Community gathers to remember war hero

Published 12:03 am Tuesday, December 8, 2009

NATCHEZ — No one came to St. Mary Basilica to say goodbye to local war hero Col. John Joseph “Jack” Pitchford Monday.

They came to say “Godspeed Jack.”

Pitchford, a Vietnam prisoner of war for more than seven years, survived too much in his life for anything else, his friends and family said at his funeral services.

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An Air Force fighter pilot, Pitchford’s jet was shot down over North Vietnam in 1965. Both Pitchford and his partner ejected from the plane. Pitchford suffered a dislocated shoulder from the ejection and three gunshot wounds to the same arm in a battle on the ground that killed his partner.

He soon found himself in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” Vietnamese prison camp.

His two-year cellmate Air Force Col. Murphy Neal Jones of Covington, La., attended the funeral Monday.

“I cried most of the way here,” Jones said after the service. “I think of all the POWs I knew and that have gone by the wayside, this one hit me the hardest because of our close relationship.”

Jones — imprisoned from June 29, 1966 to Feb. 12, 1973 — said his friendship with Pitchford stayed strong after their release.

“He was a true hero to me,” he said. “We found the same things in prison that helped us survive — very deep faith in God and a very deep faith in our country.

“I watched that man get beat by a guard just without mercy. John would never cry out and ask for mercy. He’d just stare at him.”

It was those traits of strength and self sacrifice that inspired Pitchford’s younger brothers and sisters, brother Gerald Pitchford said during the funeral service.

“We were never given advice, saying ‘this is what you should do,’” Gerald said. “(He) taught us by example.”

That example by Jack Pitchford and eldest brother Charles, led many of the Pitchford men to the military, Gerald said.

All seven Pitchford boys who survived beyond childhood joined the military after high school. The next generation is equally as well represented in the military.

Even after losing years of his life in Vietnam, Jack Pitchford willingly halted his plans again to move back to Natchez and take care of his aging mother, Gerald said.

“He gave up a part of his life,” Gerald said. “He was just such an inspiration to me.”

But Jack Pitchford wasn’t all work, his friends and family said. Fun was also a way of life.

Gerald remembers a joy ride in his brother’s military plane that swooped so low over Lake St. John in Concordia Parish that boats were forced to dodge left and right.

And Jones learned to gamble in prison with dice he and Pitchford made from dried rice and cigarette ashes.

And after their release, Jones and Pitchford learned to move on, Jones said.

“We would tell war stories and laugh about some of the bad things that happened to us,” he said. “We always had nice conversations, and we would never say goodbye to each other.

“And I didn’t say goodbye to him today. I said, ‘I love you.’”

For Gerald, “goodbye” was supposed to come Dec. 2 when his big brother died at age 82. But instead, he found a better phrase that he repeated Monday.

“My brother, an old fighter pilot, is on his last flight into the wild blue yonder.

“So Godspeed Jack.”