One long wait

Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Richard L. Etchberger’s three sons didn’t know for many years the full details of his death during the Vietnam War.

Their dad had been stationed at a secret radar site in Laos when he died helping save the lives of three comrades during the Battle of Lima Site 85 on March 11, 1968.

Forty-two years later, Etchberger, who was stationed at one time at a radar site near Bismarck, was honored posthumously with the Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military award for valor.

Etchberger’s sons, Cory Etchberger, of Collegeville, Pa., Richard Etchberger, of Vernal, Utah, and Steve Wilson, of Redlands, Calif., joined the president at the White House on Sept. 21, 2010, to accept the Medal of Honor on behalf of their father.

Etchberger’s three sons and Cory Etchberger’s daughter, Madison, of Collegeville, were special guests at the dedication of the B-52 model at the Dakota Territory Air Museum in Minot June 5. They also gave a presentation about their father and the foundation that the sons have set up in his name to assist Air Force members and their families.

Chief Etchberger’s sons told the story of their father and the secret mission he was on in Laos:

Richard Etchberger enlisted in the Air Force in 1951. Later he met their mom, who was working as a waitress in a restaurant where he would stop. The couple eloped to get married. When their mother joined the family she brought along her son Steve who later was joined by two brothers, Richard and Cory.

The family lived in various places. When they were living in Bismarck while their dad was assigned to a radar site near the city, he started traveling around western United States with mobile radar facilities that were on trains. Chief Etchberger and other military members were training to make the facilities more mobile so they could take them to places in Southeast Asia for communications and other uses.

While living at Bismarck and other locations, the sons remember their father was always helping and watching out for other airmen and their families, sometimes having them over to their house for dinner in the Etchberger home.

They remember when they lived in the Philippines that the wounded from the Vietnam War would come to Clark Air Base. Their dad would go to the nurses’ station at the military hospital on the air base and ask if anyone was there who would like to come home with him to join his family for a meal. Those who did enjoyed a meal and time spent with the family.

Chief Etchberger and other military members were stationed at Phou Pha Thi, known as Lima Site 85 near the North Vietnam border, a secret radar base in the neutral country of Laos in the 1960s. The radar station directed more than 500 strike missions against North Vietnamese targets for several months until March 11, 1968, when enemy soldiers attacked the U.S. military members.

The Air Force had recruited its top folks for the radar station mission in Laos. For the mission the men were discharged from the Air Force and hired by Lockheed as civilian employees.

All went to the Pentagon where the airmen’s wives signed secrecy statements basically saying ‘we’ll tell you as much as we can but you can never repeat this to anybody.’ Etchberger’s wife and other wives signed the statements and did as they were told.

The military men going to Laos could take their families anywhere in the United States but they were instructed it could not be on an Air Force base. Chief Etchberg took his family to his hometown in Hamburg, Pa.

After their presentation, a Minot audience member asked the sons what their dad was like as a father. Steve Wilson replied, “He was a no-nonsense kind of guy. Not a mean guy but he commanded your respect and I never heard him once raise his voice.He could get his point across right away. You never asked a second time.”

Cory Etchberger said he remembers if they did something wrong, they knew it and they’d never do it again. “But he really did command respect and you know what? He was like that with his men… that’s part of the integrity, that’s part of the core value.”

Richard Etchberger said he always thought their dad was a big guy. “Then just recently Cory said he was 5’6″ and weighed 125 pounds,” He was a really cool dad. He’d always bring home all kinds of neat stuff to play with,” naming air mattresses, helmets, canteens and Cory and Richard would be “little soldiers.” When their dad was home, Richard Etchberg said he didn’t talk about his work but they went fishing, played baseball, had a dinner party… “We were a very social family,” he said.

As little kids, Chief Etchberger’s sons understood something different was going on when they went to live in Pennsylvania. Unbeknownst to his sons, their dad had become part of the secret mission to Laos. “We had gone to start a kind of different life in Pennsylvania,” Richard Etchberger said.

“We had a very strong mother. She was a rock,” he added. He said their dad took the family to Hamburg, Pa., because it was his hometown and his parents also lived there. “One of the many reasons my dad was the person he is was because of his family. That’s something that really paid off for us later on.”

Cory Etchberger said the men with the secret radar station in Laos were so successful with running the mission at the radar site in Laos that the North Vietnamese attacked them.

On the night of the attack one operational crew was on duty. Their dad’s crew was not on duty that night but were on the mountain.

As soon as the North Vietnamese came over the mountain they killed all the men of the operations crew. “Dad’s team is sort of down on the side of the mountain and the North Vietnamese find out they’re there,” Cory Etchberger said.

Grenades were coming down on them, although they were tucked inside a grotto, a cave-like area. Chief Etchberger basically was the only one who could operate the radio, fire an M-16 and also the only one who could fire a flare.

With two men on the ledge with him, the other two killed, in the morning a Huey helicopter arrived, and as it hovered over the area, it sent down a jungle penetrator, a device used to hoist the wounded to the helicopter. Chief Etchberger got a couple of the men into the jungle penetrator and then as he was about to be lifted to the helicopter, he saw another guy, a diesel mechanic, who had been hiding in the bushes. Their father and that guy also were lifted to the helicopter.

As the helicopter began to peel away, Cory Etchberger said “one of the North Vietnamese empties his AK-47 at the bottom of the helicopter and only one bullet hits anything that’s dad.”

In March 1968, the Etchberger family got a phone call at their house.

“What Rich and I were told, and what we believe for 18 years, and what Steve believes for 18 years is that he is killed in a helicopter crash,”said Cory Etchberger. “Another part of the story is two hours before we received this phone call Steve had just called my mother saying, ‘You have a new granddaughter,’ “

The Air Force told them that their father had died in a helicopter crash, Cory Etchberger said. “This is publicly what the public knows,” he said.

“Eight months later we’re all called to the Pentagon. Cory and I are 10, 11 years old. Steve is in the Air Force. Steve’s based on the West Coast of the United States. He’s an aircraft mechanic, gets called into the base commander’s office as an airman first class. Steve was worried he might have been walking in his sleep and did something wrong,” Richard Etchberger said.

Wilson was told to get a new uniform because he was to go to a meeting at the Pentagon, but he wasn’t told anything else.

The family along with top Air Force officials met in a small room in the Pentagon where Catherine Etchberger was presented with an Air Force Cross, the Air Force’s highest honor. But no one there talked about what had happened.

Catherine Etchberger, who had been sworn to secrecy about the mission her husband had been on, held the story for the rest of her life and never told her sons. She died in 1994.

On July 5, 2010, Cory Etchberger got a call from President Obama. “He came on the line and knew just about every detail about the story,” Cory Etchberger said. The president told him, “We’re going to make it right.” He told him that Rep. Earl Pomeroy’s efforts had finally paid off. Congressman Tim Holden, of Pennsylvania, had also helped.

“It was a true honor for us to be there,” Cory Etchberg said. “This day, of course, wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for Congressman Pomeroy’s efforts.” He said a letter was written to Pomeroy’s office that Mike Jenkins, of his staff, acted on that was written by retired Master Sgt. Robert Dilley. Dilley, who was attending the Minot presentation, was recognized for his work.

“The award itself I think is so incredibly important,” said Pomeroy, who spoke at the Minot presentation. He said the Etchberg family has the Medal of Honor for their family legacy but they have taken it a step farther by taking their father’s story on the road, referring to the foundation the family has set up.

“It is a powerful story that we can convey so much we can still learn from. I couldn’t be more proud of what a remarkable job this family has done in honoring their father, the chief, and… have this life have very vivid meaning in terms of how we impact our lives in the 21st century,” Pomeroy, now with a Washington, D.C., law firm, said.

Family members and military members involved in the secret mission in Laos were invited to the Medal of Honor ceremony.

“That’s a very emotional story and to have lived this, especially that part about mom holding that secret for the rest of her life,” said Richard Etchberger at the end of the presentation.

In 1999, a book by Tim Castle, “One Day Too Long: Top Secret Site 85 and the Bombing of North Vietnam,” was published. The book gives the historical representation about what happened on that mountain in Laos. Castle is a Vietnam war veteran, university professor and former Pentagon POW/MIA researcher and investigator.

Chief Etchberger’s sons said their mother was never able to share the story with them because that was what she was told to do by the Air Force, and she was an Air Force wife.

Later when asked how he was impacted when he learned the real story 18 years after his father’s death, Richard Etchberger said that happened when he received a phone call from Castle, who told him he was writing a book “and would you like to know the real story behind your father?”

“I went, ‘Okay.’ And basically three hours later and two boxes of tissues I knew the story. One night changes your life,” Richard Etchberger said.