Every day dozens of military members, retirees, and family members hurriedly pass through the doors of the administrative building at the U.S. Coast Guard base in Portsmouth, Virginia. For most of these individuals, their goal is simply to obtain an updated identification card before they head off to complete more of their daily errands. In this inevitable rush, it’s easy to miss the plaque at the building’s entrance or the display tucked just inside the front door dedicated to Lieutenant Jack Rittichier, one of more than 8,000 Coast Guard members who served in the Vietnam War.
This memorial is symbolic of the Coast Guard’s service in Vietnam as a whole. Most citizens associate the Coast Guard with domestic missions, such as search and rescue, rather than recognize its contributions during every major conflict since its predecessor service was founded in 1790. Rittichier’s story, however, reflects the dedication and sacrifices made by Coast Guard personnel during the Vietnam War.
Rittichier, a native of Akron, Ohio, entered the Coast Guard Reserve after leaving the U.S. Air Force in 1962. He served at both Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City, North Carolina, and Air Station Detroit, earning numerous awards for the rescues he performed. However, Rittichier soon found his way back to the Air Force by volunteering for a unique exchange program for Coast Guard pilots during the Vietnam War to serve as part of the U.S. Air Force Combat Rescue Forces.
During the Vietnam conflict, it was determined that search-and-rescue teams were needed to support the ground troops. Coast Guard pilots proved to be a perfect fit given their specialized training. These pilots flew HH-3E helicopters, fondly nicknamed “Jolly Green Giants,” deep into enemy territory to rescue isolated friendly forces or downed pilots. Rittichier quickly found himself on one such rescue flight soon after reporting for duty to the 37th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron based in Da Nang, South Vietnam.
While Rittichier began flying as a copilot, he quickly earned the role of aircraft commander. His rescues under enemy fire netted him three Distinguished Flying Crosses. Despite the awards bestowed on him, Rittchier remained humble. His selfless nature was reflected in his comments about one of these operations: “We do not know who directed this mission. We do not know why we investigated a crash site. We only know that the answers we brought back satisfied someone up the line. We were happy to be of service.”
On 9 June 1968, Rittichier and his aircrew headed out to rescue Marine Corps pilot First Lieutenant Walter R. Schmidt Jr., who had ejected from his damaged A-4 Skyhawk near a North Vietnamese staging area. Initial attempts to rescue the pilot were driven back. Finally, Rittichier made an approach and deployed a pararescue member to the injured Schmidt.
As the rescueman jumped to Schmidt below, Rittichier’s aircraft came under enemy fire, causing it to burst into flames. While Rittichier attempted to fly the helicopter to a nearby clearing, the rotors slowed, and the aircraft lost altitude, exploding as it crashed to the ground. The entire crew was lost. Rittichier was posthumously awarded a Silver Star.The entire aircrew’s remains went undiscovered until 2002, when a military joint task force searched to locate the crash site. Rittichier’s body was recovered and finally laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery in 2003.
Rittichier was one of seven Coast Guardsmen killed in action during the Vietnam War. While their stories are often overlooked in the historical remembrances of the war, their service was no less important or inspirational to those Coast Guard men and women who serve today.