The incredible story of a Huey pilot & his crew
The incredible story of a Huey pilot & his crew risking their lives refusing to leave men behind who were surrounded by over 50 Viet Cong and fighting for their lives! Medal of Honor recipient Maj. Stephen W. Pless U.S. Marine Corps. When Pless arrived in Da Nang, Vietnam as a captain, he would be given the chance to become the only Marine aviator of that conflict to receive the Medal of Honor. Pless, with the support of his crew, would disregard their own safety to save the lives of others–using their aircraft as a shield between an overwhelming Viet Cong force and four wounded U.S. Soldiers.
Stephen W. Pless survived nearly 800 missions flying over Vietnam. By the time he returned home, he had been awarded 38 Air Medals, the Navy Commendation and Bronze Star both with combat “V”, Distinguished Flying Cross, Purple Heart, Silver Star, and the Medal of Honor. On 19 August 1967, an Army CH-47 Chinook flew north along the coast of Vietnam. It came under heavy ground fire a mile south of Chu Lai and was forced down on the beach of the South China Sea. Four soldiers exited the aircraft to inspect the damage sustained. As they inspected the bird, a grenade suddenly exploded in front of the chopper and small arms fire followed after. The soldiers sprinted towards the rear of the aircraft to board and escape the ambush. The pilot saw enemy soldiers emerging from the trees nearby and bullets kicked up the sand all around. Next mortar rounds began falling around his aircraft. He hastily yanked the chopper back into the sky, without realizing his passengers had not yet made it back on board. As he gained altitude, the pilot saw the four soldiers stranded on the beach with the enemy closing in. He called over the radio for help from anyone who might be listening. “My aircraft is all shot up and I have a lot of wounded on board. Going to try to make it to Duc Pho. I still have four men on the ground, the VC is trying to take them, prisoner. God can somebody help them!”
Listening on the other end of the transmission was Marine Capt Stephen Pless. He and his three-man crew were flying, well-armed and ready, aboard their UH-1E Huey gunship. They drew the duty of Med-Evac escort that afternoon and were on their way to another location when the distress call came through. Pless replied twice to the call with no response from the wounded CH-47. He did learn, however, that three jets and four other hueys were circling a mile out to sea, unable or unwilling to come to the aid of the soldiers stranded on the beach. The intense volume of mortar, machine gun, and rifle fire around the area made it nearly impossible to get close. Pless turned his chopper towards the beleaguered soldiers. He looked over at his co-pilot, Capt Rupert Fairfield. “Should we go down?” asked Pless through his intercom, “Are you with me?” Fairfield looked over his shoulder at the crew in the back. GySgt Leroy Poulson and LCpl John Phelps manned their guns, ready for a fight. Fairfield extended his arm giving the Marines a thumbs up. Poulson and Phelps both immediately returned the gesture. “Go,” the copilot replied.
Back on the ground, the four Americans expended the rest of their ammunition as they fought for survival. An enemy soldier snuck up on their flank and sprayed bullets through their group, ending the firefight. In the sudden quiet, one of the Americans playing dead could hear the Vietnam Cong moving among them removing weapons and gear. Captain Pless dropped his huey low over the beach. From the distance he could see mortars exploding in the sand. When the explosions stopped, nearly 50 Viet Cong appeared moving towards or around their prey. Flying at treetop level above the wounded soldiers, Pless and his crew witnessed a Viet Cong bayonet one American and bash his skull in with the butt of his AK-47. GySgt Poulsen opened fire with his M60 machine gun, skillfully placing his rounds close enough to the soldier’s position to scatter the enemy. Pless needed to get into position quickly before the enemy disappeared back into the tree line. He yanked the stick back abruptly into his gut. The huey immediately responded by standing on its tail, climbing straight into the sky. Pless armed the pods on both sides of the aircraft, with 14 rockets staged and ready to launch. Next, in a feat of airmanship more appropriate for a jet, he nearly stalled the helicopter and performed an abrupt wingover. This aerobatic maneuver quickly spun the aircraft 180 degrees in the opposite direction, while remaining in place. Now pointing back towards the earth, Pless could see the mass of Viet Cong still in the open and fired all 14 rockets into the center of the formation. The exploding ordnance sent debris and smoke flying, and Pless rolled hard left to clear the tree line. Smoke obscured the bulk of the enemy formation, but several Viet Cong appeared still firing in his direction. Pless began a series of gun runs, firing his pod-mounted M60s. Each pass came lower and lower. As he worked the chopper and guns through the smoke, Pless prayed he would not fly into a tree. Eventually he was flying so low, his own machine gun rounds impacting the ground sent mud flying onto his windshield. The smoke began to clear, and the helicopter crew saw bodies laying everywhere from their effective fires. As Pless made a final low pass, he looked back towards the four Americans. One of them lifted his arm and waved towards the chopper. Pless again rolled the huey hard back around towards the soldiers and landed less than 10 yards away. He positioned the aircraft between the wounded men and the treeline where the remaining VC continued firing. As soon as the helicopter touched down, GySgt Poulson unhooked and jumped out. LCpl Phelps, facing the treeline on his side of the chopper, remained exposed in the door firing his machine gun to provide covering fire. Poulson reached the closest man and assisted him into the huey. Poulson ran back to get the second man. This one, heavier and more seriously wounded, proved too much for Poulson to handle alone. Seeing his struggle, both Capt. Fairfield and LCpl Phelps exited the aircraft to assist. Fairfield dismounted the gun from Poulson’s side to take with him. Moving toward Poulson’s position, Fairfield spotted three VC approaching less then ten feet from the helicopter. He fired a burst from the M60, killing all three. Seeing the enemy that close, Fairfield ordered Phelps back to his gun to maintain the covering fire while he stayed to help Poulson. The two Marines managed to drag the second man back to the chopper and get him inside, then again returned for the third. Much like the one before him, the third American was also severely wounded and heavy. Fairfield and Poulson fumbled through the deep sand trying to drag him back to the chopper. Pless recognized the struggle from the cockpit, and directed Phelps to leave the aircraft again to go help them. Phelps looked at the wounded men on the floor of the huey. Only one was still conscious, propped upright against the back of the copilot’s seat. Phelps dismounted his M60, handed it to the wounded soldier, and told him to keep up the covering fire until he returned. Fairfield and Poulson moved to the fourth soldier while Phelps made his way to their position. It was clear he was dead. His throat had been slashed, and his face badly mangled. He was not breathing, and had no pulse. The Marines refocused their efforts back to the third soldier, who’s life could still be saved. Phelps and Fairfield each grabbed an arm, while Poulson took the legs. The 40 feet they had to cover back to the chopper seemed like a mile. A VC appeared with over a sand dune with a grenade merely 10 feet away. Phelps instinctively dropped the wounded soldier and drew his revolver. He emptied all six shots into the torso of the VC, sending him tumbling back over the far side of the dune. Fairfield likewise was forced to fire his revolver as they closed the distance with the chopper. At this point, the first signs of help finally arrived. Pless could see a H-34 helicopter coming in for a landing on the beach. One of the Army hueys had also joined in now and made its initial pass strafing the trees. The arrival of additional aircraft was a welcome site, but also brought a corresponding increase in the amount of enemy fire. The Marines finally reached the side door and heaved the third soldier inside. They saw the first soldier with the M60 cradled on his lap still firing into the treeline. Fairfield took his place back in the cockpit and informed Pless that the final soldier was dead. Seeing the H-34 had now landed next to them on the beach, Pless decided to let them recover the fourth body, and he took off to get the three wounded back to safety. Pless fought the huey to get it airborne. The additional passengers made the bird well over maximum payload for takeoff. Again flying more like a jet than a helicopter, Pless flew just feet off the ground straight out over the South China Sea. He hoped he could gain airspeed and altitude. He prayed he had not sustained any damage during the battle that would cause him to crash in the water. For a moment it looked like they were gaining airspeed, then the chopper sank towards the water. The crew in back watched a wave formed beneath them and slap the skids and belly of the aircraft, spraying them with water. Pless ordered the crew to dump extra gear, armor plating, and anything not mission critical from the back. Meanwhile, he jettisoned the empty rocket pods further lightening the bird. Three more times the huey sank low enough to smack a wave top before it finally gained airspeed and altitude. Poulson and Phelps kept the wounded alive long enough for the chopper to make it to a hospital at Chu Lai, where they were taken immediately to the doctors.
Ground crew examined the Huey after it landed. They found the tail rotor drive shaft had been cut by an enemy bullet, as well as an oil line leading to the engine. With these damages, it was a miracle the chopper had not crashed. Pless also learned the following day that at least 20 dead Viet Cong were found on the beach as a direct result of his rocket attack and strafing. Blood trails and drag marks throughout the area added nearly double the confirmed figure to the estimated total of enemy dead. For his selfless, heroic initiative, Capt Pless was awarded the Medal of Honor. He would be the only Marine aviator of the entire war to receive the award. Fairfield, Poulson, and Phelps all received the second-highest medal for valor, the Navy Cross. The awards made them the most decorated aircrew of the war. Pless returned to the states and was promoted to Major. In January 1969, he joined three other servicemen at the White House where President Johnson presented them with their medals. The legacy this legendary pilot left on Marine Corps aviation has been commemorated by several lasting memorials. One of the most impactful and provoking tributes lies within the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, VA. Walking through the main gallery, visitors see the same UH-1E that Pless flew on the mission, suspended from the ceiling with manikins at the controls. One can only imagine how this same view must have looked to stranded Americans on a Vietnamese beach, waving their arms in desperation for rescue from their hopeless situation Stephen Pless survived nearly 800 missions over Vietnam. By the time he returned home, he had been awarded 38 Air Medals, the Navy Commendation and Bronze Star both with combat “V”, Distinguished Flying Cross, Purple Heart, Silver Star, and the Medal of Honor. Pless died in a motorcycle accident on July 20, 1969, just over six months after receiving the nation’s highest award for gallantry in action. We received info on Major Pless by his grandson, Adam Syarto. Adam and his brother following in their grandfathers footsteps both served in the military (Army). The Giant Killer book & page honors these incredible war heroes making sure their stories of valor and sacrifice are never forgotten.