Only Coast Guardsman who was Vietnam MIA buried in Arlington - Cleveland 19 News Cleveland, OH

Only Coast Guardsman who was Vietnam MIA buried in Arlington

By MALIA RULON, Associated Press Writer

ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) - Thirty-five years after Lt. Jack C. Rittichier's last rescue attempt, the only U.S. Coast Guardsman missing in action from the Vietnam War was remembered as a hero.

Rittichier, then 34, was the pilot of an HH-3E helicopter that had left Da Nang Air Base in South Vietnam June 9, 1968, on a rescue mission for a downed U.S. pilot. His helicopter was struck by enemy fire and exploded in a fireball.

The pilot Rittichier was trying to rescue, Marine 1st Lt. Walter R. Schmidt, of Nassau, N.Y., had been shot down and was stranded in enemy territory with a broken leg. Schmidt didn't survive and was listed as MIA.

On Monday, about 600 mourners walked a half-mile up a hill overlooking the Pentagon to bury Rittichier, the seventh and last Coast Guardsman killed in Vietnam.

"All hands are now accounted for," said Adm. Thomas Collins, the Coast Guard commandant.

That last mission was just one of many rescue attempts made by Rittichier of Barberton, Ohio, known to his friends and family as a man who could do everything.

"I know just what he would have said if he were here today: 'I'm no hero. It's my job,'" said younger brother David Rittichier, 69, of Erwin, Tenn.

Before Vietnam, Rittichier won honors for rescue work during Hurricane Betsy in 1965. He also earned an Air Medal in 1967 for copiloting a helicopter that rescued eight seamen from a West German vessel in Lake Huron.

Rittichier was discharged from the Air Force as a captain in 1963. He then joined the Coast Guard and volunteered for a pilot exchange program in Vietnam.

Two weeks after being deployed, he earned his first Distinguished Flying Cross for flying through enemy fire to save four Army soldiers. He would earn two more Flying Crosses and three Air Medals before his last flight.

"If we define the character of a man by his actions, Lieutenant Jack C. Rittichier is the embodiment of courage," Collins said.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge also attended the funeral, which was followed by a procession behind Rittichier's flag-covered casket. It was pulled by six white horses on a black caisson to his grave site at Arlington National Cemetery's Coast Guard Hill, a part of the cemetery usually reserved for senior officers.

Mourners recited The Lord's Prayer, then a seven-member rifle party fired three volleys. As a lone bugler played taps, four red and white helicopters circled the hill, representing every type of chopper in the Coast Guard inventory.

"When those guns went off and those helicopters went over ... I was flooded with a lot of the old feelings," David Rittichier said of his older brother, who played football in high school and was captain of the 1955 Kent State University Golden Flashes. "We've missed him terribly."

A Coast Guard bagpipe band played "Amazing Grace" as Collins presented a flag to David Rittichier. Brother Henry Rittichier, 60, of Houston, and Rittichier's widow, Carol Wypick of Fountain Valley, Calif., said they had waited a long time.

"I never thought this day would come," said Wypick, who later married another Coast Guard search and rescue pilot. "You have no idea, in my heart, how wonderful this is."

Joint U.S.-Vietnamese teams had searched unsuccessfully for the crash site in Vietnam. In May 2002, officials received information about a crash near Ban Kaboui, Laos, about nine miles from where they'd been searching. The U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii identified the remains recovered at the wreckage as those of the pilots and crew.

Also killed in the mission were: Rittichier's co-pilot, Air Force Capt. Richard C. Yeend Jr. of Mobile, Ala.; and two crew members, Air Force Sgt. James D. Locker of Sidney, Ohio, and Air Force Staff Sgt. Elmer L. Holden of Oklahoma City.

At a reception following the funeral, three people gave the family their MIA bracelets engraved with Rittichier's name.

"I've worn this bracelet with pride and hope," said Deborah Eggleston of Newcomerstown, Ohio. "This man fought for my freedom. He was already a hero in my eyes."

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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