Pitsenbarger on the Big Screen

The movie “The Last Full Measure” documents the long struggle to get A1C William Pitsenbarger recognized with the Medal of Honor for his sacrifices as a pararescueman on the Vietnam battlefield. The process took 34 years. Photo: Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

It took 34 years to get A1C William H. Pitsenbarger’s Air Force Cross upgraded to a Medal of Honor—one of only a few ever bestowed upon an enlisted airman. And the struggle to tell that Vietnam War story in a movie took nearly 20 years more.

Now, more than five decades after Pitsenbarger gave his life for the sake of his fellow service members, his story is about to make the big screen. 

Writer and director Todd Robinson first learned about the pararescue jumper’s (PJ) story while doing research for another movie in 1999. Robinson was visiting Air Force training schools to learn how PJs are made, and he kept hearing one name evoked to express their ethos.

“Nearly every place I went, the young trainees wanted to be sure that I knew the story of William Pitsenbarger,” Robinson told Air Force Magazine.

Pitsenbarger was a 21-year-old PJ aboard an Air Force rescue helicopter called in for medical evacuation  duty to rescue wounded airmen after an Army unit was ambushed on April 11, 1966, near Xa Cam My. When the helicopter was ready to head home, he volunteered to stay to care for the wounded and dying.

Within 90 minutes, he was dead, but many credited their survival to the man they remember as “Pits.”  

The story intrigued Robinson, and not just because Pitsenbarger had selflessly put himself into harm’s way. He was just as fascinated with the aftermath, when wives of the soldiers who’d fought in that battle learned that Pitsenbarger had earned an Air Force Cross for his heroism, rather than a Medal of Honor. Once their spouses had helped the men reconnect, they “put forth this effort to petition Congress to reconsider it,” according to Robinson.

Later, he heard William F. “Frank” Pitsenbarger, the airman’s father, speak on his son’s legacy at Kirtland AFB, N.M.

“The whole thing gelled for me in that moment, and it made it very personal because I had a little boy, and I suddenly had to consider what it might be like to send a child into harm’s way and maybe not get them back, or maybe not get them back whole, and that’s when I knew that there was a story to tell,” Robinson said. 

Convincing others wasn’t so easy.  

Robinson and Producer Sidney Sherman pitched the film idea to more than 50 production companies. No one bit. “And then, we looked at each other, and I said, ‘You know, I still believe in this,’ ” Robinson said.  “I’m just gonna write it.”  

After finishing the script, the duo gave selling the film a second go, and New Line Cinema won the deal. But not long after, New Line was sold to Warner Bros., and the project was shelved. Robinson and Sherman were again without a backer. Over the course of the next decade, they finally lined up funding and kicked off production in 2017, shooting in the US, Costa Rica, and Thailand. Titled “The Last Full Measure,” the movie is now slated for an Oct. 25 release by Lionsgate subsidiary Roadside Attractions.

Pitsenbarger standing next to an HH-43 helicopter in Vietnam. Pits stayed behind to care for the wounded and fight the enemy when his helicopter returned to base.  Photo: USAF

Pitsenbarger standing next to an HH-43 helicopter in Vietnam. Pits stayed behind to care for the wounded and fight the enemy when his helicopter returned to base. Photo: USAF

A DIFFERENT KIND OF WAR STORY

“The Last Full Measure” is not traditional war-movie fare. The film tells the story through the perspective of a fictional Pentagon official charged with investigating the merits of the case and the veterans who survived the battle in which Pitsenbarger died. It’s a story of survival, honor, heroism, acceptance, and the lasting trauma of combat.  

While getting financial backers was hard, winning over interested A-list actors was a breeze. 

British stage and screen star Jeremy Irvine plays Pitsenbarger; Christopher Plummer and Diane Ladd play his parents, Frank and Alice; Ed Harris, William Hurt, Samuel L. Jackson, and Peter Fonda play some of the veterans struggling with the aftermath of the battle. Sebastian Stan, who plays the Winter Soldier in Marvel’s Captain America series, plays the civilian investigator.  

Robinson said the Army and Air Force supported the project from start to finish, but the pararescue community was especially helpful.

“I had this great community of people who were tracking the progress of this movie and stuck with us, for lo these 20 years,” he said.

Actor Jeremy Irvine (top) in Thailand while filming “The Last Full Measure,” portraying A1C William Pitsenbarger (pictured below) in Vietnam. USAF as well as the pararescue community have supported the making of this film for nearly 20 years. Photos: Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

Actor Jeremy Irvine (top) in Thailand while filming “The Last Full Measure,” portraying A1C William Pitsenbarger (pictured below) in Vietnam. USAF as well as the pararescue community have supported the making of this film for nearly 20 years. Photos: Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

ATTENTION TO DETAIL

Once the project was a go, the production still had its challenges.

Coordinating conflicting filming schedules for busy actors was one problem; time and funds were another. Capturing a realistic depiction of the Vietnam battlefield took meticulous planning, Sherman told Air Force Magazine via email.

“Getting the battle right was key, and Todd spent thousands of hours talking to veterans of Operation Abilene and military experts in order to carefully plan our shoot,” he said. “Every scene was storyboarded down to the smallest detail.” 

Two of the film’s advisers, retired Air Force SMSgt. John Pighini, retired Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Quay Terry, and retired Marine Captain Dale Dye (“Saving Private Ryan” and “Band of Brothers”), helped train the actors for their battlefield roles, Sherman said. Co-producer, cast member, and former Marine Travis Aaron Wade provided backup. Pighini went to Thailand with the cast and crew to ensure the PJs were depicted accurately, Sherman noted.

“John is a Vietnam-era, highly decorated PJ … so he knew the lay of that land very well,” Robinson said, noting that Pighini paid special attention to the small details that distinguished the members of the US Army’s Charlie Company from the Air Force PJs that came to their rescue to ensure Pitsenbarger didn’t become “just another military guy in a movie.”

Pitsenbarger was only 21 at the time of his death, but Robinson said the historical record was rich. The documentation assembled in support of his MOH upgrade, along with extensive conversations with a former roommate and others, helped Jeremy Irvine embrace the role. 

“Whenever you get the opportunity to play a role based on someone’s real life—let alone an individual who gave the ultimate sacrifice, like Pits—there is a huge responsibility to do them justice,” Irvine told Air Force Magazine.  

It wasn’t all perfect. “We made some mistakes,” Robinson said. He noted the choice to use Huey helos over Pedros due to their scarcity and the cost of getting them to Thailand as the biggest one. “There are some things that aren’t quite right. But hopefully, people who would notice them look past them because the movie works.”

Editor’s Note: This story has been corrected to reflect that, while the heroism displayed by Pitsenbarger in 1966 led to him being among the first enlisted airmen awarded the Medal of Honor when it was bestowed posthumously in 2000, the first enlisted airman to actually receive the medal was Sgt. John L. Levitow. He was recognized in 1970 for heroic action as an A1C in 1969.

A New Film About A Vietnam War Hero Has Local Roots

  • Todd Robinson and crew recreating the daring PJ rescue during the Battle of Xi Cam My in Thailand.

  • Vietnam Veteran of the Battle of Xi Cam My, Phil Hall is moved to tears after watching a scene shot for “The Last Full Measure.”

  • Todd Robinson, right, on set with veteran actor and longtime friend, Ed Harris. “The Last Full Measure” opens nationwide January 2020.

  • Director Todd Robinson and cinematographer Byron Werner on the set of “The Last Full Measure.”

  • William Pitsenbarger forever memorialized on the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC.

Though he lives in Los Angeles these days, film director and writer Todd Robinson has deep roots on the East End. Not only did he spend every summer and a lot of Christmases at the family home in Westhampton, but his roots go back to the 1600s, and his mother and sister still live on the East End.

“Long Island is always with me,” said Robinson in a recent phone interview. “My childhood was impacted by crabbing at the end of the dock with the smell of creek mud in my nose.”

On occasion, his films have even dealt with Long Island subjects. His 2006 movie, “Lonely Hearts,” which he wrote and directed, was based on the experiences of his grandfather Elmer Robinson, who was a Nassau County homicide detective in the 1940s and portrayed by John Travolta in the movie.

“My grandfather was born in Westhampton in a small house that’s still there. He had four brothers and sisters and they weathered the big ’38 storm in the basement,” Robinson said. “Legend has it, my great-grandfather went on the roof and saw the flood tide coming in and got them out of the basement. The hand of God wiped the earth clean.”

With stories like that hanging on his family tree, it’s probably no surprise that Robinson has returned to Long Island on more than one occasion in pursuit of a story for a film. In a way, that’s also the case with his newest film, “The Last Full Measure,” which tells the true story of William Pitsenbarger, a Vietnam-era U.S. Air Force Pararescueman who was killed in action in 1966.

Though Pitsenbarger hailed from Ohio, not New York, in some ways Robinson’s film about him was born locally. It all began back in the late 1990s when Robinson was approached by Wolfgang Petersen, director of “The Perfect Storm,” to write a screenplay based on Jack Brehm’s book “That Others May Live.” Brehm, you may recall, was one of the Pararescue Jumpers, or PJs, who played a harrowing role in the “The Perfect Storm,” and as a member of 106th Rescue Wing, was based at Gabreski Airport in Westhampton Beach where Robinson went to do some research for the script.

“They’re an elite group within the Air Force,” said Robinson of the PJs. “There’re only 600 of them currently and they are part of special operation teams usually embedded in various groups.”

It was at Gabreski that Robinson first heard about William Pitsenbarger and the heroic actions in Vietnam which ultimately cost him his life. As Robinson toured other bases around the country in pursuit of the Brehm story, it was really the Pitsenbarger story that kept coming up.

“Everywhere, airmen wanted me to know the story of Pitsenbarger,” said Robinson, adding that, in the end, the Jack Brehm film was never made, but the Pitsenbarger story stayed with him.

That story took place in Vietnam where Pitsenbarger, a member of the 38th Rescue Squadron, had taken part in more than 250 combat missions. On April 11, 1966 while on a rescue mission near Xi Cam My, just east of Saigon, Pitsenbarger dropped into battle where he helped a half dozen or so wounded men from the Army’s 1st Infantry Division escape. But when he was offered the chance to get out of the combat zone on the last helicopter, which was coming under heavy fire, Pitsenbarger instead chose to stay behind to tend to and defend the remaining soldiers on the ground. Pitsenbarger never made it out alive and was killed by sniper fire during the mission.

“It’s a story of ultimate valor,” Robinson explained. “In terms of what he did, Pitsenbarger descended into one of the bloodiest battles of Vietnam, knowing he wouldn’t come out of it. He refused to get in the helicopter multiple times and fought alongside men he didn’t even know.

“But what really got me involved in making this film was meeting the men he saved who were trying to get him the Medal of Honor,” he added. “They are remarkable people who carry guilt, sadness and shame, and they spent 32 years trying to get him the medal.

“They only knew him for a couple hours, but his actions imprinted on them deeply. They’re all suffering with PTSD still, this effort sort of saved their souls by giving them purpose later.”

“The Last Full Measure,” which was shot in the U.S., Costa Rica and Thailand, is being distributed by Roadside Attractions and Lionsgate and is scheduled to open in wide release in January 2020. But this Saturday, October 19, the film will be shown free of charge for an audience of veterans at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center where, coincidentally, Robinson’s mother, Ronice Robinson, is a volunteer.

In his film, Robinson tells the story of Pitsenbarger through the research efforts of a Pentagon investigator named Scott Huffman (played by Sebastian Stan). The character is based on the real-life Parker Hayes, who documented the accounts of the soldiers who had witnessed Pitsenbarger’s actions.

“A lot of dialogue came from his transcripts,” Robinson said. “The film starts out in the near present — it takes place in ‘99 — and Huffman interviews the guys and we transition back and forth to their memory of the events, each of them in Rashomon way.”

Actor Jeremy Irvine, who was in Steven Spielberg’s 2011 film “War Horse,” plays William Pitsenbarger in the Vietnam reenactments.

“There was enough of a historical through-line that was somewhat linear to put together the timeline of those 18 hours in Vietnam,” Robinson said. “Then we’re shaking it up and taking it out of time so it was not just a linear experience.”

In describing the types of films he prefers to make, Robinson said, “My lane is non-romantic love stories between men – the field of play or combat. ‘Lonely Hearts’ takes place in a police precinct. It’s usually men becoming initiated by going through radical life experience.”

In this story, he found that the passion and dedication of the veterans he interviewed who shared their memories of Pitsenbarger was so moving and compelling, that he knew he had the makings of a strong film script.

“This one I felt was so full of emotion that it was really an embarrassment of riches. The guys gave me that story,” he said.

In 2000, Pitsenbarger was finally awarded the Medal of Honor and Robinson notes this is a film that was 52 years in the making.

“It took the soldiers 32 years to get him the medal and it took me 20 years to get the story told.”

But now, after many fits and starts, “The Last Full Measure” is headed to the big screen backed by an impressive cast that includes Samuel L. Jackson, Christopher Plummer, William Hurt, Ed Harris, Diane Ladd and Amy Madigan, among others. Though it doesn’t open to the wider public until January, Robinson notes it has already been screened nearly three dozen times for military audiences and has received a very strong reception.

“It’s a pretty remarkable thing. People are truly stunned by the movie and the story,” he said. “This one touches everyone … It’s not a political movie at all. I want to persuade people to just think about who you are and your position in the world.”

“In the end, you see the legacy of what this guy did,” he added. “If he had been given the medal in ‘66 we wouldn’t even know about the story, but because so much time passed, you can see the children and grandchildren of the men he saved. This massive legacy is because one guy in a helicopter made a decision to do something.”

“The Last Full Measure” will be screened free of charge for all veterans on Saturday, October 19, at 7:30 p.m. at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center, 76 Main Street. Tickets can be reserved by emailing [email protected] or calling the box office at 631-288-1500.

William Pitsenbarger: “The Last Full Measure”

A1C William Pitsenbarger with an M-16 outside the HH-43. (U.S. Air Force photo)

—JENNIFER-LEIGH OPRIHORY 5/27/2019

Memorial Day is a time to remember all those who died fighting for their country, just like A1C William Pitsenbarger, an Air Force pararescueman who took part in more than 250 rescue missions before he was killed at the age of 21. His selflessness and valor in the Vietnam War earned him an Air Force Cross and, eventually, a Medal of Honor.

On April 11, 1966, a US Army rifle company was isolated in the Vietnamese jungle, where they were surrounded and attacked by Viet Cong troops. Two HH-43F Huskie helicopters were dispatched to fly in, land a few miles away, and help get the men out. Pitsenbarger was on the second helo. 

After a few bumpy extractions, Pitsenbarger requested the pilot leave him on the ground to ensure the men were properly rigged and loaded onto the aircraft so the evacuation process could be safer and faster, and so that more soldiers could fit on the helicopter. 

But after the HH-43 was attacked by enemy fire and his crewmates tried to extract him, Pitsenbarger declined the rescue so he could continue his work on the ground. He alternated between doing that, arming soldiers with ammunition, and returning fire against the VC himself. He was killed by enemy fire that night.

Pitsenbarger was posthumously awarded the Air Force Cross in 1966, making him the first enlisted airman to receive the nation’s second highest honor for valor in combat, but his fellow PJs and those he fought alongside in Vietnam never gave up hope that his medal would one day be upgraded.

Finally, on Dec. 8, 2000—34 years after his death—the Medal of Honor was presented posthumously to Pitsenbarger in a ceremony at the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio. Then-Air Force Secretary, and current AFA Chairman of the Board, Whitten Peters presented the award, which was accepted by William F. Pitsenbarger on his son’s behalf.

“What impressed me was the fact that there were a group of Air Force and Army people together who had been trying to get a Medal of Honor for this man for about 30 years at the time that they came to see me, and I thought anybody who has been honored by people trying to get the Medal of Honor for 30 years must be really something,” Peters told writer and director Todd Robinson in a video interview.

Pitsenbarger’s sacrifice—and those veterans’ fight to honor it—has now inspired a feature film, “The Last Full Measure,” written and directed by Robinson. The movie, which is based on the quest to secure the posthumous honor for Pitsenbarger, plays out “through the story of a young bureaucrat who was tasked with the job of reinvestigating” Pitsenbarger’s story, and who, through the process of interviewing veterans as part of the assignment, is “transformed as a man of total self interest to a man of total sacrifice,” Robinson explained in a May 23 interview with Air Force Magazine.

“And that is the mythology of the William Pitsenbarger story because he was a man who was altruistic and selfless and he went down into a battle he did not have to go into,” Robinson said. “He put his life at risk and then rejected the opportunity to escape and to hear one of our veterans describe it, everybody who was on the ground would’ve left if they could, but they couldn’t, and the one guy who could leave, stayed.”

The film boasts an all-star cast, including Marvel’s Sebastian Stan, Samuel L. Jackson, and Ed Harris, among others, with Jeremy Irvine playing Pitsenbarger. It’s slated to be released January 17th, 2020 by Roadside Attractions, a subsidiary of Lionsgate.

A special private screening of the film is being held on May 28 in Washington, D.C., for active duty service members and retired veterans. Interested individuals should email the film’s executive producer, Sidney Sherman, at[email protected] for more information.