With growing confidence and growing strength in the air, Major General Don D. Pittman overcame a modest background, rose through the ranks of the U.S. Air Force and exemplified courage and conviction while leading the men and women under his command into battle.
“He was a true Catholic icon, a true American hero — the only Catholic general from this area, and a two-star general at that,” stated Jeremy Paul Ämick, author of Wings of a Patriot: The Air Force Legacy of Major General Don D. Pittman.
The 210-page, newly rereleased volume can be ordered for $15, including shipping, from Missouriatwar.com.
Mr. Ämick plans to donate the proceeds from the book to the Silver Star Families of America (www.silverstarfamilies.org), a Missouri-based nonprofit group that honors and helps people who have been wounded or injured in combat.
Come fly with me
Maj. Gen. Pittman was born into tragedy on Halloween of 1925 and died of a heart attack while watching TV coverage of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
“That’s why it’s called Wings of a Patriot; he died on Patriot Day,” said Mr. Ämick, a military historian and prolific writer.
He hailed Maj. Gen. Pittman “the quintessential flyboy” and “the consummate Cold War aviator,” as well as “a bit of a Cinderella story.”
His mother died while giving birth to him, her only child.
Shortly thereafter, his father, a traveling salesman, handed the baby off to her parents to raise him.
“He didn’t have much of a relationship with his father at any time after that,” said Mr. Ämick.
The future general’s grandparents raised him in Jefferson City.
“They were very dedicated Catholics,” Mr. Ämick noted. “They were very involved at St. Peter Church and all the associated groups of St. Peter Church.”
They sent him to what is now St. Peter Interparsish School, which at that time went from first grade through high school.
“He loved the school,” said Mr. Ämick. “He was the quarterback his senior year for the St. Peter Saints.”
People who knew him at that time said he was smart, attractive, good at sports and pleasant to be around.
A cousin, also raised in Jefferson City, became a pilot for Pan Am Airlines. He told young Don that aviation was an exploding career field.
Don Pittman graduated from St. Peter High School in 1943 and joined the U.S. Army Air Corps (the forerunner of the U.S. Air Force) as a cadet.
“The country was immersed in World War II,” Mr. Ämick noted. “He enlisted to serve his country and also to get that aviation experience.”
He completed cadet training in April 1945, near the end of combat operations in Europe. He became a second lieutenant and got stationed at Canton Island as the war was winding down.
He served as a transport pilot, flying massive transport aircraft with the Airport Transport Command.
His flew relief missions during the Berlin Air Lift.
He later made the unusual move from transport to flying fighter aircraft.
He flew an F-100 Super Sabre fighter jet on many dangerous missions during two separate tours in Vietnam, becoming a highly decorated pilot in the process.
Many missions later, he became commander of Air Force operations in South Korea.
“He placed himself in danger quite a bit, especially in Vietnam,” he Mr. Ämick. “Some of the accolades he received said he could easily have been shot down while facing enemy fire.
“But he chose to persevere: There were U.S. troops in danger on the ground, so he risked danger to annihilate that threat.”
As command pilot, he wasn’t required to go out on such dangerous missions with the men under his command.
“He chose to lead by example and placed himself in the forefront of disaster to protect the men on the ground,” said Mr. Ämick.
The very model
He steadily advanced to the rank of general, becoming the only two-star general to have been born and raised in Jefferson City.
He reached his 10,000th flight mile while piloting an Air Force SR71 Blackbird strategic reconnaissance aircraft that still holds the air-speed record.
“You had to wear a space suit inside it or your capillaries would explode and you would die,” Mr. Ämick noted.
The major general concluded his career as commander of the 24th NORAD region, part of a network charged with defending the continental United States against missile or aircraft attacks.
Mr. Ämick was delighted to see how many celebrities, both military and civilian, whose paths Maj. Gen. Pittman crossed.
“I find it very intriguing that this boy from rural Missouri came into contact and got to know so many historical figures who are so well known,” he said.
Although the major general settled in California state after retiring, he stayed close to friends in Missouri and was a catalyst for organizing St. Peter High School reunions.
He died of a heart attack on Sept. 11, 2001, while watching TV coverage of the Twin Towers collapsing.
“He was so angry,” said Mr. Ämick. “He was ready to jump into plane and fly another mission.”
Mr. Ämick hopes people, especially young people, come away from reading the book with a renewed appreciation for what people, even those with inauspicious beginnings, can accomplish.
“Don Pittman didn’t make excuses for his situation,” he said. “He rose above it. He performed and had a very successful career.”
The general bequeathed $50,000 to Helias Catholic High School to establish a scholarship fund to help students who would have difficulty affording a Catholic education.
“He saw how much of a difference that had made in his own life, and he wanted to make sure that opportunity was available to others,” said Mr. Ämick.
Some men and women lose their connection to God after seeing the horrors of war, while others have their faith solidified.
Mr. Ämick believes Maj. Gen. Pittman experienced the latter.
“For him to be so adamant about giving back to his Catholic high school in order to help to instruct young Catholics in their faith, that indicates to me that he maintained a close relationship with God and his faith,” said Mr. Ämick.
“His generation was raised with a very devout set of moral values,” the author added. “He carried those throughout his life.”
Mr. Ämick said Maj. Gen. Pittman’s life story reinforces that “there are no excuses.”
“This is the land of opportunity, and if you apply yourself, you can do great things in spite of your circumstances,” he said.
“All around us”
This is Mr. Ämick’s seventh military book and the one he’s most proud of because of how deeply he allowed himself to be drawn into Maj. Gen. Pittman’s life and times.
“I am thoroughly convinced that God has helped me through this book,” said Mr. Ämick. “I know He guided me through several parts of it.”
Much of the information came from an impressive collection of personal effects and memorabilia Maj. Gen. Pittman left to his second cousin.
Not having any children of his own, he asked her to safeguard the items and keep his story from being forgotten.
That cousin contacted Mr. Ämick about two years ago and asked him to look at the items.
“What she showed me was a treasure trove,” he said. “There were stacks and stacks of photo albums — all of his photos from throughout his military career, all of his military records.”
Mr. Ämick is a U.S. Army veteran and the son of an Army veteran of the Vietnam War.
He has interviewed hundreds of veterans and written as many or more articles about their life-defining acts of valor and the rest of their lives so defined.
“It’s amazing how you don’t have to go looking outside of our state’s borders for very heroic military stories,” he said. “They’re all around us.”
He wrote seven articles about the late major general’s life before deciding that it needed the book treatment.
Maj. Gen. Pittman’s family donated a painting of him to Helias Catholic. It was displayed in the school library until water from a broken pipe ruined it.
Mr. Ämick is scheduled to give a program at Helias about Maj. Gen. Pittman on Oct. 31, which would be his 93rd birthday.
Local veterans will unveil a large framed portrait of Maj. Gen. Pittman, donated by Mr. Ämick, and Jefferson City Mayor Carrie Tergin will present a proclamation declaring it Major Gen. Don D. Pittman Day in the city.
Mr. Ämick entrusted the major general’s effects to the care of the Museum of Missouri Military History at the Ike Skelton Training Site of the Missouri State National Guard.
The museum plans to put the items on display in the center’s main headquarters from Oct. 1 to Nov. 30.