Fifty years ago, the world was a different place, but like today, it still had heroes.
Charlie Brown and the rest of the gang appeared on the cover of Time Magazine, the first U.S. spacewalk occurred during the Gemini 4 mission and Julie Andrews took home an Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in "Mary Poppins."
The year 1965 was witness to Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama, and the Palm Sunday tornado outbreak – there was also a war in Vietnam.
U.S. forces had been involved in some capacity for several years, when in March 1965, 3,500 Marines were deployed, marking the start to the U.S. ground war. It would escalate from there.
Around that time, Lt. j.g. Jack Rittichier was close to completing his first tour of duty as a reserve officer at Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City, North Carolina, where he was stationed as a search-and-rescue pilot, the unit’s legal affairs officer and public affairs officer.
Rittichier had been a standout athlete at Kent State University and a two-sport team captain in football and track.
A glimpse of his prowess came as a running back on what was arguably the best running team in Kent State Football history. His late game heroics, including running 90-yards to the house in one play to win the game, secured the first bowl game in the history of the school.
It wasn’t the last time Rittichier would be referred to as a hero.
He continued his Coast Guard career and was promoted to lieutenant. He joined the active duty ranks before transferring to Detroit, where he conducted many daring rescues during some of the worst weather the Great Lakes can offer.
In 1968, Rittichier volunteered for an exchange program, one he had helped establish several years before, to fly U.S. Air Force combat rescue missions in Vietnam.
He was assigned to the 37th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron based at Da Nang, in the Republic of Vietnam, where he went right to work flying Sikorsky HH-3E combat rescue helicopters – better known as the Jolly Green Giant.
The rescues quickly piled up, as did the recognition. Rittichier was awarded a third Distinguished Flying Cross for a rescue conducted May 12, 1968. Shortly after, he recorded a personal account of the rescue.
Less than a month later, Rittichier and his crew took to the air again on what would be their last mission.
A report came in of a Marine Corps pilot, 1st Lt. Roy Schmidt, who had been shot down near a North Vietnamese Army staging area in the A Shau Valley. The first helicopter, Jolly Green 22, made repeated attempts to rescue Schmidt, but after being driven-off three times by enemy fire, needed to refuel.
Following suppressing fire from helicopter gunships and fighter-bombers, Rittichier maneuvered Jolly Green 23 into position, but was repelled by heavy enemy fire. After another round of suppressing fire, he went back in for a second attempt.
While holding a hover, Jolly Green 23 started to deploy their pararescue jumper, Sgt. James Locker, when enemy bullets struck Jolly Green 23 above and aft of the cockpit, starting a fire.
Rittichier attempted to land in a clearing. The rotors of the helicopter began to slow and Jolly Green 23 quickly lost altitude. It exploded upon impact – all four men aboard, Rittichier, Locker, Air Force Capt. Richard Yeend, copilot, and Air Force Staff Sgt. Elmer Holden, flight engineer, were killed.
“Few people get to be one type of hero - Jack Rittichier was all three,” said retired Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Jim Loomis, a member of the Coast Guard Aviation Association and rescue pilot during the war.
The men were listed as killed in action, bodies not recovered. In 2002 an investigation team located Jolly Green 23’s crash-site inside Laos and recovered the remains of the crew.
Lt. Jack C. Rittichier was laid to rest on Coast Guard Hill in Arlington National Cemetery on Oct. 6, 2003.
In 2009, an award was set up to honor Rittichier by the Coast Guard Aviation Association. The Lt. Jack Rittichier Trophy is awarded annually to the Kent State University football team’s MVP. The very team Rittichier helped propel to glory.
This year, the trophy went to
On his path to the NFL, Pierce showed many similar attributes to Rittichier and had to overcome many obstacles. And, just like Rittichier, is a hero in his own right.
A Parma, Ohio, native, Pierce was a two-sport letter winner in football and basketball at Normandy High School. Playing quarterback, Pierce earned first-team all-conference honors twice, finishing his high school football career with 22 touchdowns, 1,500 passing and 1,400 rushing yards, and also accumulated 125 tackles and three interceptions on the defensive side.
Despite his performance, no recruiting calls came. Pierce persisted however and his highlight video ended up in the hands of Kent State football coaches, who liked what they saw.
There was a problem though; there were no more scholarships to award, so Pierce joined the team as a walk-on linebacker. Again, following his dream despite multiple obstacles.
He volunteered to change positions to tight end, because the team had a need. Through his persistence, Pierce was finally awarded a scholarship during his third season.
Pierce started having success, seeing more and more playing time, but he never stopped reaching higher. As his career developed, he began to emerge as a team leader.
During his time at Kent State, Pierce followed in Rittichier’s footsteps both as an athlete and a leader.
Prior to his senior season, he had already completed his undergraduate degree and began working on a graduate program. As a senior, his leadership skills were recognized through selection as a team captain.
Pierce ended his Golden Flashes career with 11 touchdowns and 97 receptions - 60 of those coming during his senior season.
During the spring of 2015, Aaron Chimenti, the assistant director of athletic communications at Kent State University, recalled checking his phone during the final round of the NFL draft to see if Pierce’s name would appear.
Chimenti was disappointed to see that it didn’t.
“I thought he deserved to get drafted,” said Chimenti. “But then my mood changed. I laughed and thought, well, he’s going to have to do this the same way he’s done everything. He’s going to have to work his tail off as a free agent and earn it.”
Pierce did just that and was signed as an undrafted rookie free agent on May 7, 2015.
Not everyone here is a hero, Loomis said during an interview at Air Station Detroit. It doesn’t make them bad people; it just means they haven’t had the opportunity to perform a heroic act.
Heroes come many different forms. Whether a combat pilot, a local sports star or a respected teacher, one thing seems certain, heroes have, and probably always will, hold a special place in our lives, serving to encourage and inspire, just like Jack Rittichier.