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Combat Pararescue

Today's Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Service descended from units in World War II and the Korean War that pioneered combat rescue using seaplanes and helicopters. In Vietnam, the USAF refined its rescue techniques and organization, greatly improving chances that downed airmen and wounded soldiers would survive.

The blood-red beret, symbolizing sacrifice, has been the pararescueman or "PJ" (for parajumper) mark of distinction since early 1966. Earning the beret requires intense training in free-fall, water and forest parachuting, survival in all terrain and weather, scuba diving, and combat medicine. Many PJs, like Medal of Honor recipient William H. Pitsenbarger, have also trained as helicopter-borne firefighters.

ARRS crews helped save 4,120 lives in Vietnam. Of those, 2,780 were in combat situations. The PJ's unique mission in Vietnam was to ride into a combat zone aboard a slow, vulnerable helicopter, and descend into jungles, swamps, mountains and forests on a cable and winch. On the ground, they stabilized and helped hoist the injured to safety, often under fire. PJs in Vietnam all were volunteers, and they gathered more decorations per man than any other USAF group in that conflict.

In Vietnam, a PJ's tools were few and simple, but effective. An armored "flak" vest offered some protection, along with a standard flight crew helmet. Their weapons included one or two .38-cal. pistols, an M-16 rifle and a survival knife. PJs descended with a basic medical kit, perhaps a supply of splints, a survival vest and a radio. They used the helicopter's litter to secure and extract badly wounded or unconscious patients. Others rode up on a "jungle penetrator," which weighed the cable, broke through branches and folded out into a seat.

Click here to return to the Pararescue: That Others May Live exhibit.

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Related Fact Sheets
Airman 1st Class William H. Pitsenbarger
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