It’s been more than 50 years since Captain Riley L. Pitts courageously lost his life on the battlefields in Vietnam. Pitts, an Oklahoma native, and Wichita State University graduate, was a journalism graduate and initially served as an information officer in Vietnam. It’s not clear why he was reassigned to a combat unit, but as a captain, his job was to command a unit.
On Oct. 31, 1967, just one month before he was due to rotate back home, his unit was called upon to reinforce another company heavily engaged against a strong enemy force.
During the battle, Capt. Pitts acted selflessly to protect his men. Without hesitation, he threw himself on top of a grenade that landed in the bunker his troops occupied. It, fortunately, failed to explode. Then, undaunted by that close brush with death, and showing complete disregard for his personal safety, Capt. Pitts moved to a position which permitted him to place effective fire on the enemy, maintained continuous fire, while at the same time directing and urging his men forward until he was mortally wounded.
It was for this unselfish bravery that Capt. Pitts was awarded the Army’s highest honor, the Medal of Honor. He was the first African-American commissioned officer in history to receive this recognition.
The Medal of Honor is the United States of America’s highest and most prestigious personal military decoration. Recipients must have distinguished themselves at the risk of their own life above and beyond the call of duty in action against an enemy of the United States. Because of the nature of this medal, it is commonly presented posthumously.
Of the 3,470 Medals of Honor awarded as of June 2015, 90 have been awarded to African-American recipients.
Pitts and his four siblings were raised by working-class parents in and around Oklahoma City. When he finished high school, he relocated to Wichita to stay with an aunt while he attended Wichita State University. He was the first member of his family to attend college.
While he attended college, he worked at Boeing and joined the ROTC to help cover the cost of his education. He graduated with a degree in Journalism in 1960 and that summer married his college sweetheart. After completing basic training, he was assigned to Fort Sill, just an hour south of his hometown OKC.
The couple had a son and a daughter and for several years were stationed in Orleans, France. They returned to Oklahoma in 1966, before Pitts received his orders for Vietnam.
After switching from his assignment as an information officer to a combat unit, Pitts was assigned to command C Company, 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment. They were known as the Wolfhounds.
On Oct. 31, 1967, his company found themselves in the midst of a major military ground battle. Here’s a description of Capt. Pitts’ actions as detailed in his Medal of Honor citation.
Immediately after his company landed in the area, several Viet Cong opened fire with automatic weapons. Despite the enemy fire, Capt. Pitts forcefully led an assault which overran the enemy positions.
Shortly thereafter, Capt. Pitts was ordered to move his unit to the north to reinforce another company heavily engaged against a strong enemy force. As Capt. Pitts’ company moved forward to engage the enemy, intense fire was received from 3 directions, including fire from 4 enemy bunkers, 2 of which were within 15 meters of Capt. Pitts’ position.
The severity of the incoming fire prevented Capt. Pitts from maneuvering his company. His rifle fire proving ineffective against the enemy due to the dense jungle foliage, he picked up an M-79 grenade launcher and began pinpointing the targets. Seizing a Chinese Communist grenade which had been taken from a captured Viet Cong’s web gear, Capt. Pitts lobbed the grenade at a bunker to his front, but it hit the dense jungle foliage and rebounded. Without hesitation, Capt. Pitts threw himself on top of the grenade which, fortunately, failed to explode.
Capt. Pitts then directed the repositioning of the company to permit friendly artillery to be fired. Upon completion of the artillery fire mission, Capt. Pitts again led his men toward the enemy positions, personally killing at least 1 more Viet Cong. The jungle growth still prevented effective fire to be placed on the enemy bunkers.
Capt. Pitts, displaying complete disregard for his life and personal safety, quickly moved to a position that permitted him to place effective fire on the enemy. 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.
Years later, his wife Eula learned from a radioman assigned to his command, that Pitts had been hit in the chest by a rocket-propelled grenade. He died instantly.
The Medal of Honor is historically presented by the President of the United States, as was the case for Pitts. Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson presented the Medal of Honor to Pitts’ wife Eula on Dec. 10, 1968, during a private ceremony at the White House. His son and daughter were in attendance.
“This is a moment touched with sorrow and splendor,” Johnson said at the ceremony. “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.
“This is a moment touched with sorrow and splendor. 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.”
Pitts is buried in Hillcrest Memory Gardens, in Spencer, OK.
He’s received numerous additional military honors including the Silver Star Medal, the Purple Heart, Combat Infantry Badge, and Parachutist Badge.
A street and military headquarters have been named after him in Mannheim, Germany.
There’s a park named after him near where he grew up in Oklahoma City.
A rifle range at Fort Sill was named after him.
Coca-Cola endowed a scholarship in his name at the University of Oklahoma.
In 2015, Wichita State University named its Military and Veteran Student Center inside the Grace Wilkie Center in his honor. A commemorative plaque hangs on the wall in the center.