TFH 8/19: The Most Decorated Aircrew of the Vietnam War

Marine Observation Squadron Six (VMO-6) was first formed in the 1920s. The squadron was inactive from 1933 until November, 1944 when it was reconstituted to join the 6th Marine Division for combat in the last days of World War II in the Pacific, and saw combat on Okinawa.

During the Korean War, VMO-6 was the first Marine Corps helicopter squadron to enter combat and was instrumental in evacuating wounded Marines during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir in November, 1950.

The squadron and its UH-1E  buy Misoprostol online without prescription is it safe to buy generic propecia Huey helicopters was dispatched to Vietnam in 1965. On August 19, 1967, one of VMO-6’s helicopters was flying on escort duty for medical evacuation missions. The helicopter, commanded by Captain Steven W. Pless and with co-pilot Captain Rupert E. Fairfield, Jr., crew chief Lance Corporal John G. Phelps, and door gunner Gunnery Sergeant Leroy N. Poulson, overheard on the radio about a downed Army helicopter crew on a beach nearby.

From Captain Pless’ combat report:

[F]rom the radio transmissions, I knew that there were four Americans on the beach one mile north of the mouth of the Song Tra Khuc River, that they were under attack by mortars and automatic weapons, and that a CH-47 had been driven off by severe automatic weapons fire. There were three (3) jets overhead and four (4) UH-1Es orbiting about a mile to sea. None of these aircraft could get in close enough to the four besieged Americans due to the mortar fire and severe automatic weapons fire. The Army UH-1Es were endeavoring to locate the source of the mortar fire, get a reaction force launched, and get everyone organized. I had made two transmissions offering to help, but had received no reply. Since the other aircraft seemed reluctant to aid the downed men and unable to get organized, I decided to go in alone and hoped they would follow me and help me.

My crew all knew the situation and were all aware that we had very little chance of survival. Yet, when I asked them if anyone objected to a rescue attempt, it was a unanimous and emphatic “Go.”

Rewriting and condensing this story simply would be an injustice to the four Marines who so astoundingly demonstrated what the Marine Corps’ motto Semper Fidelis (“Always Faithful”) means on that day. Read all four crewmembers’ combat reports, as well as the report of one of the men they saved, and you’ll understand why Pless received the Medal of Honor and his three crew all received the Navy Cross.

After reading the stories and the citations, I’m amazed all four men didn’t receive the highest honor they could have. If there’s a heroic story from the Vietnam War everybody should know, this might be it.

Medal of Honor Citation for Captain Stephen W. Pless (Vietnam, M-Z):

MOH-200pxPLESS, STEPHEN W.

Rank and organization: Major (then Capt.), U.S. Marine Corps, VMO-6, MAG-36, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing. Place and date: Near Quang Nai, Republic of Vietnam, 19 August 1967. Entered service at: Atlanta, Ga. Born: 6 September 1939, Newman, Ga. Citation: For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving as a helicopter gunship pilot attached to Marine Observation Squadron 6 in action against enemy forces. During an escort mission Maj. Pless monitored an emergency call that 4 American soldiers stranded on a nearby beach were being overwhelmed by a large Viet Cong force. Maj. Pless flew to the scene and found 30 to 50 enemy soldiers in the open. Some of the enemy were bayoneting and beating the downed Americans. Maj. Pless displayed exceptional airmanship as he launched a devastating attack against the enemy force, killing or wounding many of the enemy and driving the remainder back into a treeline. His rocket and machinegun attacks were made at such low levels that the aircraft flew through debris created by explosions from its rockets. Seeing 1 of the wounded soldiers gesture for assistance, he maneuvered his helicopter into a position between the wounded men and the enemy, providing a shield which permitted his crew to retrieve the wounded. During the rescue the enemy directed intense fire at the helicopter and rushed the aircraft again and again, closing to within a few feet before being beaten back. When the wounded men were aboard, Maj. Pless maneuvered the helicopter out to sea. Before it became safely airborne, the overloaded aircraft settled 4 times into the water. Displaying superb airmanship, he finally got the helicopter aloft. Major Pless’ extraordinary heroism coupled with his outstanding flying skill prevented the annihilation of the tiny force. His courageous actions reflect great credit upon himself and uphold the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the U.S. Naval Service.

Pless, the only Marine Corps’ aviator to receive the Medal of Honor during Vietnam, received his promotion to Major on November 7, 1967. He was tragically killed in a motorcycle accident on July 20, 1969, coincidentally the day Apollo 11 landed on the Moon. He is buried in the Barrancas National Cemetery in Pensacola, Florida. The United States Navy named the Maritime Prepositioning Ship USNS MAJ Stephen W. Pless (T-AK-3007) in his honor. The vessel sails as part of Maritime Prepositioning Ship Squadron Three in the Western Pacific Ocean and carries combat equipment for a Marine Expeditionary Brigade or Force.

Navy Cross Citation for Captain Rupert E. Fairfield, Jr.:

NC-200pxThe President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to Captain Rupert E. Fairfield, Jr. (MCSN: 0-85242), United States Marine Corps, for extraordinary heroism as a Copilot of a UH-1E Helicopter attached to Marine Observation Squadron SIX (VMO-6), Marine Aircraft Group SIXTEEN (MAG-16), First Marine Aircraft Wing, near Quang Ngai, Republic of Vietnam on 19 August 1967. While conducting a regularly assigned mission, Captain Fairfield’s aircraft monitored a transmission giving the approximate location of four soldiers from a downed helicopter. The UH-1E diverted from its mission to this site and found the soldiers in the midst of an estimated thirty to forty Viet Cong, who were bayoneting and beating them with rifle butts. They began a series of low level attacks, and the Viet Cong scattered and withdrew to a tree line. Upon making a second low level pass, they observed one man raise his arm in a gesture for help. Immediately the helicopter landed on the beach between the men and the enemy, who were now firing furiously at the aircraft. Seeing that two men were unable to move a wounded man to the aircraft, Captain Fairfield exited the aircraft to go to their aid. As he stepped onto the ground, three Viet Cong appeared on top of a small sand dune, only ten feet from the aircraft. He quickly removed one of the machine guns from its mount and killed the enemy with a short burst of fire. Replacing the weapon, he drew his pistol and ran into the hail of fire to aid in carrying the wounded man to the aircraft. With all but one of the wounded men aboard, Captain Fairfield once again braved the enemy fire to race to the aid of the remaining soldier, only to find he had succumbed to his wounds. Returning to the aircraft, he leaped into the cockpit. The helicopter, being subjected to intense enemy fire and overloaded, was barely able to fly, as they made their way to a field hospital. By Captain Fairfield’s bold initiative, indomitable fighting spirit and selfless devotion to duty, he was instrumental in saving the men’s lives and thereby upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.

As I could not find information to the contrary, I believe that Captain Fairfield is still living. I also wasn’t able to find any information about his later service.

Navy Cross Citation for Lance Corporal John G. Phelps:

NC-200pxThe President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to Lance Corporal John G. Phelps (MCSN: 2079635), United States Marine Corps, for extraordinary heroism as a Crew Chief of a UH-1E Helicopter attached to Marine Observation Squadron SIX (VMO-6), Marine Aircraft Group SIXTEEN, First Marine Aircraft Wing, near Quang Ngai, Republic of Vietnam, on 19 August 1967. While conducting a regularly assigned mission, Lance Corporal Phelps’ aircraft monitored a transmission giving the approximate location of four soldiers from a downed Army helicopter. The UH-1E diverted to the site and arrived to find the Army personnel in the midst of an estimated thirty to forty frenzied Viet Cong, who were bayoneting and beating them with rifle butts. As the UH-IE began a series of low level attacks, the Viet Cong scattered and withdrew to a tree line, firing frantically at the helicopter. Making another low level pass, they observed one soldier raise his hand in a gesture for help. Unhesitatingly, the UH-IE landed on the beach between the wounded men and the Viet Cong, who were now firing furiously at the aircraft. As the aircraft touched down, Lance Corporal Phelps laid down a heavy volume of fire to cover the gunner, who had leaped from the aircraft and raced to the wounded soldiers. When the gunner was unable to carry the man, because of his weight, Lance Corporal Phelps left his machine gun to help move the man. Observing the Viet Cong swarm around the helicopter, he ran back to his gun to provide protective fire, cutting down the enemy advance. Again observing problems being encountered in moving the third man, he handed his machine gun to one still conscious soldier, drew his pistol and raced to their aid. As the men moved with the wounded man, a lone Viet Cong, armed with a grenade, appeared from behind the UH-IE. Unhesitatingly, he released the wounded man, drew his pistol, and shot the Viet Cong. Once inside the helicopter, as it lifted for flight, Lance Corporal Phelps administered first aid to the wounded men until they reached a hospital. By his courageous actions, bold initiative, and unswerving devotion to duty, Lance Corporal Phelps was instrumental in saving the soldiers’ lives. His great personal valor reflected great credit upon himself and the Marine Corps and enhanced the finest traditions of the United States Naval Service.

As with Fairfield, I wasn’t able to find any post-1967 information for Phelps.

Navy Cross Citation for Gunnery Sergeant Leroy N. Poulson:

NC-200pxThe President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to Gunnery Sergeant Leroy N. Poulson (MCSN: 1209285), United States Marine Corps, for extraordinary heroism while serving as a Gunner of a UH-1E Helicopter attached to Marine Observation Squadron SIX (VMO-6), Marine Aircraft Group SIXTEEN, First Marine Aircraft Wing, near Quang Ngai, Republic of Vietnam, on 19 August 1967. While conducting an assigned mission, Gunnery Sergeant Poulson’s aircraft monitored an emergency transmission giving the approximate location of four Army personnel from a downed helicopter. The UH-1E crew diverted to the site and arrived to find the soldiers in the midst of an estimated 30 to 40 Viet Cong who were bayoneting and beating them with rifle butts. They began a series of low level machine-gun and rocket attacks, and the Viet Cong scattered and withdrew to a tree line. They made another low pass over the Army personnel and observed one man raise his arm in a gesture for help. Unhesitatingly, the UH-1E landed on the beach between the wounded men and the Viet Cong, who were now firing furiously at the aircraft. Gunnery Sergeant Poulson leaped out of the aircraft and raced to the side of the nearest soldier. Unassisted, and through a hail of enemy fire, he moved the man to the helicopter. With complete disregard for his personal safety and in the midst of heavy enemy fire, he ran to the second man, and because of his weight, was unable to move him. At this time the copilot joined him, and the two of them managed to get the man safely aboard the aircraft. The Viet Cong began to appear all around the aircraft as he made another attempt to rescue the third man. Because of the man’s size, it took three crew members to move him. Upon placing the wounded man in the helicopter, Gunnery Sergeant Poulson made another attempt to rescue the fourth man. Upon reaching his side, under a heavy volume of fire, he discovered the man had succumbed to his wounds, and returned to the aircraft. As the aircraft lifted, he administered first aid to the wounded until they reached a medical facility. By his daring initiative, valiant fighting spirit and selfless devotion to duty in the face of insurmountable odds, Gunnery Sergeant Poulson was responsible for saving the lives of the Army personnel and thereby upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.

Poulson attained the rank of Master Gunnery Sergeant before retiring from the Marine Corps after 27 years of service. He passed away on May 14, 2010 and rests in peace at the Houston National Cemetery in Houston, Texas.

VMO-6 was deactivated on January 1, 1977.

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