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Riley Leroy Pitts

Medal of Honor

First African American officer to receive the Medal of Honor, 1937-1967

Though an Oklahoma native born October 15, 1937, Riley Leroy Pitts attended Wichita State University, where he majored in journalism and graduated in 1960. He married, had a son and a daughter, and was employed by the Boeing Company.

After being commissioned in the U.S. Army, Riley Pitts was sent to Vietnam in December 1966. He served as an information officer until he was transfer into a combat unit. Captain Pitts was commander of C Company, 2d Battalion, 27th Infantry. On October 31, 1967, just one month before he was to be rotated back home, his unit was called upon to reinforce another company heavily engaged against a strong enemy force. As the battle raged, Captain Pitts threw himself on an enemy grenade that had fallen among his men. The grenade failed to explode, and Pitts moved to an exposed position to direct the fire of his unit. He was shot down.

In presenting the Medal of Honor to Captain Pitts, who had given his life in combat, President Lyndon Johnson declared, "What this man did in an hour of incredible courage will live in the story of America as long as America endures - as he will live in the hearts and memories of those who loved him. He was a brave man and a leader of men. No greater thing could be said of any man."

Though Captain Riley Leroy Pitts was the first African American officer to receive the nation's highest award for valor, he was but one of many Black Americans who have made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.

Entry: Pitts, Riley Leroy

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: December 2004

Date Modified: January 2022

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.