Patriotism comes from within

Published 12:00 am Monday, May 31, 2010

Editor’s note: Col. John J. “Jack” Pitchford, who died in December, wrote the following piece after returning from seven years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. His brother Richard Pitchford of Natchez submitted the piece as a Memorial Day message. Col. Pitchford’s aircraft was hit by ground fire near Hanoi, North Vietnam on Dec. 20, 1965. He was repatriated on Feb. 12, 1973.

I would like to share some of my views on the subject of patriotism.

This ingredient in the lives of both military and civilians seems to have waned alarmingly in the last decade. We in the Armed Services are aware that many of our comrades, when questioned, omit patriotism as the prime reason for serving our country.

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We all realize that patriotism has many forms of expression, but it is basically an inward personal feeling. In the simplest of terms, it is love of country. This feeling, I am sure, exists within most Americans and most assuredly does in the members of our military family.

But this is not enough. It is our responsibility to display those outward forms of patriotism which impact on the civilian community and especially the younger generation of that community. Failing to do so is a grievous disservice to our country. We should seek, not wait for, every opportunity to display pride in our country by words or deeds. For today, we find a small but vocal minority who, for whatever the reasons, are selling this country short. We, as patriots in uniform, constitute a resource that is capable of drowning out those outcries of negativism.

The ills that do afflict our country are especially frustrating in that they do not lend themselves to quick diagnosis or cure. Our ability to face those ills squarely and to resolve them in accordance with the basic precepts of American Democracy is in itself a measure of our patriotism.

About six months after I was shot down over North Vietnam, I was placed in a cell with then Major Fred Cherry, a black officer. Much of our time was taken up with discussions on our responsibilities as military men.

Recognizing that Fred had probably experienced some of the frustrating ills common to our society at that point in time, I asked him to comment on them. His clear and concise statement, I shall never forget; “There are some things that are wrong in the United States, but we still have the best country in the world; we’ll get our problems solved.”

Throughout the next six and a half years, similar statements were made by the great majority of prisoners of war.

Patriotism was continually manifested by such outward displays as the Pledge of Allegiance after our “church” service, recognition of authority of senior officers before our captors, and pro-U.S. statements to interrogators.

Knowing that we were simply a cross-section of our society and maintaining an omnipresent sense of duty is what carried the day for us when times were harsh.

On Feb. 13, 1973, the first returnees were assembled and taken to Gia Lam Airport outside Hanoi. The air was electric.

It was a time for reflection and anticipation, confidence and doubts, joy and sadness.

A number of American fighting men had made the supreme sacrifice. It was of vital importance that the spokesmen for each group convey to the American people the real feelings of the returnees.

When “God Bless America” was echoed and re-echoed, it was alleged that the spokesmen had been told what to say by the ranking officer. Not so; each individual sought as much privacy on the aircraft as possible and turned his thoughts into words. Love of country came bursting forth in an outward display of patriotism.

The words of Daniel Webster best sum up the way I feel about the United States of America. “I was born an American; I will live an American; I shall die an American. Let our object be our country, our whole country and nothing but our country, and, by the blessing of God, may that country itself become a vast and splendid monument, not of oppression and terror, but of wisdom, of peace, and of liberty, upon which the world may gaze with admiration forever.”

The late Col. John. J. “Jack” Pitchford, USAF