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Letter to the Editor: 'The Last Full Measure' – A Local Connection

on February 28, 2020 3:14 PM

The recently announced release of the movie The Last Full Measure was an exciting surprise for some of us here in central Pennsylvania. The announcement, replete with a star-studded cast and a powerful trailer, was eerily spine-tingling for members of the Hayes family because it occurred on the evening of January 22, what would have been the 47th birthday of our deceased son and brother, Parker Hayes. Parker had passed away of undetermined causes 11 years before.

It was an eerie coincidence because The Last Full Measure, which came out in theaters just a few days later, is based on Parker's efforts to get the Medal of Honor awarded posthumously to an Air Force para-rescueman who was killed in action in Vietnam. While parts of the movie, including Parker’s role, are somewhat loosely aligned with the facts, the story is in essence a true one. We thought many residents of the area, some of whom knew Parker, would be interested in knowing of The Last Full Measure’s strong local connection.

After graduating from the Cooperstown Graduate Program (CGP) in Museum Management in Cooperstown, New York, in 1997, Parker accepted the position of curator at the Airmen Memorial Museum (AMM) outside of Washington. While working as curator from 1997 to 1999, Parker came across the story of William H. Pitsenbarger. We will condense Parker’s description of his undertaking and the Pitsenbarger story as he shared it with us and in his own words in an article for the fall 2001 CGP newsletter.

Part of Parker’s responsibilities at the AMM included uncovering untold stories of Air Force enlisted men and creating short historical publications for Air Force enlisted leadership schools. While he executed several significant stories, it was the documentation of the life and military service of William Pitsenbarger that would prove for Parker to be “the most rewarding experience of my life.”

On April 12, 1966, Pitsenbarger and his crew were summoned on a mission to evacuate a number of wounded U. S. Army soldiers who had encountered a much larger Viet Cong force. Upon his arrival, it was clear that the men on the ground were struggling to evacuate their wounded. Pitsenbarger volunteered to descend to the ground to assist with treatment and evacuation and succeeded in loading nine enlisted men into litters one by one. When enemy fire forced the helicopters to retreat, Pitsenbarger chose to remain on the ground, tending to additional casualties, sometimes leaving the safety of the unit’s perimeter to provide medical treatment. Before they were finally overrun, Pitsenbarger was hit four times, all while continuing to provide aid and assistance to wounded service men.

Excerpts from Parker’s 2001 article in the CGP fall newsletter tell the rest of the story best:

“The day’s fighting was some of the worst seen in the early days of the Vietnam War with nearly three-quarters of the American force killed or wounded. Only a few days after his death, Pitsenbarger was nominated for the Medal of Honor.” The nomination made its way up through the Joint Chief’s chain-of-command before being “internally downgraded to the Air Force Cross, the nation’s second highest award bestowed to members of the Air Force.”

So it was that after more than 30 years and numerous efforts to have the original Medal of Honor recommendation reconsidered, Parker and a fellow historian chose to write a short biography of Pitsenbarger that might stimulate renewed interest in the Pitsenbarger nomination. Parker continues writing, “About a month after the biography’s release, phone calls” began pouring in from all sectors in support of “a formal reconsideration of the 1966 Medal of Honor recommendation.” After determining the submission requirements and required paperwork, Parker began the arduous task of locating those who had served with Pitsenbarger and, most importantly, the wounded and other survivors from that terrible day in 1966. The rest of the story is best told by Parker.

“Through various contacts, I was able to locate twelve survivors who were willing to be interviewed about the events of that fateful day. For most, reviving those terrible memories was difficult, but all felt strongly that there should be recognition of Pitsenbarger’s heroism. The interviews were some of the toughest and most draining experiences I have ever had. As they retold the worst day of their lives, I found it impossible not to become further involved. Armed with this further support, I began the laborious task of locating anything I could about the 1966 Medal of Honor nomination and its unexplained rejection.”

At the end of this process, Parker submitted a complete Medal of Honor recommendation package to the Pentagon. It would be almost a year, after Parker had moved on to a new position at the U.S. Holocaust Museum and following a rigorous vetting of the facts by the Air Force, that he received word that Secretary of the Air Force F. Whitten Peters was backing the nomination. Following approval by the Joint Chiefs, Congressman John Boehner of Ohio forwarded it to President Clinton for his endorsement, following which it went on to Congress where the Medal of Honor for William H. Pitsenbarger was approved by vote. The first call Parker made was to William’s parents, Frank and Alice Pitsenbarger.

Parker continues, “I was invited, along with twenty Army and Air Force veterans who had served with Pitsenbarger, by Pitsenbarger’s father to join him as a guest of honor at the Medal of Honor awards ceremony in December 2000. The most attended Medal of Honor ceremony in history, it drew more than 3,000 people. Pitsenbarger’s father accepted his only son’s posthumous Medal of Honor from the Secretary of the Air Force in a tearful ceremony that was covered that evening on the ABC evening news.”

Needless to say, as members of Parker’s family we all gathered to watch the news that night with incredible anticipation. When it was over, we were pleased with the overdue recognition of William Pitsenbarger’s valor, and proud of Parker and his perseverance in seeing the restoration of the original Medal of Honor nomination through to its rightful fruition.

Over the months that followed, Parker was approached several times by Hollywood producers interested in developing a full-length movie of the Pitsenbarger story. As the years passed, however, these discussions dwindled and then ceased entirely. When Parker stretched out for a Sunday afternoon nap at his Washington, D.C., home following a softball game on Sunday, August 2, 2009, a nap from which he never awoke, he had not spoken of the Pitsenbarger story in some time. Following an autopsy, no cause of death was determined other than due to “natural causes.”

In addition to the Pitsenbarger Medal of Honor award, Parker’s work in the museum world would produce other notable successes. His master’s thesis on an itinerant 19th century folk artist became the foundation for an exhibit at the New York State Historical Association in Cooperstown and the American Folk Art Museum in New York City. As a project director for the Smithsonian’s Traveling Exhibitions, Parker directed the organization and staging of two major exhibitions that broke new ground for the storied institution. Sports: Breaking Records, Breaking Boundaries was the first Smithsonian exhibition focused on sports as a means for breaking social barriers in America. The second, Beyond Baseball: The Life of Roberto Clemente, was the Smithsonian’s first bilingual traveling exhibition. Both exhibitions met with exceptional public receptions as they traveled to museums and other venues around the country and the globe.

Parker’s full obituary is available by searching The Washington Post obituaries under William Parker Hayes Jr., director for Smithsonian’s traveling exhibitions. For a factual comparison of the movie to reality, you can visit History vs Hollywood at historyvshollywood.com/reelfaces/last-full-measure/.

Parker was raised in Belleville on the family homestead and attended Mifflin County schools through high school, before completing his undergraduate degree at Dickinson. Although living in Washington when we moved to State College, Parker was a frequent visitor to Centre County, especially on Penn State home football weekends. His wife, Jenny, remains a beloved member of the Hayes family and frequent attendee at family functions. We miss you Parker and are so very proud!

 

Bill Hayes and Gregory Hayes

State College

 

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