Memories linger long after tragedy in Vietnam

By Jerry Hilliard -- Associate Editor

To many, reports of lives lost in wartime tug briefly at the heartstrings and quickly fade into statistics. To others, the reports mean that life will never be the same.

For Dave Rittichier of Erwin, the memories of his big brother, Jack - who died nearly 35 years ago in Vietnam - are everlasting.

"He would keep me out of trouble," Dave recalled last week, "and he taught me so many things. He always learned fast."

Dave was born in 1934, one year after Jack. His brother was a tough act to follow as the two grew up in Portage Lakes, just outside Barberton, Ohio.

A standout in football at Coventry High School, Jack went on to earn all-conference honors as a halfback at Kent State University. He was also a sprinter on KSU's track team and participated in gymnastics.

"We had different interests while growing up," Dave said. "He liked things like books, and I liked the outdoors - hunting and fishing. He would go hunting and fishing with me, but I've got to admit that I seldom would sit down with a book with him."

The differences were evident even in the physiques of the brothers, as Dave became involved in body building while Jack aimed for a sleeker swimmer's-type body.

Although both were athletes, "he was always the star and I wasn't," Dave said. "He researched what he was doing, always wanting perfection. I just did it. I guess I didn't take things as seriously as he did."

The brothers played varsity football together for one year at Coventry High, when Jack was a senior halfback and Dave was a sophomore end. The two even teamed up for some pass completions.

Dave remembers Jack as "a really funny guy" who loved to play practical jokes.

He also remembers that Jack became fascinated with airplanes after World War II. A collection of model planes dangled from the ceiling of his room, and pictures of planes covered the walls.

"From then on, he wanted to be a pilot," Dave said.

After high school, the paths of the Rittichier brothers took separate directions. While Jack headed for college, Dave's attention turned towards work and raising a family.

"I regret now that we didn't see more of each other," Dave said, "but I suppose that's just life."

While working toward a bachelor's degree at Kent State, Jack Rittichier was a member of the ROTC. After his graduation in 1957, he worked briefly for Mohawk Rubber in Barberton before learning that he had qualified for pilot training in the U.S. Air Force.

He rose to the rank of captain during his three years as a bomber pilot in the Air Force, and then returned to civilian life as a private pilot for a steel company in Pennsylvania.

"He couldn't stand the cold," Dave said, so he and his wife, Carol, headed for Georgia, where he worked for a buddy who had a cropdusting business. But the warmer climate wasn't enough to keep him happy.

"Civilian life just didn't satisfy him," Dave said. "He had seen an air-rescue movie staring Yul Brynner and had decided that was what he wanted to do."

So in September 1963, Jack joined the U.S. Coast Guard with the stipulation that he would be trained to fly helicopters. He accepted a commission as a lieutenant junior grade in the Coast Guard Reserve and was assigned to the Coast Guard Air Force Base at Elizabeth City, N.C.

In March 1966, he was promoted to lieutenant and became a member of the Regular Coast Guard. Among places he and his wife lived was Mount Clemens, Mich., where Selfridge Air Force Base now has a hangar named in his memory.

"He was a Coast Guardsman and proud of it," Dave said of his brother, who frequently described the fact that his branch of the service received only sparse publicity from the work it performed. Besides flying rescue missions, he spent part of his time in the Coast Guard doing publis relations work to help improve its image.

When an exchange program was created among the branches of the military, Jack volunteered to serve a year in Vietnam with the Air Force. Shortly after he arrived there, his heroism during rescue missions earned him two Distinguished Flying Crosses.

Jack Rittichier's last rescue attempt was made on June 9, 1968, when he and the three Air Force men in his crew were shot down while trying to save the life of a Marine near the South Vietnam-Laos border.

"It would've been the way he wanted to go," Dave Rittichier said, "trying to help somebody. I knew that from talking to him before he left for Vietnam. He felt an obligation to pay his country back."

Politics had nothing to do with his decision to volunteer. His biggest priority was to save downed pilots.

As events unfold in the present-day war against Iraq, Dave said he things of his brother whenever he sees news reports about helicopters.

"I'm glad there are still volunteers who will go out and risk their lives to make rescues," he said. "My sympathy is with the families of those who have lost their lives."

Dave said he was working at a construction site in Tallmadge, Ohio, on the day his father and a minister arrived to break the news that his brother was missing in Vietnam.

"I sat down with Dad, and we prayed that Jack would be rescued or get out on his own," he said.

A few days later, Jack's status was changed from "missing" to "presumed dead", and Dave hoped that he had died quickly instead of having had to endure torture at the hands of captors.

"Dad talked personally to a pilot who had seen what happened and was told there was no way anyone could have survived the explosion," Dave said. "But Mom always held out hope that Jack would be found alive."

Jack's parents, Carl and Ruby Rittichier, died in a highway accident nearly a quarter century before the helicopter crash site in Vietnam was discovered. A younger brother, Henry, lives in Texas, and Jack's widow is remarried and living in California.

Maggie Rittichier fulfilled a dream of moving back home to Tennessee after Dave retired seven years ago. The Erwin native met her future husband while she was living in Canton, Ohio, and they have been married since 1976.

The couple had just about given up hope when they received word late last year that the site in Vietnam finally had been located. Since then, the discovery and subsequent efforts to positively identify the victims has generated widespread publicity.

"If this helps get just one person to sign up in the Coast Guard, I know Jack would be proud," his brother said.

Article © The Erwin Register and is used with permission.

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