Widow, brother of first African-American Medal of Honor recipient visit Oklahoma City students

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OKLAHOMA CITY — Family members of one of Oklahoma’s fallen heroes paid a special visit to students at Douglass High School on Thursday.

The school hosted the family of U.S. Army Captain Riley Leroy Pitts.

Captain Riley Leroy Pitts
Captain Riley Leroy Pitts

Pitts, the first African-American to receive the Medal of Honor, grew up in Oklahoma and graduated from Douglass in 1955.

Students from the school’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) met with Pitt’s widow and brother.

The group met to remember Pitts’ sacrifice and get a first-hand look at the medals and honors Pitts received for his 7 years of service.

“It was 1967,” says Willard Pitts, Riley’s brother. “About a month before he was slated to come home, and a few days after his birthday.”

On October 31st,  Captain Riley Pitts led his company in a forceful assault on enemy Viet Cong.

After having initial success overrunning the enemy, his unit was pinned down, receiving fire from three different directions.

His rifle ineffective against the thick jungle foliage, Pitts picked up a grenade launcher and began to take out targets.

He also grabbed a grenade which had been taken from a captured Viet Cong fighter and lobbed it at a bunker in front of him, but it bounced back off the dense jungle foliage.

Without hesitation, Pitts threw himself on top of the grenade.

It didn’t explode.

Undaunted by the close call, Pitts pressed on.  But, his men still had trouble hitting their targets because of the thick jungle growth.

“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,” says his Medal of Honor citation. “He maintained a continuous fire, pinpointing the enemy’s fortified positions, while at the same time directing and urging his men forward.”

Captain Riley Pitts died that day.

Pitts’ widow, Eula Pitts, told the Wichita Eagle that her husband’s radio man told her Riley was hit in the chest by a rocket-propelled grenade.

President Lyndon Johnson presented Eula with the military’s highest honor in a private ceremony at the White House. Video of the ceremony can be found at the 25:10 mark in the following video:

“This is a moment touched with sorrow and splendor,” Johnson said at the ceremony. “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.”

More honors would follow, including the Silver Star and Purple Heart.

Willard Pitts says his brother’s courage and dedication are no surprise, crediting Douglass school staff with instilling such values in Riley; values that Pitts’ family hopes to pass on with visits like this.

“It’s a reflection of what went on here at Douglass High School,” says Willard. “There were many heroes and ‘sheroes’ here at Douglass helping the youngsters of the community to do the kinds of things that they did.”

Pitts’ widow beams at the faces of admiration and gratitude that surround her.

These visits clearly lift her spirit.

“It means so much because it means people are still remembering after all this time,” she told the Wichita Eagle at a dedication ceremony last November. “There’s so many young people that we’ve lost and nobody remembers their name.”

Pitts’ brother says Riley’s legacy lives on in the minds and hearts of ROTC students here at Douglass.

“We had to step forward and be the leaders of the free world,” says Willard. “It was no accident, there was no hesitation.

“He knew that when the call of duty came, he had to step forward.”

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