Roy Exum: The Runner-Up Room

Sunday, February 23, 2020 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

It wasn’t until nightfall yesterday that I was able to rationalize that maybe it was good I couldn’t be in the crowd for Saturday’s ribbon-cutting of our National Medal of Honor Heritage Center. Who wants to see some guy in a wheelchair, blubbering with emotion and sloppy in my repose, over the presence of 13 Medal of Honor recipients in the greatest display of patriotism our city has ever sparked? I mean, really. Then again, it’s going to be awhile before I can talk Bill Raines and his crowd into my “back room” idea because we all know there are some mighty deserving men and women who deserve “The Medal” but – as it should be – coming close means no cigar.

Life ain’t fair – fair is where you take your favorite pig in the summertime. Yet wouldn’t it be a wonderous thing if we had maybe a beer keg and a Coke box out of the spotlight where we could hang some pictures of guys like Chuck Pitman, a three-star Marine general who died at the age of 84 a little over a week ago. So, you’ll know, there is a picture of Chuck in darn near every bar in Pensacola Beach. Not because he drank some swill there, yet with total respect. And if you think that’s strong, try to avoid his face in New Orleans, where he very famously “borrowed” a big Chinook helicopter and risked his life as well as a storied career to save dozens of would-be victims from a serial shooter known as Mark Essex back in 1973.

Think of this: What’s wrong with a Runner-Up Room? Yes, we could get the NMHHC to create a Runner-Up Room where proud patriots could submit a $50 fee, or whatever, to honor the deserving hero they love with a one-month berth on the bulletin board in the Runner-Up Room under the same roof that houses our nation’s biggest heroes. After a month we’ll return the picture with an authentic certificate that announces their personal hero slept and passed muster and that, yes, it is our belief they are most definitely a runner up. No, we cannot in good conscience take any undesirables under the same roof as our anointed but if ever there was a bonafide and legitimate runner-up, it would be on this day Lt. General Charles (Chuck) Pitman USMC Ret.

On a quiet Sunday like this one, but on Jan. 7, 1973 in New Orleans, the devil within a mentally-ill Black Panther named Mark Essex, took his .44 caliber sniper carbine into what was an 18-story Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge, and unleashed a mass murder that only some 40 years later would our nation even begin to grasp. Essex, who had recently been ordered out of the Navy with behavioral problems, had planned his attack “to kill white people” with cunning. He murdered the hotel’s manager and assistant manager, as well as a young doctor and his wife who were on their honeymoon. As he quickly made his way to the top of the tall building, the fiendish Essex stopped only to soak two telephone books with lighter fluid and set them ablaze under the drapes in two rooms, opening the sliding doors wide so the billowing smoke would attract the first responders.

Barricading himself on the roof when he could duck behind thick concrete pillars for easy cover, he didn’t have long to wait. As police and firemen arrived, he shot three dead from his high spot and easily sighted in on anyone who dared approach the hotel. Within minutes local television crews were live and one guy who happened to be watching was a Marine, Chuck Pitman. A Lt. Colonel at the time, Pitman, age 37, oversaw a Marine air unit stationed in Belle Chasse, about three air miles from “The Big Easy.” He thought, "We've got to do something. Those people need help out there."

Pitman had one of his men call the New Orleans Police Department, offering help, and almost immediately they called back, asking for a spotlight. Pitman requested permission to take a twin-rooter “Chinook” into the city, but before “No,” came back, the Lt. Colonel “borrowed” a CH-46 Sea Knight, got another pilot and two air crew and were on their way. Pitman walked casually into the police command post, and while the police were able, Pitman knew war. “The shooter has the high ground … until we go higher.” About five NOPD sharp shooters jumped into a helicopter and, as Pitman weaved the machine between downtown skyscraper on a foggy and miserable afternoon, the cops and the murderer traded rounds for hours. When the chopper would make a pass, Essex jumped under cover every time.

Finally, as darkness heeded the thickening fog, Pitman told his passengers to hold on tight – as he finished yet another sweep over the hotel, he snatched that CH-46 under so much power it shuttered and Pitman executed the tightest U-turn in an afternoon of helicopter heroics. Suddenly they leveled on the deer-in-the-headlights Essex out in the open – he deserted his cover by 6-8 feet.

Mark Essex killed a total of nine people, including five policemen, and wounded 13 others. A Marine helicopter stopped it. And as Chuck Pitman returned to base, a hero in the eyes of the entire city, the NOPD and the entire United States, he soon was awaiting a court-martial.  He was strictly prohibited from using military personnel or aircraft for anything other than a rescue mission (like evacuating flood victims).

The New Orleans Police Department made him an Honorary Captain for his bravery and courage and, while every Marine who ever met the man adores him, the Corps instigated court-martial proceedings for taking an unauthorized chopper, unauthorized personnel (a fellow pilot, a couple of crew members) and engaging in a heckuva firefight – of all things -- with a deranged Black Panther.  The shooter, obviously deeply mentally distressed, had brutally killed five NOPD officers by the time Chuck and his machine got into town. Not until Pitman tricked the shooter with a magnificent U-turn, did the cops aboard and on roof tops put over 200 bullets into his lousy carcass within less than a minute.

There is no room for any doubt, from the FBI, the Marine Corps, the still-reeling public, that it was Pitman and his CH-46 that squelched the horror. But the Marines were unyielding at first.

When word got out that, according to the rules, a court-martial was the Marine Corps way, a Democratic Congressman from Louisiana, Edwin Herbert, reminded everybody that he was the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and he wasn’t about to put up with such no-count foolishness. The Marines agreed completely yet Pitman’s superior at the time, laughed delightedly with the quip, “He originated the ‘Don’t ask for permission, just beg forgiveness.’ concept.”

Lt. General Charles H. Pitman was adopted out of a Chicago orphanage and, again due to fate, flew solo when he was 14 years old. Just five years later he graduated from Navy Flight School in Pensacola and, until he retired in 1990, he flew over 12,000 hours in every type of aircraft the Marine Corps could roll onto the tarmac. He flew for three tours in Viet Nam, having to land in enemy territory seven different times due to withering enemy fire. The last time a 50-caliber bullet almost took off his leg.

He also was involved in Operation Eagle Claw, the attempted rescue of the American hostages in Tehran in 1980. He commanded an Air Wing and was the Deputy Chief of Staff for Marine Corps Aviation. He earned the Silver Star, four Distinguished Flying Crosses, a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. There was the Navy Commendation medal with a Combat ‘V,’ the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with silver star and 65 Air Medals. But for all his achievements in uniform, Pitman is best known for ignoring military protocol and breaking a bunch of regulations so he could save the lives of our First Responders. How do we say thank you, and honor his name?

The best story was when pilot Pitman was awarded the Silver Star for extracting 16 reconnaissance soldiers off a mountain in Viet Nam. The weather was prohibitive, the enemy fire intense and it was pitch-black dark, but he landed the back wheels on a bluff while the front two-thirds of the airship hung suspended over the cliff. (read the commendation below)

“What he was known for was his sheer courage and selflessness on the battlefield,” said retired Corps Colonel Chris Holzworth. “No one could match his courage.” Others described him as “a Marine’s Marine.” Ed Rouse, who is in the Marine Corps League in Pensacola, said simply, “He was a Marine’s general. He wasn’t pompous about anything. He’d walk up to us and say, “My name is Chuck” and we’d be, “Yessir, General,” and he’d say, ‘No, I’m just Chuck’ but he had this presence … He was like a father to all of us.”

“When he retired, he’d show up for everything. He wanted to be part of everything, especially if it had to do with the Marines, but he was greatly loved and admired in the community. He was very down-to-earth but you could see the charisma, the great sense of character he had. He was a tremendous influence on men, women, children … we all just loved him.”

Lt. General Charles Pitman (Lt. Generals wear three stars) will be buried on March 9 in Quantico, Va. (I’m still betting Arlington) While he was never awarded The Medal of Honor, I bet if we compared his total “dash” – that pause between his birthdate and his last day on earth – Chuck Pitman gave a lot more than he got, this more than most men still alive. I’m not hinting he should be enshrined, I’m saying that if he’d been at the sparkling new center today, with all the heroes and official types, there would have been several in the crowd who would have loved to go to the back room where another True American Hero would have a snapshot pinned to the wall. I’m thinking they would relish the tale of him borrowing a CH-46 twin-rotor and out-foxing a serial killer with it.

Wait, there’s more … I’m betting a dollar to your dime every true Medal of Honor winner would have done the exact same thing. “A Marine sees what must be done and then does it.”

Semper Fidelis, General Pitman, or … in the words of another, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

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