Purple Heart recipient recounts serving in Korea after joining Army at 14

·6 min read

Oct. 17—Jack Pettitt has lived life on his own terms.

The 88-year old Kalispell resident joined the Army at 14, fought in Korea, rebuilt and raced cars and much more. A devoted husband and father, Pettitt raised two children in Northern California before age and deteriorating health prompted his move to live with his daughter Sharon Peetz and her husband in Kalispell in 2019.

"My dad is a tough man. He fought a war, loved the outdoors, built houses and raced cars. He did a little bit of everything," Peetz said about Pettit. "People either love or hate my dad, but he has always had a heart of gold."

Considering the circumstances of his service in the Army, the fact that Pettit's exact birth date was disputed by his mother seems ironically appropriate.

According to his birth certificate, Pettitt was born in Phoenix, Arizona, Nov. 10, 1932, but his mother maintained until her death that Jack was born on Nov. 11.

To say Pettitt had an unorthodox childhood would be a gross understatement. Before Pettitt reached his second birthday, his father lost his leg and wound up in the Arizona prison system after being shot while robbing a gas station.

The incident led to the divorce of his parents and a 2-year-old Pettitt and his 4-year-old sister were left to live with their paternal grandmother.

Surviving on just $60 a month, the three moved around the Phoenix area, "living in the shacks that nobody else would live in."

A love of adventure and fishing led Pettitt to ditch school for the outdoors on a regular basis as a young child and his penchant for mischief even landed him in the Phoenix newspaper when a worker hit him in the face with a tomato after he was caught stealing fruit from a cold storage facility.

At age 12, Pettitt was sent to live on his uncle's farm in California, but at age 14 decided to fudge a few facts and on Sept. 17, 1947, he joined the Army.

"He got in a lot of trouble as a child and he hated school. When he got the chance to join the Army, he said he wanted to have a roof over his head and food in his belly for a change," Peetz said. "He says that he and his step-brother had an agreement to sign up together, but, as Pops tells it, 'Melvin was an a-hole and didn't join the service with me after he said he would.'"

PETTITT MAY have joined the military during peacetime, but he soon found himself in combat after the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950.

By far the youngest member of his squad, Pettitt was awarded a Bronze Star after leading them into battle and two Purple Heart medals after being struck by bullets in the knee and back.

Despite his commendations, Pettitt does not speak much about his experiences during the war.

"Truthfully, he never really talks much about his service during the war. When I ask him to talk about it with me, he says it's a terrible thing to talk about and changes the subject," Peetz said. "I know he had to have seen so much and he just doesn't want to discuss it or have to remember it."

One of the few recollections Pettitt will share about Korea is how cold it was. He has told his daughter repeatedly about how his feet would freeze inside his boots. They still bother him to this day.

Four years, and eight tattoos later, Pettitt left the Army, only to find that he had been drafted. Able to prove that he had already served four years, he was not forced to serve again.

Pettitt settled in the small town of Herlong in Northern California, working in the communications department at the Sierra Army Depot Ammunition Storage Base there. He worked climbing poles to repair lines and later made a different climb, rising to the level of communications supervisor before he retired.

It was in Herlong that Pettitt met his future wife, Barbara Jean Daniels, at the roller rink.

In 1956, after a few years of dating, Barbara told Pettitt it was about time for them to get married, to which Pettitt responded "Let's go." The couple, along with Barbara's mother, jumped in the car and headed to Virginia City to find a Justice of the Peace to perform the ceremony.

When he was told that a second witness was required for the ceremony, Pettitt paid a drunk bum walking down the street $2 to fill the role.

Afterward, they made the trip back home, where Barbara made fried chicken for dinner while Pettitt worked on his racecar.

AN AVID racer, Pettitt loved to race his hardtop cars and gained quite a reputation as a successful racer over the years.

Not long after the marriage, Sharon was born, followed by her brother Dennis almost 11 months later.

Pettitt returned to Asia during the Vietnam War, serving as a civilian contractor improving the country's telephone system. According to Peetz, her father enjoyed sending Vietnamese money back to his children, who took the bills to school for show and tell.

After his return, Pettitt and his family continued to live in Herlong, where Pettitt later continued to enjoy the outdoors as an avid hunter and trapper along with his hobby of collecting old bottles and arrowheads.

After the death of his wife Barbara in 2014, Pettitt continued to live in Herlong. When Peetz went to see Herlong in the summer of 2019, she realized her father could no longer live alone. Living in Washington at the time, Peetz left her job and she and her husband Gary, along with her father, made the move to Kalispell.

These days, Pettitt spends his time in bed in their home south of town, surrounded by his extensive arrowhead collection as he battles Alzheimer's disease.

His memory may be fading, but all of the old fire is still there when he talks about his past, sometimes telling tales that make his daughter blush. As always, he spends each day living life to its fullest.

'He's had a long, good life. He really has," Peetz said. "He's been a tough man and he has done it all his way."

Reporter Jeremy Weber may be reached at 406-758-4446 or jweber@dailyinterlake.com.

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Korean War veteran Jack Pettitt takes in the view of the front yard from the home he shares with his daughter and son-in-law south of Kalispell. (photo provided)

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Jack Pettitt along with sister, Thelma and his paternal grandmother, Tinny Pettitt who raised them in the Phoenix area on $60 a month. (photo provided)

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Jack Pettitt as a young boy in Arizona. (Photo provided)

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Jack Pettitt and his stepfather, Sid McKinney. (Photo provided)

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Jack Pettitt and his mother, Thelma. Jack was raised by his paternal grandmother and was reunited with his mom at the age of 18. (photo provided)

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Jack Pettitt and wife, Barbara on their wedding day in Virginia City, Nevada April 21, 1956. (photo provided)

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Jack Pettitt and his daughter, Sharon (Peetz) on the day he returned home from his service as a civilian during the Vietnam War where he supervised the revamping of the communications system. (photo provided)

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