Wichita State honors first black officer awarded Medal of Honor

Eula Pitts, widow of University of Wichita alumnus Riley Pitts, stands with the plaque that will hang in Wichita State University’s Military and Veteran Student Center, named in his honor. (Nov. 7, 2014)
Eula Pitts, widow of University of Wichita alumnus Riley Pitts, stands with the plaque that will hang in Wichita State University’s Military and Veteran Student Center, named in his honor. (Nov. 7, 2014) The Wichita Eagle

It has been nearly half a century now since Capt. Riley Leroy Pitts was killed during a fierce firefight in a faraway jungle, and those he left behind cling to memories like treasured heirlooms.

His children remember how much time he would spend with them whenever he could.

“He was like a playmate,” said his daughter, Stacie, who was 7 when her father died in 1967. “He always gave us a lot of time.”

His wife, Eula, whom he met when they were students at the University of Wichita, remembers how kind he was, how gentle he was, how honest he was.

Bertalene Pitts Williams remembers how nothing seemed to ruffle her oldest brother.

“He was cool, calm and collected,” she said, no matter what was going on around him.

Never was that more evident than in the jungles of Vietnam, where he became the first African-American officer to be awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in the battle that claimed his life.

Wichita State University last week dedicated its year-old Military and Veteran Student Center inside the Rhatigan Student Center in Riley Pitts’ name.

“We are honoring one of our nation’s finest,” WSU’s Sarah Sell said at the dedication ceremony.

‘Complete disregard for his life’

Pitts was one of five children of parents who worked a series of common laborer jobs in and around Oklahoma City. They were gone so often, “I raised him because they worked so much,” Williams said.

He never complained, though. After he graduated from high school, he moved to Wichita to live with an aunt and become the first member of his family to go to college.

He and Eula married in the summer of 1960 after he graduated with a degree in journalism. Along with working at Boeing, he had joined the ROTC to help pay for college. He reported for duty a few months after they got married. When he completed basic training at Fort Benning, Ga., they were assigned to Fort Sill in southern Oklahoma.

Their first child, Stacie, was born there. Mark came along two years later, while they were stationed in Orleans, France.

They returned to Oklahoma in 1966, where Pitts received his orders for Vietnam. He shipped out in December, but not before they bought a house on Northeast 53rd in Oklahoma City. Eula Pitts still lives there.

Pitts went to Vietnam as an information officer, then later transferred to a combat unit. He took command of C Company, 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment, known as “The Wolfhounds.”

On Halloween of 1967, his unit was given the mission of an air assault near Apdong in South Vietnam. The Medal of Honor citation gives the following account:

Several enemy soldiers opened fire on Pitts’ company immediately after they landed by helicopter. Despite the heavy fire, Pitts led an assault that overran the enemy positions.

Shortly thereafter, Pitts was ordered to move his unit to the north to reinforce another company heavily engaged against a strong enemy force. As Pitts’ company moved forward to engage the enemy, fire was received from three directions, including from four enemy bunkers, two of which were within 50 feet of Pitts’ company.

The incoming fire prevented Pitts from maneuvering his company. His rifle fire was ineffective against the enemy due to the dense jungle foliage, so he picked up an M-79 grenade launcher and began pinpointing the targets.

Seizing a grenade which had been taken from a captured soldier, Pitts lobbed the grenade at a bunker to his front, but it hit the dense jungle foliage and rebounded. Without hesitation, Pitts threw himself on top of the grenade, which failed to explode.

Pitts then directed the repositioning of the company to permit artillery to be fired. After the artillery, Pitts again led his men toward the enemy positions, killing at least one more enemy soldier. But the jungle growth still prevented effective fire on the enemy bunkers.

“Capt. Pitts, displaying complete disregard for his life and personal safety, quickly moved to a position which permitted him to place effective fire on the enemy,” the citation said. “He maintained a continuous fire, pinpointing the enemy’s fortified positions, while at the same time directing and urging his men forward, until he was mortally wounded.”

‘I knew’

The next day, Eula Pitts was chatting with a friend who had stopped by the house in Oklahoma City during her lunch hour to make plans to see a movie together that night. She looked out her kitchen window and saw two soldiers approaching the door, one of them a friend of the family.

“I knew,” she said.

She opened the door and invited them in.

“Is he hurt?” she asked the family friend, a colonel.

In those days, she said, so many American soldiers were being killed in Vietnam that in-person notifications weren’t always possible.

“I was hoping,” she said later, “that he was wounded.”

But the colonel dropped his eyes and, after hesitating briefly, shook his head.

“It kind of goes blurry after that,” Eula Pitts said, looking back on that day. “It’s such a shock.”

He was buried in his native Oklahoma.

Years later, Pitts’ radio man told Eula Pitts he was about 10 feet from the captain when her husband was hit in the chest by a rocket-propelled grenade. He died instantly.

“He didn’t suffer,” she said.

Her husband was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor on Dec. 31, 1967 – becoming the first black commissioned officer in history to receive the nation’s highest military honor.

Three black officers from World War II were awarded the Medal of Honor in 1997 after a review of their actions showed they originally were denied the medal because of “racial disparity,” according to the U.S. Army’s website.

‘The heroes of our history’

President Lyndon Johnson presented the medal to Eula Pitts at a private ceremony in the White House.

“This is a moment touched with sorrow and splendor,” Johnson said at the ceremony. “Captain Riley L. Pitts, who earned his Nation’s Medal of Honor, is with us no more – and grief burdens the hearts of all of us in this room.

“But what this man did in an hour of incredible courage will live in the story of America as long as America endures – as he will live in the hearts and memories of those who loved him.

“He was a brave man, and leader of men. No greater thing could be said of any man. His valor under fire moved him forever into that select company where the heroes of our history stand.”

Eula Pitts remembers that day, but not fondly. The pain of losing her husband was still too raw.

“I really just wanted it to be over,” she said of the ceremony. “It was like a knife sticking in you.”

More honors would follow.

A street and military headquarters in Mannheim, Germany; a park in Oklahoma City near where he grew up; and a rifle range at Fort Sill bear his name. Coca-Cola, where his son, Mark Pitts, works, helped endow a scholarship in his father’s name at the University of Oklahoma.

‘A special connection’

At the WSU ceremony last week, about 100 people gathered in a third-floor ballroom, including more than a dozen of Pitts’ relatives — among them his wife and children. They listened to a series of speeches with a mixture of smiles and tears.

“We would have liked to have him” all these years, “but since we didn’t, these things mean so much,” Stacie Pitts McGill said afterward. “It makes us really proud … and to have this kind of legacy to pass on to our children.”

Mark Pitts’ voice caught as he talked about how much has happened in the nearly 50 years since he lost his father. Of all the honors his father received, he said, this one would be particularly meaningful.

“To be honored by his alma mater, this is a special connection to Wichita,” he said.

The university also placed a brick with Eula Pitts’ name on it in the Plaza of Heroines on campus, but afterwards, all she wanted to do was talk about her late husband.

“It means so much because it means people are still remembering after all this time,” she said. “There’s so many young people that we’ve lost and nobody remembers their name.”

Eula Pitts is able to smile now when she talks about the father of her children.

Losing “a wonderful man” so soon was almost more than she could take, she said. But she had two young children to raise, and the Pitts family took her in as one of her own.

“She’s like my sister,” Williams said. “She really is.”

Time really does help wounds heal, Eula Pitts said.

“It’s not something you ever get over,” she said. “For years, I couldn’t talk about it. I couldn’t look at things without crying. But the good Lord helps you.”

The tears still come quickly for Williams when she talks about her younger brother, however.

“He gave his life,” she said, “for his country.”

Reach Stan Finger at 316-268-6437 or sfinger@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @StanFinger.

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