RIP Lt. Gen. Charles “Chuck” Pitman Sr., hero of Vietnam and New Orleans sniper attack

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RIP Lt. Gen. Charles “Chuck” Pitman Sr., hero of Vietnam and New Orleans sniper attack

We lost another hero this week:

Retired U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Charles "Chuck" Pitman passed away Thursday at the age of 84.

Described by his contemporaries as a "Marine's Marine" and a "real American hero," Pitman was renowned even among his fellow Marines for his courage, his tenacity and his leadership.

Over a nearly 40-year military career, Pitman piloted just about every aircraft in the Marine Corps. He flew three combat tours in Vietnam and had aircraft shot down by enemy fire seven times. He helped New Orleans police take down a rooftop sniper, and led a rescue mission to free 52 American hostages being held captive in Tehran.

Above all, Pitman stood as a model, mentor and motivator for generations of Marines.

A buddy of mine is a former Marine Pilot and now a commercial airline pilot that first alerted me to the passing of his friend and mentor, and I had to admit that I'd never heard of him.  But man what a life this Marine led.

We'll start with Vietnam, since that came first, where he earned a Silver Star, a purple heart, and four Distinguished Flying Crosses. His Silver Star citation pretty much lays out what this man was capable of (the other awards are also there):

The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Silver Star to Major Charles Henry Pitman (MCSN: 0-69426), United States Marine Corps, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action while serving as a Pilot with Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron TWO HUNDRED SIXTY-FIVE (HMM-265), Marine Aircraft Group Sixteen, FIRST Marine Aircraft Wing, in connection with combat operations against insurgent communist (Viet Cong) forces in the Republic of Vietnam. On 8 April 1967, Major Pitman led a section of two CH-46A transport helicopters and two UH-1E gunships on a night emergency extraction of a sixteen man reconnaissance team which was temporarily pinned down by intense enemy fire in mountainous terrain south of DaNang. Despite darkness and extremely adverse weather conditions, he expeditiously located the landing zone which was situated on a ridge line and marked by two strobe lights. On his first approach into the hazardous area, Major Pitman skillfully maneuvered his helicopter into a cloud mass but was forced to abort his landing attempt when he was warned by his crew chief of the proximity of the aircraft to a mountainside directly to his front. Undaunted, he commenced a second approach into the small landing zone, guided only by an intermittent strobe light and flare illumination. After performing five minutes of extremely difficult aircraft maneuvers, he safely landed his helicopter in the area. Due to the configuration of the landing zone, only the rear wheels of the aircraft were touching the ground with the front of the aircraft hanging over a forty foot cliff. Deciding to extract the entire team rather than subject another aircraft to the hazardous situation, he jettisoned fuel to lighten his aircraft, while he skillfully hovered the helicopter until all sixteen Marines were safely embarked. As he maneuvered his heavily burdened aircraft down the side of the steep mountainside to gain air speed, he came under intense enemy small arms and automatic weapons fire. Although his aircraft was hit several times, Major Pitman expertly lifted from the hazardous zone and proceeded to the Marble Mountain Air Facility. His exceptional aeronautical skill and unwavering determination were instrumental in accomplishing an extremely hazardous mission and undoubtedly saved the lives of the Marines.

Returning from Vietnam, the then 37-year-old lieutenant colonel was in charge of a Marine air unit stationed in Belle Chasse, LA when he watched a group of Black Panthers attacking police on TV.  And immediately took off in his helicopter.

First, a short video so you get the context:

From the Times Picayune:

Like most other residents of New Orleans, Marine helicopter pilot Charles H. "Chuck" Pitman watched the television in horror on Jan. 7, 1973, as authorities tried to stop a sniper or snipers who had invaded the Downtown Howard Johnson's Motor Lodge that morning and fatally shot seven people, including three police officers. Shots rang out from various spots in the 17-story hotel, making police think there was more than one gunman, but the cops eventually contained the killer or killers to the roof.

Though cornered, whoever was on the hotel roof was out of the NOPD's reach. Disturbed, Pitman -- at the time a 37-year-old lieutenant colonel in charge of a Marine air unit stationed in Belle Chasse -- thought, "We've got to do something. Those people need help out there."

So Pitman did do something. He flew a Marine helicopter to the hotel on Loyola Avenue and helped police officers, some of them on board the chopper, kill 23-year-old Mark Essex, who investigators determined was the sole sniper. In doing so, however, Pitman placed his career with the Marines in jeopardy.

Four decades later, many New Orleanians are still thankful for Pitman's actions on the day Essex terrorized the city. "Without that helicopter and without his piloting, it would've been a lot worse," Moon Landrieu, New Orleans' mayor at the time, said recently. "The city owes him a debt of gratitude."

Antoine Saacks, a former police officer who boarded Pitman's copter that Sunday, said, "I always say the true heroes were Chuck and his crew, undoubtedly. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the man that's unwavering."

That whole story at the Times is worth reading because, as the article notes, "when Pitman flew his helicopter to the hotel with his crew, he exposed himself to a court-martial: He had deployed military personnel and resources to quell a civil matter, and he did not have permission to do so before taking off."

He did not get Court Martialed though, and was transfered out of New Orleans when polticians stepped in to make sure he wasn't punished.

But the story of Pitman continued, as he would later go on to be involved in Operation Eagle Claw, the aborted effort in 1980 to free the histages in Iran.   Here's a short video of what went down:

Pitman himself discussed the problems they had in an interview about three years ago:

Just an amazing witness and participant in history.  

Another excellent article by the Times Picayune (in fact the same author even) discusses Pitman's life after the Desert One failure and his passing:

Pitman went on to become the Marine Corps’ deputy chief of staff for aviation in 1987 and earned the rank of lieutenant general in 1988.

He retired from the Marines in 1990 and lived much of the rest of his life in Pensacola Beach, Florida. He was an aircraft maintenance company consultant and a special weapons and tactics training group adviser in Texas.

His son said reminders of his father’s accomplishments surrounded him in his final days. Both Naval Air Station Pensacola and the Texas hospital where the elder Pitman was being treated at the end flew their flags at half-staff, the son said.

Survivors include his wife and four children.

Details for a March 9 funeral at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia are being finalized, Pitman Jr. said.

Rest in Peace General.

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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.