JACKSON, Miss. – Retired U.S. Air Force Col. Jack Pitchford, a fighter pilot who survived seven years in the notorious Vietnamese prison camp known as the "Hanoi Hilton," has died. He was 82.
The Mississippi native died Wednesday after battling a brain tumor, said his brother, Jim Pitchford.
Pitchford was shot down over North Vietnam in 1965 and taken to Hoa Lo prison, a hellish place where many Americans, including U.S. Sen. John McCain and Medal of Honor recipient George "Bud" Day, endured brutal torture.
Pitchford was released in 1973, the same year as McCain, who was imprisoned there in 1967 after his own plane was shot down. The pilot never fully recovered from his injuries, but never regretted his service to his country, his brother said.
"His achievement in life was really sustaining himself through the ordeal in prison camp, and he considered himself a very fierce resister," Jim Pitchford said, recalling a story another prisoner told him about his brother.
"One day (in the prison), when it was his time to offer the blessing at a group meal, he said, 'Lord, we thank you for this dog s—- we're about to consume and we ask that you come down and smite these heathen bastards."
Pitchford attended Louisiana State University on the GI bill after World War II, then entered the Air Force's officer training program. He missed combat in both World War II and Korea because of training assignments, his brother said.
Pitchford volunteered for a perilous assignment in Vietnam with the Wild Weasels, a group of pilots who flew low-altitude missions hunting down and destroying surface-to-air missiles.
Pitchford became the first Weasel pilot taken prisoner after bailing out of his F-100 Super Sabre on Dec. 20, 1965, according to his brother and Air Force records.
Pitchford was shot in the arm three times and the man flying with him, Bob Trier, was killed in a gun battle on the ground, Jim Pitchford said.
The pilot recalled his time at war and the torture some of the Americans endured, including being hung from the ceiling by their feet, in a 2005 interview with the Natchez Democrat newspaper.
"War is hell," he said at the time. "It truly is hell. There are no winners and no losers."
John A. Dramesi, who wrote the book "Code of Honor" in the 1970s about his experiences in the camp, said Pitchford gave him what little food he had as Dramesi prepared for what would be an unsuccessful escape attempt.
"He was a great guy and a great military man," Dramesi told The Associated Press.
After retiring from the military, Pitchford returned to Natchez, the picturesque town he loved on the bluffs of the Mississippi River. He enjoyed horse racing and frequented events like the Kentucky Derby, his brother said.
Pitchford was the second of 12 children. All seven boys who survived beyond childhood joined the military after high school. Pitchford had no children, but he was deeply proud of six nephews in the Marines and another in the Army, his brother said.