly each and every American is familiar with the Coast Guard’s mission of search and rescue – to protect lives at sea. Less familiar, however, is the fact that Coast Guard aviators once carried out similar search and rescue missions in much different environments than they do today – during the Vietnam War.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of U.S. involvement in Vietnam – beginning when combat units were deployed in 1965. Eleven of these men were Coast Guard aviators. They were assigned to the U.S. Air Force in South Vietnam from 1968 to 1972, and serves as combat search and rescue pilots, carrying hundreds of rescue missions.
Recently, U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Traverse City honored their service and memory with a mural and dedication ceremony, in hopes it would help carry on a legacy nearly forgotten.
The mural honors the 11 aviators who served their Nation in combat rescue missions during the midst of the Vietnam War: Lt. Cmdr. Joseph Crowe, Lt. Cmdr. Lonnie Mixon, Lt. Richard Butchka, Lt. Lance Eagan, Lt. Robert Long, Lt. James Loomis, Lt. Roderick Martin, Lt. James Quinn, Lt. Robert Ritchie, Lt. Jack Rittichier and Lt. Jack Stice.
Capt. Sean Cross, commanding officer of U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Traverse City, noted that an additional benefit of honoring these legacies is reminding “active duty members that the Coast Guard has a heritage to maintain, and standards of Honor, Respect and Devotion to Duty.”
Cross spoke at the event alongside retired Cmdr. Robert ‘Bobby’ Long, one of the aviators who had carried out these missions and one of the 11 men honored on the newly dedicated mural.
Early on in Vietnam, the U.S. Air Force became overburdened and undermanned and needed assistance. That assistance came in the form of an aviator exchange program with the U.S. Coast Guard, which was finally implemented in 1967. By early 1968, Coast Guard aviators were piloting helicopters and support aircraft on daily missions deep into enemy territory.
One of the most recognized Coast Guard aviation stories during Vietnam is that of Lt. Jack Rittichier.
Rittichier and the entire crew of ‘Jolly 23’ perished while attempting a rescue operation for a downed U.S. Marine Corps aircraft in June 1968. For his service, he was posthumously awarded the Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross and Purple Heart.
But it was with this dedication ceremony that Cross strove to bring awareness to all the Coast Guard aviators who had braved enemy fire and carried out these dangerous missions.
He cited the excellence of Lt. Cmdr. Jay Crowe to demonstrate that each and every Coast Guard aviator serving in Vietnam carried out inherently dangerous missions and faced near-death situations – often on a daily basis.
Crowe served in Vietnam from 1971 to 1972 and carried out myriad of rescue missions – one in which his aircraft was riddled with enemy fire, causing him to abort the mission and barely make it back to the home base.
“The Coast Guard aviators who served on the rescue team were highly praised by many,” said Cross. “They stated that their exceptional proficiency was a product of their motivation to save lives, rather than individual brilliance.”
Cross ended his remarks with a tie to the Coast Guard core values – paralleling the rich history of Coast Guard aviation missions in Vietnam with the current-day missions carried out by Coast Guard men and women.
“Their numbers were not large – their contribution was,” said Cross. “They were all volunteers, many with spouses and families, who regularly put their lives on the line to save fellow airmen who were in peril of death or capture. Their focus was on Honor, Respect and Devotion to Duty.”