Jack C. Rittichier, USCG
Coast Guard Aviator No. 997
Jack Columbus Rittichier was born on 17 August 1933 in Akron, Ohio. He graduated from Coventry High School in 1951. He attended Kent State University, where he played college football and was the team's captain. He graduated with a BFA degree in March of 1957.
After graduating, he joined the Air Force in August of 1957 and went through flight training at Bainbridge Air Base, Georgia and Loredo Air Force Base, Texas, earning his wings in December of 1958. Trained to fly the Boeing B-47 Stratojet (below), Second Lieutenant Rittichier was assigned to the Strategic Air Command's 340th Bomb Wing based at Whiteman AFB, Missouri. During his Air Force career he was promoted to the rank of captain.
After being discharged from the Air Force in November of 1962, he accepted a commission in the Coast Guard Reserve as a Lieutenant, Junior Grade, his commission dating from 26 September 1963. While assigned to his first tour of duty at Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City, North Carolina, he served as a search and rescue pilot and had collateral duties as the unit's legal affairs officer and public information officer. He was promoted to Lieutenant in the regular Coast Guard on 28 March 1966. The Coast Guard awarded Rittichier and his unit the Coast Guard Unit Commendation for their rescue work during Hurricane Betsy.
In May of 1966 he was assigned to Air Station Detroit, based out of Selfridge AFB, where he again flew search and rescue missions and also served as the assistant head operations officer and as the unit's public information officer. While there, he laid the ground work for a public information campaign on the activities of Coast Guard aviators flying as exchange officers with the U.S. Air Force Rescue Service in Vietnam. This exchange program allowed Coast Guard officers the opportunity to serve a tour of duty with an Air Force unit and vice versa, and was designed to give these officers experience in the rescue operations and procedures used by the other service.
The Coast Guard awarded Lieutenant Rittichier the Air Medal in June 1967 for his role as the copilot of a helicopter that completed a dangerous rescue during the winter of 1966. On 29 November 1966 Rittichier and his crew responded to a distress call from the West German motor vessel Nordmeer that had grounded on Thunder Bay Island Shoal in Lake Huron.
[Rittichier in front of an HH-52A prior to his deployment to Vietnam--another Coast Guard exchange pilot, LCDR Lonnie Mixon--is to Rittichier's right in the full-size photo.]
The cutter Mackinaw also responded to the distress call but prevailing weather conditions and the location of the stranded vessel prohibited her crew from effecting a rescue and they awaited the assistance of a Coast Guard helicopter. Rittichier navigated the helicopter for 150 miles from Detroit with the "final 80 miles flown through snow showers at 200 feet over the lake utilizing the shoreline for navigation." After locating the vessel, Rittichier established contact with her crew by radio. They indicated that they were stranded on the forward deck, exposed to the elements, had no power, and were in imminent danger. Rittichier then assisted the pilot in "maneuvering the helicopter and accomplishing the hoist of the eight crewmen from the NORDMEER to the decks of the Mackinaw" safely. The rescue was completed in a mere 22 minutes. Soon after the crew had been rescued, the Nordmeer broke apart and sank.
Soon thereafter Rittichier volunteered for the exchange program with the Air Force. The Air Force assigned him to the 37th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron [ARRS], based at Da Nang, in the Republic of Vietnam. Once with the 37th ARRS, Rittichier began flying the large Sikorsky HH-3E "Jolly Green Giant" (below) combat rescue helicopters. He was literally thrown into the fire as soon as he arrived in Vietnam.
He began flying as a copilot on rescue missions but soon became an aircraft commander himself. He was awarded his first Distinguished Flying Cross [DFC] for a rescue he took part in on 21 April 1968. The citation noted: "Lieutenant JACK C RITTICHIER distinguished himself by heroism while participating in aerial flight as Rescue Crew Copilot of an HH-3E helicopter in Southeast Asia on 21 April 1968. On that date, Lieutenant RITTICHIER was instrumental in the rescue of four crew members of two United States Army helicopter gunships shot down by hostile ground fire. With great determination and superior airmanship, Lieutenant RITTICHIER effected the rescue in the face of hostile ground fire."
On 2 May 1968, again as a copilot, he made another combat rescue in which he was awarded his second DFC. The citation noted: "Lieutenant JACK C RITTICHIER distinguished himself by extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight as Rescue Crew Copilot of an HH-3E helicopter in Southeast Asia on 2 May 1968. On that date, Lieutenant RITTICHIER penetrated the extremely hostile, heavily defended A Shau Valley to investigate an aircraft crash site for possible survivors or confirmation of an aircrew fatality. With great determination and superior airmanship, Lieutenant RITTICHIER braved numerous thunderstorms and hostile antiaircraft positions to complete this mission." Flying on another rescue mission, only this time as the commanding officer (Aircraft Commander/Rescue Crew Commander) on 12 May 1968 he was awarded his third DFC. His citation noted: "Lieutenant JACK C RITTICHIER distinguished himself by heroism while participating in aerial flight as an HH-3E Rescue Crew Commander near Da Nang, Republic of Vietnam, on 12 May 1968. On that date, Lieutenant RITTICHIER twice entered an extremely hostile area to effect the rescue of four survivors of a downed helicopter and five seriously wounded personnel. The survivors were located on an extremely small landing zone, surrounded by tall trees, on the side of a steep mountain slope. With great determination and superior airmanship, Lieutenant RITTICHIER executed the second approach and departure at night by flarelight even though the distress site even though the distress site was obscured by smoke and clouds."
On 9 June 1968, a Marine Corps A-4 Skyhawk went down 37 miles west of Hue in the A Shau Valley near a North Vietnamese Army staging area. The pilot, First Lieutenant Walter R. Schmidt, Jr., USMC, ejected safely but injured his leg and consequently, once on the ground, was unable to move. He established radio contact with control aircraft in the area and a rescue attempt was quickly coordinated. Rittichier, flying as the aircraft commander of an HH-3E (Serial Number 67-14710), call sign "Jolly Green 23" and another HH-3E, "Jolly Green 22" were scrambled from Da Nang.
Since Schmidt was injured the helicopter crews would need to deploy their pararescue jumper [known as a "PJ"] to rescue him -- a dangerous procedure under any conditions as the helicopter would need to remain in a hover while the PJ deployed -- making a large, stationary target for enemy fire. Adding to the danger was the possibility that enemy forces had captured Schmidt and were using him as bait to bring in the Jolly Green Giants as close to their guns as possible. These rescue missions into hostile territory were some of the most dangerous flights undertaken during the war and it took a special breed of serviceman to volunteer for this type of duty.
Helicopter gunships first fired their ordnance around the area where Schmidt lay to suppress enemy fire. Then Jolly Green 22 made the first attempts to rescue the injured pilot but heavy enemy fire repeatedly drove them off. After trying three times and running low on fuel, Jolly Green 22 flew off to refuel. The gunships and fighter-bombers then once again pummeled the surrounding area with ordnance but the enemy appeared to be well dug in and therefore resistant to suppression. The control officer, orbiting the area while he orchestrated the rescue and ground suppression missions, asked if Jolly Green 23 would make a rescue attempt. Rittichier, as the command pilot in Jolly Green 23, answered in the affirmative.
After heavy enemy fire forced him to pull away during his first attempt to hover over the injured Marine pilot, he came around after the area had been swept by attack aircraft yet again. As he hovered over Schmidt and his PJ began to deploy, enemy bullets riddled the HH-3E Jolly Green Giant just above and aft of the cockpit, causing a fire. Rittichier pulled up and attempted to fly to a nearby clearing to put his helicopter down. As he cleared a line of trees, witnesses saw his rotor slow and the Jolly Green Giant lost altitude. It exploded as it impacted the ground. An official report of the crash noted: "that at an altitude of approximately 50' JG 23's rotor very noticably [sic] slowed down and it looked like he was attempting to set the helicopter down on a small knoll. Upon crashing the entire aircraft burst into a fire ball and within 30 seconds the entire structure was nothing but smoking ashes. The aircraft had melted out of sight."
There had been no chance to escape the inferno--all four men on board perished almost instantly. Lieutenant Rittichier and his Air Force crew had given their lives attempting to save the life of a fellow serviceman. The other men on board Jolly Green 23 with Rittichier were the copilot, Captain Richard C. Yeend, Jr., USAF, the flight engineer, Staff Sergeant Elmer L. Holden, USAF, and the pararescue jumper Sergeant James D. Locker, USAF. Subsequent attempts to rescue the Marine pilot proved unsuccessful.
During his distinguished career, Lieutenant Rittichier demonstrated a fearless determination to save lives at the risk of his own. He was awarded the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross with two oak leaf clusters, the Purple Heart, the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters, a Coast Guard Unit Commendation, the Vietnam Service Medal and the Vietnam Campaign Medal.
On 16 June 1969 the hangar at Coast Guard Air Station Detroit, based at Selfridge AFB--Lieutenant Rittichier's last Coast Guard duty station, was dedicated in his honor. On 10 November 1998 the Coast Guard Integrated Support Command at Portsmouth, Virginia, dedicated one of their buildings in his honor as well.
Lieutenant Rittichier and his crew on board Jolly Green 23 were initially listed as "Killed in Action / Bodies Not Recovered." Their names appear on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. In 2002 a Joint Task Force-Full Accounting investigation team located the crash site inside Laos and recovered the remains of the crew.
Lieutenant Rittichier was returned home and laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery on 6 October 2003.
Click here to access a list of his decorations.
Lieutenant Jack Rittichier returns home.