Memory of McCain recalls city’s own ‘Maverick’

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 2, 2018

Last week, as the nation’s eyes focused on the memory of the late Sen. John McCain, many Natchez residents recall the city’s own “Maverick” — the late Jack Pitchford.

McCain, dubbed by many as “Maverick” due to his independent, sometimes unpredictable, political views, died last week.

A reference in his memoir suggested he ranked Natchez as one of the most memorable places he had visited.

That prompted locals to wonder if McCain developed a friendship with Natchez native Jack Pitchford while the two were captives in the infamous Hoa Lo prison camp, dubbed the “Hanoi Hilton.”

Jack Pitchford’s younger brother, Jim, said his brother and McCain knew one another, but were not close friends.

“They did know each other, being in captivity there,” Jim said last week. “McCain went down about two years after Jack went down.

“His take was McCain was just another POW, who happened to be the son of a 4-star admiral.

“They never really had much interaction because the places where they were kept were different,” Jim said.

The two POWs shared a number of similarities, however.

Both men were aviators, shot down over North Vietnam.

Pitchford’s U.S. Air Force F-100 fighter jet was downed in December 1965.

McCain was a U.S. Navy pilot. His A-4 Skyhawk was shot down in October 1967.

Their injuries, suffered either during their being shot down or later in the prison camp, left them both with physical problems for the remainder of their lives.

Both died of brain tumors. Jack Pitchford died in late 2009 at age 82; McCain, last week at age 81.

And, both men loved Natchez.

McCain’s Natchez memories were formed well before he became an aviator. He was a young man, whose mother thought the constant school changes that come for military families deprived her children of a full education.

McCain’s mother, who is still living at age 106, took her family on road trips across America, with Natchez being one that made an impression on the young McCain.

Natchez made an impression on Jack Pitchford too. It was home.

Jim Pitchford said like McCain, his older brother had a mind of his own, a passion for flying and a deep patriotism.

“Jack was a real maverick, really,” Jim said. “All he wanted to do was fly fighters. That’s all he wanted to do.”

“Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Jack used to fly from Luke Air Force Base in Arizona to England Air Force Base in Alexandria,” Jim said. “Jack liked to fly over Natchez before landing in Alexandria.

“One time in the late 1950s he spent some time doing acrobatics over the (family) house on St. Charles. Another time, and I believe Christmas Eve of 1960s, he flew over the house at a low altitude in an F-100 and lit off his afterburner, shaking the whole town.”

Upon their release from the POW camp, Pitchford and McCain went their separate ways.

Jim said he often wonders how the POW experience influenced the men’s later lives.

“Had Jack not been shot down how long would he have remained in the military, and what would his path have been if not for coming back to Natchez to take care of our Mother?” Jim asked. “Would McCain have chosen to enter Congress if not shot down and stay for a full 30 years then retire to some resort area?”

Both men loved their country, more deeply than many people will ever realize.

While McCain’s patriotism is widely known as politicians often speak publicly, Pitchford’s return to small town life made his beliefs less known, but no less deep.

In her 1977 book, “We Came Home,” editor Barbara Powers Wyatt told the story of America’s POWs and capture Jack Pitchford’s heart in his own words.

“The one thing I would like to convey to the American people is that no matter what happens in one’s lifetime, one must never lose faith in the United States of America. Ours is a great country indeed. We must continue to rededicate ourselves to the principles that have made it great. I, as a POW, was sustained by my faith in God, country and by the hardships (much worse than my own) that were endured by many of my fellow POWs.”

Amazing, isn’t it that someone gave so much and sought nothing in return and kept the greatness of our country in constant perspective.

Kevin Cooper is publisher of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3539 or kevin.cooper@natchezdemocrat.com.