THAT WAS MACK
Warrant Officer Mack Pettit
Medevac Helicopter Pilot,
Died April 10, 1971 in South Vietnam
His given name was Hugh Michael Pettit, but everyone knew him as “Mack”. And “Mack” was the perfect name for someone with his personality. His brother Marty, owner of Marty Pettit photography in Tupelo, and his sister Michelle Prince, owner of the Village Frame Shop on West Main Street, have a dozen different stories they recall about their big brother’s bigger than life personality.
Michelle remembers Mack as someone who was always watching out for her, like the time she got stuck in a tree only to be bailed out by her big brother. Later in life, her big brother had a tendency to size up the boys who asked out her for dates in high school, offering his opinion and approval – or disapproval. “That was Mack being Mack”, she said.
Marty, who was nearly 11 years younger than Mack, recalled how his big brother always made sure to include him in anything he was doing. His favorite memories come from handling the stick shift in Mack’s Mercury Montego. “We’d go flying down the road, Mack on the steering wheel and gas and me on the gears. He loved to go fast.” Marty finished with the same phrase as his sister, “That was Mack.” If it went fast or pushed the envelope, chances are Mack was going to do it. That was just what he did. That was Mack being Mack.
Mack Pettit loved to fly in fast cars, but even more he loved to fly in helicopters. When he went through flight school, he was one of the highest rated students in his class. He was given the choice of flying a gunship helicopter or a medevac. Mack chose the medevac in great part because he saw opportunities in his hometown of Tupelo down the road. Marty and Michelle both remember hearing Mack talk about the fact that Tupelo would grow, and one day very soon would need helicopter pilots to transport patients. He knew the experience he gained in the Army would open that door for him when the time came.
Even though the job came with opportunity, Mack also understood the risks of flying. In July 1970, the Pettit family was skiing at Davis Lake when news came that Mack’s boyhood friend Leslie Douglas had been killed while flying his helicopter in combat in Vietnam. Mack’s response was sober and honest, telling his mother Rebecca Pettit that the risks for helicopter pilots was extremely high.
A few months later, Mack received orders to head to Vietnam. Just a short time into his tour, Mack sent home a photo of himself at the seat of his aircraft. There was a smile smeared across his face from ear to ear. The joy he took in his job was obvious. There was also a brand new moustache above his lip that his mother didn’t approve of, but as she knew and everybody else knew, “that was Mack”.
When 1971 arrived, Mack found himself doing exactly what he had signed up for, transporting wounded soldiers in Vietnam. It was a job he loved and it was a job he thrived at. On Saturday, April 10, 1971, Warrant Officer Mack Pettit was in command of a UH-1 Huey Medivac helicopter. His mission that day was to shuttle several patients back and forth between his air base in Chu Lai, South Vietnam to a larger hospital in Da Nang. After two such trips, Mack and his crew left Da Nang and headed back to Chu Lai. They never made it.
That next night, Easter Sunday 1971, Mack’s parents Rudolph and Rebecca Pettit sat in their living room in Verona watching the evening news. They had not yet been notified of what had happened when the news anchor reported that a helicopter pilot had lost his life in Vietnam. The news anchor didn’t give a name, but something deep down in Rudolph’s heart sank. All he could say was, “That was Mack.”
The next day his feelings were confirmed when a military messenger showed up at his workplace. The loss of their son, and Michelle and Marty’s loss of their brother, devastated the Pettit family. Mack’s body was returned to Tupelo on his mother’s birthday. Several years later, a plaque honoring both Mack and his friend Leslie Douglas was placed in the Verona City Hall.
When Marty and Michelle reflect on Mack’s life now, over 40 years later, they respond with that brutal balance of pride and pain. They miss him immensely, especially during the special times of year like the holidays, his birthday, or the day he died. They also know their brother was someone who lived with no regrets, in life or in death.
Before he died, Mack instructed his mother to accept any of the honors that the Army would confer upon him if he were to die. Many families at the time felt pressured not to accept them because of the controversial nature of the war. Mack made it clear that serving in the Army as a medevac pilot was exactly what he wanted to do, and if that meant giving his life, then he was willing to accept that. And that’s exactly what he did.
When the crash that killed Mack was investigated, they found that the helicopter had crashed into the South China Sea. He had been teaching a younger pilot some essential maneuvers for flying in a combat zone. The younger pilot had lost control of the aircraft as it dove toward the water straight down. Mack was able to recover enough control so the chopper didn’t slam straight in and kill everyone inside. But he wasn’t able to keep it from crashing. Mack’s side of the aircraft bore the brunt of the impact. Marty and Michelle have often wondered if their brother’s actions that day were on purpose, pitching the aircraft in such a way that he put the lives of his crew ahead of his own. It wouldn’t surprise them one bit, because as they had said a thousand times before, “That was Mack being Mack.”
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