WASHINGTON— During a secret mission in Laos 42 years ago, Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Richard L. Etchberger repeatedly braved enemy fire as he helped three wounded airmen onto a helicopter after their radar station was surrounded and ambushed by North Vietnamese.
Etchberger was the last to climb into the helicopter, but was killed by enemy ground fire as it took off. Etchberger's heroic acts were kept secret until details about the Vietnam-era secret mission were released more than two decades later.
On Tuesday, President Obama awarded Etchberger the Medal of Honor. His three sons, who had been told their father had died in a helicopter crash in Vietnam, accepted the award for him at a ceremony in the East Room of the White House.
"This medal reflects the gratitude of an entire nation," Obama told Steve, Richard and Cory Etchberger. "Today your nation finally acknowledges and fully honors your father's bravery."
Etchberger was a radar technician from Hamburg, Pa., and one of 19 Americans hand-picked to work at the station located in a secluded area on one of Laos' tallest mountains, Obama said at the ceremony. The station, secret because it was outside the war zone, directed American pilots in the air campaign against North Vietnam. Of the 19 men selected for the secret mission, seven survived the attack, three as a direct result of Etchberger's actions.
"The enemy lobbed down grenade after grenade, hour after hour," Obama said. Etchberger and his comrades spent the night kicking and throwing the grenades down the mountain.
Despite being a technician with no formal combat training, Etchberger took charge during the attack and single-handedly defended the station while coordinating American airstrikes and rescue crews to the remote location.
"I had never seen my dad pick up a weapon," Etchberger's son Richard said after the ceremony.
The following morning a helicopter arrived to transport the remaining men to safety. Etchberger helped three men into rescue slings. John Daniel, one of the men Etchberger helped evacuate, was present for the ceremony.
Richard Etchberger, who was 10 years old when his father died, said his father, who loved his job and the Air Force, would have been humbled by the award.
Etchberger was posthumously awarded the Air Force Cross in 1968, the highest honor the Air Force can give. Even then, Etchberger's sons did not know the details of their father's death.
The boys' mother, Catherine Etchberger, who died before she could see her husband receive the award, knew the details of her husband's death but was sworn to secrecy.