Feb 04 , 2024
Major Stephen W. Pless, a United States Marine Corps helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War, became a legendary figure for his extraordinary heroism in a rescue mission that earned him the Medal of Honor. His story is a testament to the bravery, skill, and determination of the U.S. Armed Forces.
Born in 1939 in Newport News, Virginia, Pless joined the Marine Corps and was commissioned as an officer. He was eventually trained as a helicopter pilot, a role that would define his military career and lead to his heroic actions.
On August 19, 1967, then-Captain Pless was flying a UH-1E "Huey" gunship in Vietnam when he received a distress call. Four American soldiers, surrounded by an estimated 40 enemy troops, were under heavy fire on a riverbank. Without hesitation, Pless and his three-man crew made the decision to attempt a rescue, despite the overwhelming odds.
As they approached the site, Pless's helicopter came under intense enemy fire. Demonstrating exceptional airmanship, Pless executed several daring low-level passes, using the helicopter's machine guns to repel the enemy forces. His crew, consisting of a co-pilot, crew chief, and door gunner, worked with precision and bravery, laying down suppressive fire and inflicting heavy casualties on the enemy.
The situation on the ground was dire. The four American soldiers were wounded, outnumbered, and out of ammunition. Understanding the urgency of the situation, Pless made the decision to land his helicopter in the midst of enemy fire, a move fraught with risk.
With the enemy momentarily suppressed, Pless landed his Huey in the small clearing near the soldiers. The crew quickly pulled the wounded men aboard. However, there was a problem: the helicopter was designed to carry only four passengers, and with the addition of the four rescued soldiers, it was dangerously overloaded.
Pless and his crew made the split-second decision to take off, knowing that the overloaded helicopter would be difficult to control. With remarkable skill, Pless managed to lift off, barely clearing the surrounding trees. The daring escape under such conditions was a testament to his exceptional piloting skills and determination to save the lives of fellow service members.
For his actions that day, Stephen W. Pless was awarded the Medal of Honor. His citation noted his "conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty." Pless's bravery, along with that of his crew, undoubtedly saved the lives of four American soldiers.
Major Stephen Pless's heroism during the Vietnam War remains one of the most extraordinary examples of courage and quick thinking under fire. His willingness to risk his life for others exemplifies the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Armed Forces. Pless retired from the Marine Corps in 1971 and passed away in 1999, but his legacy lives on as a symbol of valor and sacrifice.