Charles Pitman

United States of America

 

Lt. Gen. Charles Pitman, USMC (Ret.)
Marine Aviator, Deputy Chief of Staff for Aviation

Lieutenant General Charles H. Pitman, USMC (retired), the highly decorated former Marine Corps Deputy Chief of Staff for Aviation, died in Fort Worth, Texas, on Feb. 13, from complications of cancer, according to members of his family. During his remarkable military career, he amassed more than 12,000 flight hours in helicopters, transport aircraft and military jets.

Pitman enlisted in the Naval Reserve in October 1952 and subsequently enlisted in the Marine Corps. He entered flight training as a Naval Aviation Cadet in 1954, receiving his wings in August 1955. Initially, he joined Marine Helicopter Transport Squadron 363 in Santa Ana, California, deploying to the Pacific Proving Grounds where he served for seven months aboard the USS Badoeng Strait (CVE-116). In subsequent assignments, he served at the Marine Corps Auxiliary Air Station, Mojave, California, and returned to Pensacola, Florida, for jet transition.

Following his promotion to captain in January 1960, Pitman attended Photographic Reconnaissance School and transferred to El Toro, California, as a member of Marine Composite Reconnaissance Squadron 3. Flying for VMCJ-1, he flew the RF-8 and EF-10 on reconnaissance missions throughout the Far East.

Promoted to major in November 1963, he reported to the Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 261 at New River, North Carolina, for duty as operations officer and then executive officer flying the Boeing Vertol CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter. Leaving in November 1966 for Vietnam, he served as a maintenance and later operations officer with HMM-265 (a CH-46 squadron) at Marble Mountain, Phu Bai and Khe Sahn.

In January 1970, Pitman attended the Armed Forces Staff College. Graduating in June, he transitioned to the UH-1 and attended the Army’s Cobra School. Promoted to lieutenant colonel, he returned to Vietnam where, after transitioning to the CH-53, he was wounded while flying in Laos as part of Operation Lam Son 719.

After recovering, he assumed command of Marine Air Reserve Training Detachment, New Orleans, in July 1971, again flying the CH-46. During that time, he risked his life and military career to help the New Orleans police bring a halt to the Howard Johnson hotel sniper attack on an otherwise quiet Sunday morning that claimed seven lives on Jan. 7, 1973. The killer, Mark Essex, a Black Panther sympathizer, armed with a .44 carbine, barricaded himself on the roof of the 17-floor downtown Howard Johnson Motor Lodge, across the street from the New Orleans City Hall. Hearing reports of the event on his car radio, Pitman returned to his airfield, assembled a volunteer crew and immediately flew to the site. Several police officers armed with sniper rifles boarded the aircraft and Pitman began flying passes over the rooftop. Following one of several passes, Pitman quickly doubled back, catching Essex in the open with a spotlight where the police snipers finally shot him.

The City of New Orleans proclaimed Pitman a hero, but, for a time, the Marine Corps considered having him court-marshaled for failing to obtain command approval. The matter was dropped only when US Representative F. Edward Hebert, the New Orleans Congressman who headed the House Armed Services Committee, intervened.

In 1980, Pitman was placed in charge of helicopter crews who tried to rescue 52 Americans held hostage in Iran. The mission was aborted when one of the helicopters collided with a C-130 transport during a desert sandstorm, killing eight military members. It was a tragic moment in an otherwise illustrious career.

In August 1984, Pitman, now a brigadier general, returned to the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, MCAS El Toro, where he served as Assistant Wing Commander until he advanced to major general in April 1985. He then proceeded to Okinawa, Japan where he commanded the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing from June 1985 until his transfer to Headquarters, Marine Corps, on Sept. 9, 1987. He was appointed as the Assistant Deputy Chief of Staff for Aviation until becoming promoted to lieutenant general and served as the Deputy Chief of Staff for Aviation on May 1, 1988, until his retirement in August 1990.

His decorations included the Silver Star Medal, Defense Superior Service Medal with bronze oak leaf cluster in lieu of a second award, the Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross with gold stars in lieu of second, third and fourth awards, the Bronze Star Medal with Combat “V,” the Purple Heart, and Navy Commendation Medal with Combat “V” and the Air Medal.

VFS Updates: In Memoriams: Vertiflite May June 2020