Vietnam war hero's remains identified

By Jerry Hilliard -- Associate Editor

Although no body had been recovered, Dave Rittichier of Erwin long ago resigned himself to the fact that his brother Jack had died during a rescue mission in Vietnam. Dave, who earlier this year had provided blood samples for use in DNA testing, received word last week that remains found in the jungles of Southeast Asia had been identified as Jack’s.

Now, plans are under way to lay to rest the former helicopter pilot – one of the most heralded heroes in U.S. Coast Guard history – among the elite at Arlington National Cemetery. He will be buried in a special section of the cemetery known as Coast Guard Hill. Dave said he learned of lab findings identifying his brother in a phone call from Lt. Cmdr. James Brewster, who is assigned to Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, D.C. Instead of being disheartened, Dave said: "Actually, I was thrilled at hearing the results of the testing, and I'm satisfied that we finally will get closure.

"I'm proud that Jack died trying to save a comrade. I've had his scrapbook to remember him by, but now I'll have somewhere to go to visit him at his grave." Jack Rittichier, who grew up with younger brother Dave in Portage Lakes, Ohio, was among a group of Coast Guard helicopter pilots who volunteered to serve with the U.S. Air Force in Vietnam as part of an exchange program.

Before entering the program, he had established a record of heroism, including earning an Air Medal for rescuing eight stranded men on a German vessel during a snowstorm on Lake Huron. Upon his arrival in Vietnam, Jack quickly earned two Distinguished Flying Crosses for his bravery during rescue missions. On June 9, 1968, Rittichier and his crew of three were trying to rescue a downed Marine Corps fighter pilot when they came under heavy fire. According to eyewitness accounts, their helicopter erupted in flames and settled to the ground before exploding. The exact location of the tragedy – which occurred about 37 miles west of the Vietnamese city of Hue — remained a mystery until late last year. In the absence of a body, Rittichier's name had been listed through the decades among the nearly 2,000 Americans unaccounted for in the war. Dave Rittichier and his wife, Maggie, received correspondence from the military for several years before learning last fall that the site apparently had been found.

Remains believed to be those of Jack and the three Air Force crew members were flown in February to Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii and taken to the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory for intensive testing. To assist in the process, Dave provided blood samples for use in possible DNA matches with the remains found in Vietnam. Brewster, who until recently served as a Coast Guard decedent affairs officer, told The Erwin Record last week that although no official documentation has been released by the lab, everyone he has spoken to has led him to believe that the remains of all four men have been identified. Brewster added that although his primary duties have changed, he will continue as project director until Jack Rittichier has been buried with proper honors. Rittichier was the first member of the Coast Guard and its only flier to have died in the Vietnam War. Hundreds – maybe even thousands — of Americans have worn POW/MIA bracelets bearing his name, Coast Guard buildings have been named in his honor, and Web sites have been created to perpetuate his memory. Brewster explained that a monument originally was placed on Coast Guard Hill at Arlington to honor members of that branch of the service who died in World War I. Since that time, however, the hill has become what he described as a "VIP spot."

The limited space on the hill is reserved for graves of the most prominent members of the Coast Guard, such as its commandants. The current commandant, Adm. Tom Collins, reportedly sent down word recently that Rittichier should be buried there even if it meant using the gravesite intended for Collins himself. "All kinds of people, including members of the POW/MIA groups from throughout the nation, have followed the story for years," Brewster said. "Many of them probably will want to attend the funeral."

Brewster added that the Coast Guard may attempt to identify and notify those who have worn the Jack Rittichier bracelets. Exactly when family members and others will be attending ceremonies and a funeral is open to speculation, especially since the lab still hasn't officially told anyone that the remains have been identified. However, Brewster said he has been planning for alternate funeral scenarios since he began to hear through the grapevine about two months ago that identification had been made. He said Rittichier probably was identified through dental records, with DNA test results providing additional evidence.

Maggie Rittichier, who moved here with her husband about seven years ago, has handled much of the correspondence with the military. She said the family has decided that October probably would be the best time for the ceremonies at Arlington. When Brewster called the Rittichiers, one of the reasons was to learn if family members would prefer a burial at the national cemetery. Another option would be a cemetery elsewhere, such as the one in Akron, Ohio, where Dave and Jack's parents are buried. Dave said he, younger brother Henry and Jack's widow, Carol, agreed that Arlington was clearly the most appropriate place.

"It's a tremendous honor for him to be buried with the other Coast Guardsmen there," Dave said. According to Brewster, graveside services will be just one of several related events he will help arrange. A military ceremony will be conducted before Coast Guard aviators depart from Hawaii to fly Jack Rittichier's remains to Washington, where another ceremony will be held upon arrival. Brewster said that, depending upon the family's wishes, a funeral service may be held at a public place before the graveside rites on Coast Guard Hill.

"I'm looking forward personally to helping lay to rest a genuine Coast Guard hero," Brewster said.

Article © The Erwin Register and is used with permission.

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