Erwin man's DNA may solve brother's wartime mystery

By Jerry Hilliard -- Associate Editor

A Federal Express truck pulled away from the Erwin home of Dave and Maggie Rittichier in mid-March with a small but valuable parcel. Inside were two tubes of blood that may help bring closure to a heartbreaking saga that began nearly 35 years ago.

The samples of Dave's blood will be used by the military in DNA testing to positively identify the remains of his brother, a war hero killed in the jungles of South Vietnam.

On June 9, 1968, Lt. Jack Rittichier was piloting a rescue helicopter that was hit by enemy fire and erupted into a ball of flame 37 miles west of the Vietnamese city of Hue. The exact location of the downed helicopter eluded searchers through the decades that followed — until last fall.

In the years between, Jack Rittichier's name became legendary, as he was the first member of the U.S. Coast Guard and its only flier to have died in the Vietnam War. By some estimates, thousands of Americans have worn POW/MIA bracelets bearing his name.

According to a 1968 Coast Guard news release, Rittichier was one of the first group of helicopter pilots from that branch of the service chosen for exchange duty with the U.S. Air Force. Before that, he already had been awarded an Air Medal for his role in rescuing eight stranded men from a German vessel during a snowstorm on Lake Huron.

Within two weeks of arriving in Vietnam, he earned a Distinguished Flying Cross as co-pilot in a mission through heavy ground fire in which four crew members of a U.S. Army helicopter were rescued. Shortly thereafter, he received a second Distinguished Flying Cross for piloting his rescue craft through mountainous terrain to save the lives of nine survivors of another downed chopper.

The Web site of the nonprofit P.O.W. Network gives the following account of the incident that claimed Rittichier’s life:

"A downed Marine Corps fighter pilot lay on the ground with a broken arm and leg. To his misfortune he had parachuted into a North Vietnamese Army bivouac area. The enemy used him for bait to lure rescue helicopters within killing range.

"Air strikes pounded the site around the survivor. The first helicopter made three attempts to reach the Marine before breaking off to refuel. Lieutenant Rittichier dived his aircraft in for the pickup. Heavy fire, however, drove him away.

"He swung around to let the gunships sweep the terrain and then followed them back into the area.

As he hovered over the pilot, bullets punched his aircraft and set it afire. He tried to pull away, but his aircraft would not respond.

"The helicopter settled to the ground and exploded, Within 30 seconds a ball of fire consumed the aircraft."

For nearly 35 years, Rittichier's name remained among the nearly 2,000 names of Americans unaccounted for in the Vietnam War.

"We had been receiving correspondence for a few years from the military saying that they were doing searches," said Maggie Rittichier, who has handled most of the correspondence and phone calls concerning the brother-in-law she never had a chance to meet. "We didn't think a whole lot would come from it."

All that changed late last year, however, when the family received word that the crash site apparently had been found.

"They seem 99.9 percent positive that they recovered what was left of his helicopter," Mrs. Rittichier said. Besides portions of the craft, one of those called "Jolly Green Giants," a painstaking search of the site turned up bones fragments, pieces of boots and other items.

The remains were flown in February to Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii, where a ceremony has held in honor of Rittichier and three members of the Air Force who accompanied him on the rescue mission.

They then were taken to the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii, where the lengthy process of making positive identification is underway.

The lab will use the blood samples to determine if Dave Rittichier's DNA matches that of any of the bones found at the crash site.

Similar testing is being employed to identify the other crew members' remains.

"I hope this will help get some closure," he said, "if not on Jack, on the others who went down with him."

Article © The Erwin Register and is used with permission.

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