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Autrey: Where have all the soldiers gone, long time passing?

Gill Autrey Special to
the Times
The Apalach Times

As I was leaving the post office the other day, I opened the door for a young lady, maybe 40ish, and I said, “Let me open this door for you, it’s really heavy.”

As she walked by she commented, “You elderly people have been so kind during this pandemic.”

But, Melanie Ward at 13-Mile Seafood made me feel better. “We’re delivering seafood to the old folks but you don’t qualify,” she told me.

Point is, I guess I did get old. I find myself reflecting more often.

Once upon a time I flew the CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopter in the Marine Corps. I miss my friends, the camaraderie, esprit de corps, etc. So, Memorial Day is a time to remember and honor those who lost their lives in service to our country. I served with such great men, and frankly, I think about the ones I lost almost every day.

Early in 1971, Lt. Col. Chuck Pitman came to Vietnam to be our new squadron commander. I really looked forward to serving under him as he was already a legend in the Corps. Before even the change of command ceremony, he insisted on flying on a fairly dangerous mission in Laos. I was his wing man. That day he was shot down, wounded and medevacked to Japan.

After recovering, he was assigned to be commanding officer, Marine Air Reserve Detachment, New Orleans, Louisiana. In Jan. 1973, Mark Essex went on a killing spree, killing nine and wounding 13. Eventually, he made his way to the rooftop of the Howard Johnson Hotel in New Orleans and continued his sniper fire, targeting mostly police officers. Col. Pitman learned of the dire circumstances and without waiting for permission, he boarded a CH-46 helicopter and flew low level down the Mississippi River, as the visibility was near zero due to weather, and arrived at the scene. With several police sharpshooters aboard, he was able to use tactics learned in Vietnam to lure Essex into the open, and he was shot by some 200 rounds.

Now, Col. Pitman could have likely been court-martialed and lost his career, but someone said he was the classic “it’s easier to get forgiveness than permission,” so he was spared.

That should have been enough but fast forward to late 1979, when 52 hostages were held in the embassy in Iran. Operation Eagle Claw was being planned as a last resort to free the hostages. Col. Pitman was selected to command the crews of the CH-53 helicopters. He called on Maj. Jim Schaefer, another old friend of mine, to be in charge of training.

Alas, we know the ending; the mission was aborted when one of the CH-53s crashed into a USAF C-130 during refueling. Jim, his co-pilot and one of the C-130 crew members survived, though badly burned. President Carter visited them in the burn center and gave each one a Bible, which I thought was stand up. Teddy Kennedy, anticipating a presidential run, visited them and asked the young Air Force crew member, “Son, how hot was that fire?”

With that, Jim Schaefer said to the youngster, “Ask him how cold the water was?” The senator turned and walked out.

Jim is alive and well, retired and living in California. Chuck Pitman became a three-star general and retired to Pensacola. I really wanted to talk to him but was never able. Lt. Gen. Pitman passed away earlier this year. He served three tours in Vietnam and was shot down seven times.

Now here’s the kicker. The pilot of the C-130 who lost his life was Maj. Lyn McIntosh, a friend and classmate. There is a monument to him in our home town of Valdosta, Georgia. This Memorial Day I remember and honor Lyn McIntosh.

I miss the men I served with. Here’s what you could count on: if you were in trouble, we would come get you, or die trying. That’s all there was to it.

Happy Memorial Day,

Your friend,

Capt. Gill

Memorial Day service Monday in Apalachicola

Willoughby Marks American Legion Post 106 will host a Memorial Day service in front of the Three Servicemen Statue - Detail at Veterans Plaza in Apalachicola this Monday, May 25 at 10 a.m.

Guest speaker will be Post member Charles Wilson, a Vietnam veteran, drafted in Apalachicola right out of high school.

Everybody is invited, with proper social distancing encouraged at the event.