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Lt. Col. Ralph Pattillo, who was pronounced “presumed deceased” in 1978. Pattillo’s family received virtually none of his personal possessions, so when his former flight student found some of Pattillo’s tape recordings, he contacted The Daily in an attempt to find the Hartselle soldier’s family.
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Lt. Col. Ralph Pattillo, who was pronounced “presumed deceased” in 1978. Pattillo’s family received virtually none of his personal possessions, so when his former flight student found some of Pattillo’s tape recordings, he contacted The Daily in an attempt to find the Hartselle soldier’s family.

Voice of missing soldier comes home to Hartselle

By Deangelo McDaniel
dmcdaniel@decaturdaily.com · 340-2469

HARTSELLE — More than 25 years after he disappeared in the jungles of Vietnam, the voice of Lt. Col. Ralph Pattillo has made it home.

Due to the efforts of one of his former flight students, tape recordings of Pattillo that were buried in a trunk since the late 1960s are back in Alabama.

Retired Air Force Col. Jim Gabriel of Spicewood, Texas, found the cassette recordings, had them put on compact disc and mailed them to Pattillo’s sister in Florence.

“It’s so good to hear my brother’s voice and have something of him back home,” said his sister, Rachel Cadenhead.

Pattillo, the youngest of three children born to William Van and Ollie Williams Pattillo, would have been 70 today.

To understand why the recordings are so important to Cadenhead, you have to go back to Feb. 16, 1971, when Pattillo and his weapon systems officer left Ubon Airfield, Thailand, to escort an AC-130 gunship on a mission over Laos.

There were no clouds in the area and visibility was about 10 miles.

When the gunship arrived at the target area, Vietcong anti-aircraft artillery fired on the Americans.

Pattillo and Capt. Charles Hoskins passed twice over the enemy position.

“Both passes were made on the blind side of the gunship and, consequently, were not observed by its crew members,” the military wrote in its official report.

“A few moments later some of the AC-130 crew members observed a large billowing ball of fire they thought had been a successful strike on the target.”

When the gunship could not establish communication with Pattillo, the crewmen concluded that his F-4D caused the fireball, the military wrote.

Downed plane

The military found no parachutes and heard no emergency signals. Search and rescue personnel spotted Pattillo’s downed plane the following day.

“The heavy concentration of hostile forces in the area prevented a ground search,” the military wrote.

For seven years, the government listed Pattillo as missing in action.

“We couldn’t get any closure for seven years,” Cadenhead. “I think we all knew he wasn’t coming home, but it was rough on my parents.”

Cadenhead, now 81, said the family received virtually none of Pattillo’s personal possessions.

“We got a beat-up trunk from Vietnam,” she said. “We got none of his real things. He had saved coins for my children, but his trunk had been raided after he disappeared.”

Almost two years before his plane crashed, Pattillo was a pilot trainer at Laughlin Air Force Base where Gabriel was a student.

With Pattillo as his instructor, Gabriel made in-flight recordings during his cross-country flights in March 1969.

“I don’t know why I kept the tapes, but they had been in a footlocker for about two years until this year,” Gabriel said.

Gabriel said a story about a girl from the Philippines returning dog tags to the son of a World War II veteran inspired him to look for Pattillo’s family.

Locating Pattillo’s family

He sent an e-mail to The Decatur Daily and the newspaper located Pattillo’s family.

“I was very young when Ralph died, but I remember the family being notified about him being missing,” former Hartselle Councilman and Decatur attorney Allen Stoner said.

Gabriel said he didn’t know that Pattillo was missing until the mid-1970s when he saw a list containing the names of Vietnam POWs and MIAs.

‘Presumed deceased’

The agony for Pattillo’s family ended in 1978 when the secretary of the Air Force changed his status to “presumed deceased.” His parents had a memorial service in July 1978 at First United Methodist Church in Hartselle.

They placed a gravemarker in the Hartselle City Cemetery next to his parents and brother. But no remains were ever returned to the family.

“My brother was on a night mission when he went down,” Cadenhead said. “We hoped against hope that he would be found, but he never was.”

Pattillo was single and 35 when he died. His father died before the Air Force changed his status from MIA.

Love of flying

“Flying was the love of his life,” Cadenhead said. “My brother volunteered for the second tour. We were disappointed at the time, but that’s what he wanted to do.”

Pattillo’s brother, Hugh, served in Korea and Vietnam. The retired Army colonel never stopped looking for his brother until he died in 1999.

“Ralph was more like a son to me, and I’m the only one left,” Cadenhead said. “These tapes mean so much to me.”

Lt. Col. Ralph Pattillo at a glance

  • Lt. Col. Ralph Pattillo was born Dec. 26, 1936, the youngest of three children to William Van and Ollie Williams Pattillo.
  • He attended Morgan County High School from 1949-51 and played football for the Tigers.
  • He graduated from Baylor Military Academy in 1953.
  • Pattillo attended The University of Alabama two years before joining the U.S. Air Force.
  • He graduated from flight school Aug. 25, 1957, and was commissioned as a second lieutenant.
  • Because of his expertise, he served as a flight instructor at Luke AFB in Arizona and gunner instructor at Nellis AFB in Nevada.
  • During his second tour in Vietnam, Pattillo’s F-4D aircraft was shot down on Feb. 16, 1971.
  • The Air Force listed him as missing in action.
  • In July 1978, the secretary of the Air Force changed his status to “presumed deceased.”
  • He was awarded 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.
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