By Van De Ha, Space and Missile Systems Center Public Affairs-Multimedia
/ Published September 18, 2015
LOS ANGELES AIR FORCE BASE, El Segundo, Calif. -- The crowd cheered loudly inside the Gordon Conference Center at the Schriever Space Complex, rocketing up the festive mood for a special celebration; the 68th anniversary of the U.S. Air Force as a separate service.
Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center and Air Force Program Executive Officer for Space, Mr. Thomas Fitzgerald, SMC acting executive director, Chief Master Sgt. Craig Hall, SMC command chief, 2nd Lt. Noah Pierce, SMC's most junior officer and Airman 1st Class Anthony Gladsky, SMC's most junior enlisted serviceman, joined Mr. Cory Etchberger in cutting a ceremonial cake to celebrate the Air Force's 68th Birthday Sept. 18 at the Space and Missile Systems Center, Los Angeles Air Force Base in El Segundo, Calif.
Etchberger, son of Medal of Honor recipient Chief Master Sgt. Richard Etchberger, reflected on the sacrifice of people who have made the U.S. Air Force what it is today.
Chief Etchberger was a senior non-commissioned officer in the Air Force while assigned as Ground Radar Superintendent, Detachment 1, 1043rd Radar Evacuation Squadron. He posthumously received the United States military's highest decoration for his actions during the Battle of Lima Site 85 during the Vietnam War. The radar site's existence inside Laos was highly classified. An international agreement, signed by 14 countries in Geneva in 1962, prohibited the stationing of any military personnel in Laos. Etchberger and 15 airmen resigned from the Air Force -- in fact, they were honorably discharged -- and were now civilians employed by Lockheed Aircraft Services. They would work at Lima Site 85 as civilians until their tour of duty was completed, at which time they would return to the Air Force and active duty.
Lima Site 85 was staffed by sixteen 'former' airmen, including Etchberger, two Central Intelligence Agency agents, and one forward air controller. A large force of local guerrilla Laotian and Hmong fighters also heroically defended, and heavily engaged, the base prior to, and during, the battle.[
In the early morning hours of March 11, 1968, the site came under attack from North Vietnamese soldiers who had scaled the surrounding cliffs. By 3 a.m., Etchberger and six others were the only surviving Americans out of the original 19. Etchberger single-handedly held off the enemy with an M-16, while simultaneously directing air strikes into the area and calling for air rescue. Because of his fierce defense and heroic and selfless actions, he was able to deny the enemy access to his position and save the lives of his remaining crew.
With the arrival of the rescue aircraft, Chief Etchberger without hesitation repeatedly and deliberately risked his own life, exposing himself to heavy enemy fire, in order to place three surviving wounded comrades into rescue slings hanging from the hovering helicopter waiting to airlift them to safety. With his remaining crew safely aboard, Etchberger finally climbed into the evacuation sling himself, only to be fatally wounded by enemy ground fire as he was being raised into the aircraft.
Because the mission of Lima Site 85 was classified at the time, Chief Etchberger was awarded the Air Force Cross, the service's second highest decoration. It was presented to his family during a secret ceremony at the Pentagon.
It was only after the Lima Site mission had been declassified fourteen years after Etchberger's death that his sons learned their father's true fate; they had previously been told that he died in a helicopter accident. In the early 2000s, veterans of the Air Force's 1st Combat Evaluation Group began requesting that Etchberger's Air Force Cross be upgraded to the Medal of Honor. The upgrade was approved by Secretary of the Air Force Michael B. Donley in 2008, and by the U.S. Congress in 2009, spearheaded by the leadership of U.S. Congressman Tim Holden of Pennsylvania and the Lao Veterans of America in Washington, D.C. The medal was formally presented to Cory Etchberger and his two brothers by President Barack Obama during a ceremony at the White House on Sept. 21, 2010.
Etchberger's gallantry, self-sacrifice and profound concern for his fellow airmen has not been forgotten. As President Obama said in his remarks during the ceremony: "Even though it has been 42 years, it's never too late to do the right thing. It's never too late to pay tribute to our Vietnam veterans and their families."
John Daniel, who was the lone Lima Site 85 veteran to attend the White House ceremony, put it slightly differently: Etchberger, said Daniel, "was one hell of an NCO."