Pat McCormick reflects on why Veterans’ Day is important to him not just today, but every day.
I’m a veteran. Veterans’ Day is a day for recognition for those who have served. I volunteered for duty in Vietnam in 1962. Students of history will know that was before Gulf of Tonkin incidents in 1964 that triggered the U.S. war there. At the time Army forces were there as advisors to the South Vietnamese government.
Despite my offer to serve in Vietnam, the Army decided to send me to France where I spent two years defending Europe against the onslaught of Soviet Communism by editing newspapers for my fellow soldiers. For me, Army service was a great learning experience, but not much worthy of an annual holiday.
But many veterans I know, like my son who served in Desert Storm, are worthy of honor and recognition for their sacrifice. One especially deserving is the officer who was my boss in France, Capt. Riley L. Pitts.
A journalism major in college, Capt. Pitts was Troop Information Officer for the U.S. Army Communications Zone Europe. I was the editor of the command newspaper – the COMZ Cadence. At lunch many days, my assistant editor Gerry Kraft and I played handball with Capt. Pitts and another officer. It was a constant battle, with the Officers & Gentlemen team usually besting the Enlisted Swine.
As the Vietnam War escalated in 1964, Capt. Pitts, an Infantry officer, was itching to be assigned to Vietnam. Most of us were itching to go anywhere BUT Vietnam. But Capt. Pitts got his wish in 1966, commanding an infantry company. Just a month before his tour in Vietnam was to end, on October 31, 1967, Capt. Pitts was mortally wounded.
Capt. Pitts was a fine journalist, a loving father and family man, an aggressive handball player, and the first African American officer to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for his incredible heroism in battle protecting and leading his soldiers.
His name on the Vietnam Memorial is a must stop visit for me on each trip to D.C.
Here’s the text of citation that accompanied the awarding of the Medal of Honor:
Distinguishing himself by exceptional heroism while serving as company commander during an airmobile assault. Immediately after his company landed in the area, several Viet Cong opened fire with automatic weapons.
Despite the enemy fire, Capt. Pitts forcefully led an assault which overran the enemy positions. Shortly thereafter, Capt. Pitts was ordered to move his unit to the north to reinforce another company heavily engaged against a strong enemy force.
As Capt. Pitts’ company moved forward to engage the enemy, intense fire was received from 3 directions, including fire from 4 enemy bunkers, 2 of which were within 15 meters of Capt. Pitts’ position. The severity of the incoming fire prevented Capt. Pitts from maneuvering his company.
His rifle fire proving ineffective against the enemy due to the dense jungle foliage, he picked up an M-79 grenade launcher and began pinpointing the targets. Seizing a Chinese Communist grenade which had been taken from a captured Viet Cong’s web gear, Capt. Pitts lobbed the grenade at a bunker to his front, but it hit the dense jungle foliage and rebounded.
Without hesitation, Capt. Pitts threw himself on top of the grenade which, fortunately, failed to explode. Capt. Pitts then directed the repositioning of the company to permit friendly artillery to be fired.
Upon completion of the artillery fire mission, Capt. Pitts again led his men toward the enemy positions, personally killing at least 1 more Viet Cong. The jungle growth still prevented effective fire to be placed on the enemy bunkers. Capt. Pitts, displaying complete disregard for his life and personal safety, quickly moved to a position which permitted him to place effective fire on the enemy.
He maintained a continuous fire, pinpointing the enemy’s fortified positions, while at the same time directing and urging his men forward, until he was mortally wounded. Capt. Pitts’ conspicuous gallantry, extraordinary heroism, and intrepidity at the cost of his life, above and beyond the call of duty, are in the highest traditions of the U.S. Army and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, and the Armed Forces of his country.
Clearly, on Veterans’ Day, my friend and former boss Capt. Riley L. Pitts is an great example of the men and women who deserve honor and recognition today.
In awarding the Medal of Honor, President Lyndon Johnson declared, “What this man did in an hour of incredible courage will live in the story of America as long as America endures –as he will live in the hearts and memories of those who loved him. He was a brave man and a leader of men. No greater thing could be said of any man.”
He’s whom I’m thinking of this Veterans’ Day.