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US Marine pilot whose heroics helped stop 1973 New Orleans sniper dies at 84

A folded flag sits on a casket during ceremonial funeral training at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., Feb. 22, 2016. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman Sadie Colbert/Released)

A decorated U.S. Marine Corps pilot who risked his life and career to help New Orleans police during the Howard Johnson’s hotel sniper attack that claimed seven lives in 1973 died Feb. 13 of cancer, according to his family.

Retired Lt. Gen. Charles “Chuck” Pitman Sr., whose heroics in piloting a helicopter that allowed police to shoot and kill sniper Mark Essex earned him the gratitude of city leaders, was 84.

In nearly four decades as a Marine, including three combat tours in Vietnam, Pitman earned numerous medals: including Silver Stars for valor, Distinguished Flying Crosses and a Purple Heart.

But in an interview with The Times-Picayune in 2013, Pitman said perhaps his proudest achievement was being named an honorary New Orleans Police Department captain for flying the helicopter that turned the tide as police exchanged gunfire with Essex.

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Pitman never sought permission from his superiors to fly that mission, he said, only forgiveness.

“The thing with him was, if you’re going to be a Marine, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do,” his son, Charles Pitman Jr., said. “He was always happy he did what he did.”

On the quiet Sunday morning of Jan. 7, 1973, Essex — who had already killed a police cadet and a police officer the previous week — arrived at the Downtown Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge in the 300 block of Loyola Avenue.

He killed the hotel’s general manager, its assistant manager and a newlywed couple staying as guests. He then set fire to some of the 17-story hotel’s rooms in a bid to attract more first responders to the scene.

Armed with a .44-caliber carbine, Essex began firing at them as they arrived, fatally shooting three NOPD officers: Phil Coleman, Paul Persigo and Deputy Superintendent Louis Sirgo.

Essex continued shooting, wounding a dozen other people as he finally shielded himself in a concrete rooftop cubicle.

Like the rest of the paralyzed city, Pitman was watching news coverage of Essex’s attack when he decided he’d had enough.

A 37-year-old lieutenant colonel in charge of a Marine air unit stationed in Belle Chasse, he gathered up a volunteer co-pilot and two crew members and flew them all in a CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter to a parking lot near the hotel.

Several NOPD officers armed with rifles hopped aboard the twin-rotor transport helicopter, which Pitman repeatedly flew over the rooftop. Essex would occasionally venture out to fire at the helicopter but returned to his cover before the cops could get a clear shot.

On the critical flyover, Pitman doubled the helicopter back instead of retreating as he had on previous occasions. The maneuver caught Essex far from the cubicle, and — with a spotlight illuminating him — officers in the helicopter and on rooftops of surrounding buildings emptied their weapons.

Essex fell dead, shot more than 200 times. The crisis was over.

Investigators later determined that Essex, a Black Panther Party sympathizer, was enraged by the shooting deaths of two students at Baton Rouge’s Southern University during a clash between police and protesters.

“If (Pitman’s involvement) would not have happened, we would have lost more people,” said Larry Preston Williams, who was among the officers who scrambled out to the hotel that day. “He was instrumental … in taking out Mark Essex.”

Nonetheless, Pitman faced a possible court-martial, having deployed military personnel and resources without obtaining the proper authorization. The matter was dropped after U.S. Rep. F. Edward Hebert, a powerful New Orleans Democrat who headed the House Armed Services Committee, intervened.

The Marine Corps transferred Pitman out of New Orleans in June 1973. The most difficult chapter of his career happened in 1980, when he took charge of helicopter crews who tried to rescue 52 Americans being held hostage in Iran. The mission failed when one of the helicopters collided with a transport plane, and eight military members died.

Pitman went on to become the Marine Corps’ deputy chief of staff for aviation in 1987 and earned the rank of lieutenant general in 1988.

He retired from the Marines in 1990 and lived much of the rest of his life in Pensacola Beach, Florida. He was an aircraft maintenance company consultant and a special weapons and tactics training group adviser in Texas.

His son said reminders of his father’s accomplishments surrounded him in his final days. Both Naval Air Station Pensacola and the Texas hospital where the elder Pitman was being treated at the end flew their flags at half-staff, the son said.

Survivors include his wife and four children.

Details for a March 9 funeral at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia are being finalized, Pitman Jr. said.

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© 2020 The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate