The Life of Lou
UPG’s Lou Pitchford is a Vietnam War veteran who spent more than 20 years in the Marines prior to joining the propane business
Yellow footprints in a parking lot at 3 a.m.
It’s the first memory Lou Pitchford has of his 23-plus years in the Marine Corps.
“When I got off the Greyhound bus early in the morning and arrived at Parris Island on Feb. 11, 1970, for bootcamp, the first thing you are told to do is stand at attention on these yellow footprints that are on the ground,” said Pitchford, now a district manager for our United Propane Gas team. “I always remember those yellow footprints because that was the beginning of a journey that I’ll never forget.”
In addition to the yellow footprints, Pitchford will also never forget the next four-and-a-half months he spent at the military recruit depot located within Port Royal, South Carolina.
“Bootcamp is every bit as difficult as you’d expect it to be and more,” he said. “We started at around 4:30 a.m. and trained until about 9 p.m. We had rifle drills, physical education, combat training and a lot of marching and running. You are drilled over and over on certain things to the point that you basically become a machine.”
But before he could become a machine, Pitchford had to take a seat in the barber’s chair.
“When you arrive they shave all the hair off your head,” he said. “It was the 1970s so I came there with a full head of hair. Thankfully, I didn’t have a beard or a mustache but if you did they shave that off too. They completely broke you down.”
While the Marines may have “broke” Pitchford and the other recruits, it didn’t take long for the group to be put back together.
“As time goes on, they take a group of Marines who know nothing and set you into a cadence of rhythm as a platoon that when you graduate you are just one machine,” he said. “You may have a group of 45 people but when you leave boot camp you are marching together as one machine.”
Upon his graduation from boot camp, Pitchford was sent to Hue, the former capital city of Vietnam to serve as an advisor with the Vietnamese marines during the Vietnam War. One of his main tasks was driving a vehicle to a nearby supply base and picking up food, weapons, ammunition and other items for the Marines. He would then board a helicopter and take the supplies to the personnel out in the front lines or the “hot area,” as he called it.
“You come in and out pretty quick because you know the enemy is on the other side,” he said. “Sometimes I’d even get left behind because it wasn’t safe for the helicopter to pick me up so I’d just join the rest of the platoon.”
Despite the nerve-wracking nature of the job, Pitchford said it didn’t take long for him to get accustomed to the position. Still, there were some close calls during his 13 months in Vietnam.
“Once early in the morning at about 6 a.m. I had an enemy round come in that was about 20 yards away from me,” he said. “The only thing that protected me was the wall between me and where the round hit.”
On another occasion, he said an enemy infiltrated the Vietnamese military undetected and unknowingly to Pitchford began tracking him on his daily trip for supplies.
“This man apparently had been watching me for quite a while because one morning I got ready to leave but I was running about three minutes late and at the time I would normally be on a certain point the North Vietnamese started walking mortar rounds on the highway where I would have been. It was a matter of timing that saved my life.”
In 1973 and after a year-plus in Vietnam, Pitchford was given orders to head to Thailand and join the Joint Casualty Resolution Center. In this role, the North Carolina resident said he was stationed on an Air Force base “in the middle of nowhere” and went into Cambodia and Laos searching for MIAs and POWs.
After four months with the Joint Casualty Resolution Center, Pitchford learned he would be returning stateside and stationed at the Marine headquarters in Washington D.C. working in the administrative and supply fields.
“When I got the orders I kind of had mixed feelings because while I was glad to be leaving, I had developed relationships with both the Americans stationed there and the Vietnamese,” he said. “I worked with a lot of people and got to know a lot of people so that’s why there were the mixed emotions.”
Pitchford worked at the Marine headquarters for around 18 months at which time he was sent to the Marine Corps Air Station El Toro near Irvine, California, to assist in the training of new Marines. He also spent two years aboard the USS Holland with the Marine Detachment protecting the sailors and guarding the ammunition on the ship. He said his travels on the ship took him all over including Spain, Diego Garcia, Perth, Australia and the Suez Canal.
Pitchford returned to the United States in 1986 and would spend his last seven years in the service as an instructor – first creating monthly training programs and classes for the reservists in Greensboro, North Carolina, and then teaching new officers their Military Occupational Specialty training at the Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune.
Pitchford made the “difficult decision” to retire from the Marines on May 31, 1993. After spending a year working at a warehouse in Fayetteville, North Carolina, he came across an ad in the newspaper for a district manager position at AmeriGas Propane.
“I didn’t send them a formal resume but instead a one-page letter expressing my interest in joining the propane industry,” Pitchford said. “A week later I got an interview, was hired and spent 24 years with them.”
A restructuring at AmeriGas in April 2020 resulted in Pitchford’s position being eliminated, but a little over a year later he joined the DCC Propane family when he was hired as a district manager at UPG.
“I really like what I do and I like the propane business,” he said. “I’ve never had a desire to look outside of the propane industry. I work with a lot of great people and I have a great boss in Mike McLeod.”
Pitchford also really liked his time in the Marines. While he never anticipated staying for 23 years, he did say that even if the draft letter did not arrive in the mailbox he would have eventually joined the “Devil Dogs” voluntarily.
“Being drafted just sped up my decision to join the military,” he said. “At first I didn’t think I would be in the Marines for more than the initial two years, but as those two years were coming to a close I decided I was not ready or prepared to leave the Marine Corps.
“I decided I would stay a little longer and see where it took me and that ended up being 21 more years.”
While it was difficult to be away from his family, Pitchford said other than a brief moment when he was arriving at boot camp he never doubted that the Marines was the right career path for him.
“When I first looked out the window of that bus arriving at Parris Island and saw the big flood lights glaring, my first thought was what the heck am I doing?” he said. “But after that I never had a thought of leaving. I knew I was there for a purpose. I wouldn’t have traded this experience for the world.”