100 years of Naval Aviation: Lt. Jack Rittichier

As part of our ongoing celebration of the 2011 Centennial of Naval Aviation, we wanted to bring you the story of Lt. Jack Rittichier, Coast Guard aviator # 997 and the first Coast Guardsman to be killed in action during the Vietnam War.

Lt. Rittichier and Lt. Cmdr. Mixon

Lt. Jack C. Rittichier and Lt. Cmdr. Lonnie L. Mixon, the two pilots from Air Station Detroit that volunteered for the Coast Guard/Air Force exchange program, prior to leaving the Air Station for combat and survival training in 1967. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Post co-authored by Lt. j.g. Stephanie Young and Petty Officer 3rd Class George Degener

Coast Guard helicopter pilot, Lt. Jack C. Rittichier was a highly decorated Coast Guard helicopter pilot who gave his life in Vietnam in 1968 while trying to save a downed Marine Corps pilot. The only Coast Guardsman missing in action at the war’s end, Rittichier’s remains were discovered in 2002 and repatriated in 2003. He was buried with full military honors on October 6, 2003, in a portion of Arlington National Cemetery known as Coast Guard Hill – a spot normally reserved for Coast Guard commandants.

H-3 hoisting pararescue jumper

Combat recovery missions involved an incredible amount of skill, and was also when the helicopter was most vulnerable to enemy fire. The image above captures a pararescue jumper ready to be hoisted into a "Jolly Green." Photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force.

An ambitious aviator and former Air Force pilot, Rittichier advocated for and applied to an exchange program where Coast Guard aviators would fly search and rescue missions with the Air Force Rescue Service in Vietnam. He was one of three Coast Guard helicopter pilots selected to fly with the 37th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron based at Da Nang in 1968, where they flew the Sikorsky HH-3E “Jolly Green Giant” combat rescue helicopter.

Just 11 days after arriving in Vietnam, Rittichier and the Jolly Greens were called into action and faced enemy fire as they rescued crew members from downed U.S. Army helicopter gunships. Rittichier’s extraordinary actions that day were recognized with a Distinguished Flying Cross.

The next two weeks brought more combat missions and two more Distinguished Flying Crosses. On May 12, 1968, Rittichier twice flew through hostile fire to rescue nine survivors of a downed helicopter, five of which were seriously wounded.

Lt. Rittichier

Lt. Jack Rittichier outside one of Detroit's HH-52A before his deployment to Vietnam. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

“I can only commend all the Jolly Greens for doing an outstanding job,” said Rittichier in his own words during a 1968 interview. “These people did an outstanding and professional job. Through their efforts on that night of 12 May the Jolly Greens were able to bring out 29 survivors. All but four were brought out in the dead of night, under flares, from an extremely hazardous flying area.”

On June 9, 1968, a Marine Corps A-4 Skyhawk went down near a North Vietnamese Army staging area. Rittichier, as aircraft commander, flew to rescue the downed marine aviator who had survived the crash. As gunships attempted to suppress enemy fire, the rescue helicopters made multiple attempts to break through with enough time to hover and deploy a pararescue jumper. As Rittichier hovered over the downed marine and the pararescue jumper began to deploy, enemy bullets battered the helicopter. Tragically, all four men aboard the helicopter perished when it impacted the ground and burst into fire.

Rittichier had joined the Coast Guard to save lives. As a pilot at Coast Guard Air Stations Elizabeth City, N. C. and Detroit, Mich., Rittichier excelled at search and rescue missions. On one particularly harrowing rescue, in which he earned the Air Medal, he transferred eight crewmembers – in a mere 22 minutes – from a grounded vessel to the deck of Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw despite icing, heavy snow, turbulence and gale force winds.

His legacy of bravery continues on with both the Coast Guard and his alma mater, Kent State University, who awarded Rittichier with the Distinguished Alumnus Award during a ceremony last week.

“Jack Rittichier was a Kent State University buried treasure for many years,” said retired Lt. Cmdr. Jim Loomis, a member of the Coast Guard Aviation Association. “It is nice to see that he is finally receiving his due. Many thanks go to … the men and women of Coast Guard Air Station Detroit, the keepers of the Rittichier flame, and also to the Coast Guard Aviation Association and the generosity of its membership.”

Distinguished alumnus award

Allan Kaupinen, a former Kent State University athlete, Cmdr. Michael Platt, commanding officer of Air Station Detroit and retired Lt. Cmdr. Jim Loomis, a former Coast Guard pilot, accept a posthumous Distinguished Alumnus Award given to Lt. Jack Rittichier from Joel Nielsen, director of athletics at Kent State University. Rittichier, captain of the Kent State football team in 1955, was killed on June 9, 1968 while flying a helicopter rescue mission in Vietnam. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class George Degener.

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