Riley Pitts (1937-1967): America’s First Black Medal of Honor Winner
Fallis, Oklahoma native and OKC Douglass High School graduate Riley Pitts won the first Medal of Honor ever awarded to an African American following his legendary deeds as a company commander in Vietnam. Go HERE to listen to our OKLAHOMA GOLD! podcast that chronicles his heroic exploits. A career soldier in the U.S. Army, Pitts also graduated from Wichita State University and worked for Boeing before enlisting in 1960. He married his wife Eula and sired a daughter, Stacie, and a son, Mark, with her.
Assigned to Company C, 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry, 25th Infantry Division, Pitts began a 12-month tour in Vietnam near the end of 1966. Just one month before shipping home at the end of that tour, he made an astounding impact on a fierce series of battles. They took place near Ap Dong, South Vietnam, on Oct. 31, 1967, between the U.S. Army and the North Vietnamese Communists.
President Lyndon B. Johnson presented Pitts’s Medal of Honor citation to his widow and children in person, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C. That citation tells the story as well as it can be told:
“(Captain Riley Leroy Pitts distinguished) himself by exceptional heroism while serving as company commander during an airmobile assault. Immediately after his company landed in the area, several Viet Cong opened fire with automatic weapons. Despite 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 three directions, including fire from four enemy bunkers, two of which were within fifteen 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 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 one more Viet Cong. The jungle growth still prevented effective fire to be placed on 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 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.”
Pitts’s radio operator told his widow Eula that it took a direct hit to her husband’s chest with a rocket-propelled grenade to finally bring him down.
His brother Willard Pitts credited Douglass High School staff and coaches with helping instill the values that forged Riley’s character. “It’s a reflection of what went on here at Douglass High School,” Willard said. “There were many heroes and ‘sheroes’ here at Douglass, helping the youngsters of the community to do the kinds of things that they did.”
“This is a moment touched with sorrow and splendor,” President Johnson said as he presented Eula, Stacie, and Mark with their husband and father’s Medal of Honor. “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.”
The above article is a bonus to the fascinating historical content found within our book
Oklahomans Vol 2 :
Statehood - 2020s
which can be purchased HERE.
View the inspiring 2-minute preview video HERE.