POW/MIA Recognition Day: Remembering Lt. Col. Ralph Pattillo, who never returned from the Vietnam War
By CATHERINE GODBEY | The Decatur Daily, Ala. | Published: September 18, 2020
DECATUR, Ala. (Tribune News Service) — For seven years, the family of Air Force Lt. Col. Ralph Pattillo lived in agony, not knowing the fate of their son, their brother, their uncle, their friend.
“I think we all knew he wasn’t coming home, but we couldn’t get any closure,” said Rachel Cadenhead, Pattillo’s sister.
Of the 23 Morgan County men killed during the Vietnam War, only the body of Hartselle’s Pattillo was never returned home. A marker in memory of Pattillo sits above an empty grave at the Hartselle City Cemetery.
Today, on National POW/MIA Recognition Day, the country will honor the service and sacrifice of Pattillo and America’s other men and women missing in action, prisoners of war and their families.
According to the National League of POW/MIA Families, as of July 2020, the number of Americans missing and unaccounted for from the Vietnam War was 1,586, including 30 from Alabama. In other combats, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency reported 73,515 Americans from World War II, 7,841 from the Korean War, 126 from the Cold War and six since 1991 who remain missing.
“It nearly killed me when I found out Ralph was missing,” said the 96-year-old Cadenhead, of Florence. “I thought and still think he is the most wonderful person.”
Born in 1936 in Hartselle, Pattillo was 10 years younger than Cadenhead and three years younger than his brother Hugh Pattillo, a career Army officer, who served in the Korean War and Vietnam War.
“I took care of him like I was his own mother. I loved him from the day he was born,” said Cadenhead, who named her youngest son after her brother.
While at the University of Alabama, Pattillo joined the Air Force. He completed flight school in 1957, served as a flight instructor at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona and a gunner instructor at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.
On Feb. 16, 1971, during Pattillo’s second tour of the Vietnam War, he took off on his final mission. As pilot of Phantom II, which reached speeds of 1,500 miles per hour, Pattillo and his weapon systems officer, Capt. Charles Hoskins, left Ubon Airfield, Thailand, to escort an AC-130 gunship over Laos. During the mission, Pattillo and Hoskins took fire from Vietcong anti-aircraft artillery less than a mile from Ban Dakyon, Laos.
An air search produced no evidence of the downed plane and a heavy concentration of North Vietnamese forces prevented a ground search.
“The foliage was so thick where he is flying, he said a plane could drop into the foliage and no other plane would even know it was there,” Cadenhead said. “He was in a rough part of the war, but that is exactly where he wanted to be, flying planes and serving his country.”
The military declared the 35-year-old Pattillo missing in action in 1971.
“It was horrible, absolutely horrible," said Patricia Pattillo, wife of the late Army Col. Hugh Pattillo and sister-in-law of Ralph Pattillo. "My husband had just come home from his second tour of duty of Vietnam. When we got word he was shot down, we were in Washington. It was mighty bad for a long, long time."
In 1978, when the military changed Pattillo’s status to “presumed dead,” his family held a memorial service at Hartselle First United Methodist Church and installed the stone at the Hartselle City Cemetery.
To honor Pattillo, Don and Heather Collins, founders of the Morgan County-based Vets Like Us organization, hope to erect a pole with an American flag and POW/MIA flag.
Of the 23 Morgan County residents who died fighting in the Vietnam War, Don Collins said, “Each of these young men pledged allegiance to serve under the flag and fought under the flag ... . They sure do deserve a flag flying over them at their final resting place.”
Currently, there are no flag poles at the Hartselle City Cemetery. Hartselle Mayor Randy Garrison said the city is in the process of updating the cemetery’s rules and regulations, but COVID-19 has restricted the Cemetery Board’s ability to meet.
If unable to place a pole at the cemetery, Don and Heather Collins plan on finding another site for the flags.
“We would love to have the flag by his marker, but if that can’t happen, we understand. We just want to get the flag up somewhere, whether that be at the cemetery, at the memorial in Priceville or behind the Morgan County Courthouse,” Heather Collins said. “We need to honor this hero who gave his life for our country and help give his family closure.”
Pattillo’s awards and recognitions include the Silver Star, Air Medal, Joint Commendation Medal, Purple Heart, Air Force Outstanding Unit Award with oak leaf cluster, National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal with two service stars, Air Force Longevity Service Award with three oak leaf clusters, Armed Forces Reserve Medal, Vietnam Campaign Medal and Air Force Good Conduct Medal.
“Ralph loved being in the military and gave the most he could. He gave his life. It would be mighty nice and mighty special if a flag was put up to remember him,” Cadenhead said.
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