Mideast edition, Sunday, May 27, 2007

MANNHEIM, Germany — He saw the portrait every day. The painting in the stairwell — the young, assured captain now dead 40 years — was one of the first faces he saw each morning when he got to the office, and the last before he left at night.

Brig. Gen. Dennis Via read the captain’s citation, how he had been awarded the country’s highest military medal “for conspicuous gallantry” and “intrepidity” under fire in Vietnam on Oct. 31, 1967. Via thought about the company commander’s bravery and sacrifice.

But that’s not what really got to him.

“It’s the picture of his family,” Via said. “I saw a very young Army spouse, a widow. And she had those young children …”

That photograph, smaller, solemn, and in a little room to the right of the stairwell, showed President Johnson giving the Medal of Honor to Eula Pitts, the 30-year-old widow of Capt. Riley Pitts, with her two children, 5 and 7, by her side.

“I would just wonder,” said Via, commander of the 5th Signal Command and the married father of two: “How were they doing?”

The old photograph reminded Via of the new, young widows and newly fatherless children in today’s Army. He had his staff find the Pitts’ phone number, and one day, he overcame his hesitation and called them in Oklahoma.

“It was as if I was talking with one of my aunts. We had a wonderful conversation,” Via said of his first contact with Eula Pitts.

On Thursday, at a ceremony with the family, friends, schoolchildren and members of the American Legion in attendance, the main street just inside the entrance to Funari Barracks was named Capt. Riley Pitts Way.

It’s not the first thing named for the man who, as the first black commissioned officer to be awarded the Medal of Honor, already had an assured place in history. An American Legion troop and a building — the 5th Signal headquarters, called Pitts Hall — are named after him.

But the building, the new street sign, the speeches, the ceremony — none of it could further consecrate Pitts’ death, Via said in his speech, quoting part of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

The idea was remembrance. “The whole message here is, ‘We don’t forget,’” Via said.

Despite many hours on an airplane from the middle of the United States, jet lag and 85-degree heat, the three members of the Pitts family looked crisp.

But how were they doing?

Now serene, soon to turn 70, Eula Pitts said it was hard going for some time after her husband was killed.

“I was devastated for five years,” she said during a reception with coffee and cake. “I think I cried every day for five years.”

She made it through the pain and loneliness, she said, with the help of her husband’s family, with whom she stayed close in Oklahoma City.

Widowed at 30, she never remarried.

“I think the main reason was these two small children I had,” she said. “What their lives would be. And there were a number of women I knew who did not have successful marriages.”

And, she said, her husband was difficult for any man to measure up to.

“He was conspicuously gallant and charming,” she said. He was like that most of the time, not only on the day he died so far from home along with three of his men.

But didn’t she miss having a husband’s love and companionship?

She shrugged. “You have to make choices in life,” she said.

Her choices were successful ones for her family. Both children are married with children of their own and careers they enjoy. Mark, 43, is an executive at the Coca-Cola Co. in Atlanta.

Stacie Pitts McGill, 45, works in mortgage lending for low- and moderate-income housing in Dallas.

Stacie Pitts McGill said she became more aware of her father’s absence, as well as his official status as a hero, as she got older. At her Blue Bird group’s father- daughter events, she had to bring an uncle, and later, when she played sports, she sometimes wished her father could have seen her. “He wasn’t there, but I had an awful lot of support,” she said.

When Mark Pitts turned down an appointment at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point — “It was just not right for me,” he said — and his uncle tried to change his mind during lengthy family discussion, his mother supported him.

Being a hero’s son has always been something to be proud of, Mark Pitts said. It’s not what he would have chosen, though. “I’d have him here with us,” he said.

The Vietnam War didn’t turn out the way the United States hoped, but that doesn’t make his father’s death less meaningful or heroic, he said.

He has let it be known he believes the Iraq war was a mistake. “And anytime I even think someone’s going to question my patriotism, I say, ‘The Pitts family gave at the office.’ We paid in blood.”

Capt. Pitts' courage

Capt. Riley Pitts was in Company C, 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry, 25th Infantry Division. His Medal of Honor citation reads:

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 which 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.

Capt. Pitts’ conspicuous gallantry, extraordinary heroism, and intrepidity at the cost of his life, above and beyond the call of duty, are in the highest traditions of the U.S. Army and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, and the Armed Forces of his country.

author picture
Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

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