Col. John Pitchford dies

Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 3, 2009

NATCHEZ — Natchez waited seven years for Col. John Joseph “Jack” Pitchford to come home from war; Pitchford spent the next 37 years being a friend and a neighbor to his hometown.

Now the town must say a final farewell. Pitchford, 82, died Wednesday at his residence.

And he died a hero, Natchez residents said.

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“I just considered him like an elder statesman carrying a torch for patriotic activities,” said Erle Drane, the Veteran’s Service Officer and a veteran himself.

“When you are around someone like that you just stand in awe of him coming through the things he came through.”

Pitchford was already a World War II veteran when he left for Vietnam in December 1965. He was a fighter pilot on a strike mission against targets in North Vietnam when his plane was hit on Dec. 20, 1965.

His shoulder was dislocated and his partner killed as a result of the hit. Pitchford was captured and held in the infamous Hanoi Hilton as a prisoner of war.

Pitchford survived torture there for 373 weeks until he was finally released on Feb. 12, 1972.

All the while, Natchez was waiting and praying. Cathedral students showed their support by wearing prisoner of war bracelets, former student Sue Lewis said.

“I wore mine every single day,” she said. “And when he was released he came to school and talked to us.”

At first, Pitchford didn’t talk much about his experiences as a POW, friend and fellow veteran Robert Mims said. But he did open up in later years.

Mims, a POW for 18 months during WWII, became friends with Pitchford because of their common bond.

“We shared an experience,” Mims said. “The things he went through physically were much worse than anything I endured, though. We talked about that one time. I had remarked about the cold and hunger. He said he didn’t have any hunger, but physically they mistreated him.

“I have a tremendous amount of respect for him even being able to go through it,” Mims said.

In the years since his return, Pitchford made new friends, especially in the neighborhoods around his St. Charles Avenue house.

“He was a great neighbor,” said the Rev. David O’Connor of St. Mary Basilica. “He visited people up and down the street and checked in on people to see if there was anything he could do for them. He was super gracious.”

And he was a great American, close friend Virginia O’Beirne said.

“If you talked with Jack just a few minutes you were aware that he loved all there was about this country,” she said. “When I think of Col. Jack Pitchford, I think of a great American patriot.”

Funeral services for Pitchford will be at 11 a.m. Monday at St. Mary Basilica.