Hell Near the DMZ: A Medal of Honor Story

Richard A. Pittman was born in Stockton, CA, on May 26, 1945. He went to elementary and junior high school in Fremont, CA, and to high school in Stockton’s Franklin H.S. in 1964. He was like any other kid off the block; he liked to play sports and was not a scholar but got by. There was one thing about him that was different though; he was blind in his right eye all of his life, a fact that will make the rest of this story even more amazing.

Like so many of us that are of his age, he remembered President John F. Kennedy’s famous remark during his inaugural address, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” As Pittman remarks in this video, he was very moved by that, so much so that, when he graduated from high school in 1963, he tried to join the Army to serve his country.

Photo: YouTube/MedalOfHonorBook

One would think that, being blind in one eye, he might not ever have entertained such a thought. And precisely because he was blind in the right eye, he was turned down by the Army. No surprise, right? But Pittman was not the kind of guy who was going to let that be the end of it. He somehow was able to join the Marine Corps Reserves with the intent of being able to go into the regular Corps at some point. As you will see, I think the Marines got lucky.

Pittman was given a chance of becoming an engineer with the Marine Corps Reserve but turned it down and was able to get into active duty as an 0311 infantryman and volunteered to go to Vietnam. When he went to Vietnam, he was assigned to India Co., 3rd Bn., 5th Marines. On July 24, 1966, his unit was on a search-and-destroy operation near the DMZ. The intelligence reports indicated that there were approximately eight battalions of NVA intending to move south across the DMZ into South Vietnam. I Co. and others were supposed to block that movement by attempting to funnel the enemy into a more concentrated position.

Photo: YouTube/MedalOfHonorBook

Pittman reports in the video that he was walking the “Tail End Charlie” (last man) position and he and the platoon sergeant saw and reported movement before an intense ambush opened up on the lead elements of his unit.

One of the things he remarks about in this video is that the Marine Corps training is well embedded into each infantryman’s mind; when ambushed, you turn toward the ambush and charge. The element of surprise is the purpose and the goal of an ambush. When you charge right into it, you take the element of surprise away from the enemy and put it back on them. Yes, it sounds nuts. He even makes a similar remark about this tactic, but “that’s what Marines do.”

Photo: YouTube/MedalOfHonorBook

It soon became evident that the Marines up front were in deep stuff. They began calling for help. Pittman, leaving his position of relative safety, charged forward to help his fellow marines. He had a .60-cal machine gun and several belts of ammunition, and he brought it forward to help the situation.

As he moved forward, he was “taken under intense enemy small-arms fire at point-blank range…he returned the fire, silencing the enemy position…[he] again came under heavy fire from two automatic weapons, which he promptly destroyed…He moved forward again to help his Marines some 50 yards further ahead. He was again facing withering fire from the enemy. Totally disregarding his safety, he calmly established a position in the middle of the trail and raked the advancing enemy with devastating machine-gun fire…His weapon and ammo were exhausted, so he picked up an enemy machine gun, and, together with a pistol seized from a fallen comrade, continued his lethal fire until the enemy force had withdrawn” (MOH citation).

Photo: YouTube/MedalOfHonorBook

Pittman is a humble man, as you will see in this video. Coming home from Vietnam, he went on with life, got married three times, and raised several daughters. But it was not until he visited the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., that he allowed the full meaning of the battle they fought that day to sink in for real. He was able to see all of the names of those 3/5 Marines who were killed that day during that fierce battle at the DMZ and that terrible price that was paid that day by his unit. It came upon him with force, and the emotions are still there in this interview.

It was several years later that a friend asked him if he’d seen a letter to the editor in that month’s “Leatherneck Magazine.” The writer of that letter said, “If it wasn’t for Lcpl. Pittman, I wouldn’t be writing this letter these many years later.”

Photo: YouTube/MedalOfHonorBook

Reading that letter gave Pittman a new insight into his MOH. He came to realize that maybe he had done something after all, that there were people who survived that day and families that were made because of what he did that day. You can see that in him as he describes this.

Richard Allan Pittman died on October 13, 2016, and is buried at Cherokee Memorial Park in Lodi, CA.

The Veterans Site honors the memory of Sgt. Richard Pittman. We will never forget. Rest in Peace, Marine. Semper Fi!

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