Combat Art rendition of mission, by Michael Leahy
MEDAL OF HONOR CITATION
The President of the United States takes pleasure in presenting the MEDAL OF HONOR to
MAJOR STEPHEN W. PLESS
UNITED STATES MARINE CORPS
for service as set forth in the following
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 Six in action against enemy forces near Quang Ngai, Republic of Vietnam, on 19 August 1967. During an escort mission Major (then Captain) Pless monitored an emergency call that four American soldiers stranded on a nearby beach, were being overwhelmed by a large Viet Cong force. Major Pless flew to the scene and found 30 to 50 enemy soldiers in the open [at coords BS 743 782]. Some of the enemy were bayoneting and beating the downed Americans. Major 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 machine gun attacks were made at such low levels that the aircraft flew through debris created by explosions from its rockets. Seeing one 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, Major Pless maneuvered the helicopter out to sea. Before it became safely airborne, the overloaded aircraft settled four 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 United States Naval Service.
Statement of Captain Stephen W. PLESS, 079156, USMC, Pilot, Medal Of Honor
On 19 August 1967, I was assigned as escort for the afternoon medical evacuation mission. Initially at 1220, we were launched into the Cochise II operational area. During a pick up from Nui Loc Son, the H-34 sustained damage to his tail wheel, so upon completion of our missions we returned to Ky Ha to exchange aircraft. As the Med-Evac crew was switching aircraft, we received an emergency Med-Evac in an unsecure landing zone in the ROK Marine operational area. Rather than wait for the H-34, I decided to proceed to the zone independently and have it secured for his arrival.
As I approached the Med-Evac zone, I heard a transmission on “Guard" channel: “My aircraft is all shot up and I have a lot of wounded aboard. I’m going to try to make it to Duc Pho." Then after a pause: “I still have four men on the ground, the V.C. are trying to take them prisoners or ; God, can somebody help them." At this time I directed my co-pilot, Captain FAIRFIELD, to check on the emergency Med-Evac on F.M. and see if it could wait. I continued to fly toward the distress area and monitor the U.H.F. Captain FAIRFIELD said the Med-Evac was a priority, the landing zone was secure, and it could wait. In the meantime, from 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."
I could see the mortars exploding on the beach and headed for the area. Then, the mortars quit and I saw a large group of people swarm the beach from a tree line about 100 meters from the beach. I made a pass directly over the top of the people at fifty feet of altitude and observed four Americans on the beach. A V.C. was standing over one man crushing his head with a rifle stock, and people seemed to be in the process of butchering the other men. I ordered the door gunner, Gunnery Sergeant POULSON, to open fire on the people. The crew chief, Lance Corporal PHELPS, thinking that I had not seen the Americans, yelled “Don’t fire"; I told him to “shut up", and the gunner kept firing. I pulled the aircraft into a hard climb, switching my armament panel to pods as I did so. A hard wingover put me into a firing position just aft of the mob which had started running for the trees. I could now determine that they were all males, armed, and a few of them had on khaki, or green uniforms. I hit in the center of the retreating mob with all fourteen rockets. Several of the V.C. turned to fire at us, but most of them were in full flight. Although the trees were obscured by smoke and debris, I made a number of gun runs into the smoke, praying that I would not hit a tree. Some of the V.C. ran out of the smoke area, and I shot at point blank range, firing from so low that my own ordnance was spraying mud on the windshield. As I pulled off of one run, I spotted one of the men on the beach waving his arm. I threw the aircraft into a side flare, continually firing at the V.C. in the tree line as I lowered the aircraft to a landing.
I landed the aircraft about fifteen feet from the nearest man, placing it between the V.C. and the wounded men so as to offer my crew some protection while picking the men up. Gunnery Sergeant POULSON immediately climbed out of the aircraft and helped the nearest man into the aircraft; returning to pick up the second man, Gunnery Sergeant POULSON was unable to move him due to his large size. Lance Corporal PHELPS was told he could leave his machine gun to aid Gunnery Sergeant POULSON. My co-pilot unstrapped and climbed out to help, also. As Lance Corporal PHELPS left the aircraft, he handed the wounded man an M-60 and told him to cover my left side. As Captain FAIRFIELD exited the right side of the aircraft, he spotted three V.C. at the rear of the aircraft firing at Gunnery Sergeant POULSON and Lance Corporal PHELPS. Using an M-60, he killed the V.C., then ran to assist in getting the wounded aboard. During the rescue, I could see rounds spraying sand around the aircraft and splashing in the water. Although seriously wounded, the wounded man had cradled the M-60 in his lap, was leaning against the co-pilots seat, and was firing at V.C. who were attempting to close in on the left side of the aircraft. As my crew was dragging the third man into the aircraft, I could see that Captain FAIRFIELD and Lance Corporal PHELPS were alternately dragging the man and firing their pistols at the V.C. who were now within a few feet of the aircraft. I then noticed that one of the UH-1Es had joined us and was making strafing runs around us. Captain FAIRFIELD told me that the fourth man appeared to have his throat cut and was quite dead. At this point, a V.N.A.F. UH-34 landed next to me. Since I knew he would pick up the dead man, I departed to get to a medical facility. The V.C. were still firing at us with automatic weapons, and the only route of departure was over the water. I knew that I was well over the maximum payload for the aircraft; I also thought we had been hit, but had no idea as to the extent of damages. The gauges were all normal, so I could only pray that she was O,K, When I first lifted, it appeared that I had over-committed myself. After about a mile of straightaway and bouncing off the waves four times, I finally started picking up airspeed and built my RPM back up. I jettisoned my rocket pods and told the crew to throw anything else over the side to lighten the load so we could get more airspeed. During the trip, Lance Corporal PHELPS, aided by Gunnery Sergeant POULSON, continued to render first aid to the two most critically wounded men, undoubtedly accounting for the fact that both men were still alive when we reached the 1st Hospital Company.
On Sunday, August 20th, I was informed that my gun and rocket runs had left 20 confirmed killed V.C. on the beach, with an additional 38 estimated killed. I also learned that a round had severed the tail rotor drive shaft and an engine oil line, which should have caused the aircraft to crash during the trip home.
S. W. PLESS
CERTIFIED TO BE A TRUE COPY
Statement of Captain Rupert E. FAIRFIELD, 085242, USMC, CoPilot, Navy Cross
On 19 August 1967, I was assigned as co-pilot of an armed UH-1E helicopter which was acting as chase aircraft for the Medical Evacuation H-34. Captain PLESS was the pilot of the gunship and Gunnery Sergeant POULSON and Lance Corporal PHELPS were serving as gunner and crew chief. At approximately 1600, we received an emergency Med-Evac Mission and, because the H-34 was experiencing mechanical difficulties, we decided to launch and proceed independently to the Medical-Evacuation site. While enroute, we heard several transmissions on “Guard" channel to the effect that an aircraft had been badly shot up and was proceeding to Duc Pho following a landing on the beach south of Chu Lai, and that the Viet Gong had taken four Americans prisoner. Captain PLESS transmitted on “Guard" that we were a Huey gunship with a full load of fuel and ordnance and asked if we could be of any assistance. Although this transmission was not acknowledged, we had by this time deduced the location of the action and I had also ascertained that our original mission, the evacuation of one wounded Korean Marine, could be accomplished by the H-34 without our escort. r, advised the Medical Evacuation helicopter that the zone was secure and that we were proceeding to the area where the four Americans had been captured. As we neared the mouth of the Song Tra Khuc, we observed u number of explosions on the beach approximately one mile north.
The explosions stopped abruptly and thirty to fifty armed Viet Cong ran from a tree-line onto the beach. Captain PLESS asked “how we felt about going down", and I turned to give the thumbs-up signal to Gunnery Sergeant POULSON. He and Lance Corporal PHELPS quickly returned the signal, and we began preparing our ordnance while Captain PLESS dove the aircraft at the Viet Cong on the beach. As we passed directly over the top of the Viet Cong at an altitude of less than fifty feet, we saw the four American prisoners lying on the sand. One Viet Cong had a rifle and was smashing one of the prisoners in the head. However, another prisoner managed to raise his hand and wave.
Captain PLESS ordered Gunnery Sergeant POULSON to open fire with his door gun. As he did, the Viet Cong abandoned the four Americans and ran into a tree-line only thirty meters from the beach. Captain PLESS immediately pulled the aircraft into a near wingover to the right and fired fourteen rockets into the mass of Viet Gong. Our white phosphorus rockets scored direct hits on the Viet Cong, but the smoke obscured the trees and the enemy. Our rockets expended, Captain PLESS repeatedly made machine-gun runs, firing into the smoke and through the trees at an altitude so low that the windscreen quickly became covered with mud. Although we were receiving intense fire from automatic weapons, the smoke and our low altitude must have prevented us from taking any hits. Our ordnance was almost exhausted and Captain PLESS transmitted “I’m going to land". He flared the aircraft to a spot on the beach directly between the four Americans and the Viet Cong and continued firing from a hover. Then he kicked the aircraft around, pointed the nose of the aircraft seaward, and landed, thus utilizing the aircraft itself as a shield for the four Americans.
Gunnery Sergeant POULSON jumped onto the beach and assisted the only American capable of walking back to the helicopter. Lance Corporal PHELPS continued firing for a few seconds at several Viet Gong who attempted to close with us from our left rear, and then he, too, jumped from the aircraft to help carry the three remaining men. I also unstrapped and exited the aircraft through the right rear door. As I came out, I suddenly saw three Viet Cong with rifles less than ten feet from the rear of the helicopter. I removed the right door machine-gun and . I then ran out to assist Gunnery Sergeant POULSON and Lance Corporal PHELPS. As I reached the beach, I saw more Viet Cong trying to overrun us and ordered PHELPS back to his machine gun. The soft, powdery sand made it impossible to carry the largest American, and Gunnery Sergeant POULSON and I literally dragged him to the aircraft. Then Gunnery Sergeant POULSON, Lance Corporal PHELPS, and I ran onto the beach and picked up the third American and carried him to the aircraft. All the while, Lance Corporal PHELPS and I continued firing our pistols at Viet Cong who kept appearing on the small sand dunes overlooking the beach.
Then, I ran to the fourth man, but failing to detect heartbeat or pulse, I became certain he was dead. He had been badly mutilated and his throat was slashed. I looked for dog-tags but found none. I ran back to the helicopter and noticed that the small arms fire had intensified. I jumped in and told Captain PLESS that the fourth man was dead. Gunnery Sergeant POULSON affirmed that he, too, had checked the man and thought him dead.
Then Captain PLESS and I saw a Vietnamese H-34 approaching from the water, and an Army Huey began strafing runs on the Viet Cong positions. I yelled at Captain PLESS that the Vietnamese helicopter would pick up the dead man and that we should try to save the three wounded we had with us.
Our aircraft was at least five hundred pounds heavier than maximum take-off weight, and our skids hit the water four times before we finally became: airborne. We jettisoned our empty rocket pods, and tossed out all our armor plating. While Captain PLESS continued forcing the aircraft to fly, Gunnery Sergeant POULSON and Lance Corporal PHELPS rendered first aid to the three wounded men. I contacted our controlling agencies, told them our position, and requested that they cancel all artillery between our position and First Hospital at Chu Lai. We landed at First Hospital a few minutes later, where we discharged our passengers. We then returned to Ky Ha.
R. E. FAIRFIELD
CERTIFIED TO BE A TRUE COPY
Statement of Gunnery Sergeant Leroy N. POULSON, 1209285, USMC, Gunner, Navy Cross
I was flying on a Med-Evac mission with Captain PLESS and Captain FAIRFIELD acting as pilot and co-pilot. Lance Corporal PHELPS was our crew chief. We received an urgent distress message from Land Shark (I believe) to all planes in the area for help. The word was that an Army helicopter had gone down and four men had been captured by the Viet Cong. Captain PLESS said “Shall we help them" and we all put “thumbs up" indicating we were with him. When we arrived in the area, we could see the Viet Cong down below; I also saw four uniformed men being beaten by the Viet Cong. Captain PLESS gave the order for me to fire. I fired close to the perimeter of the Viet Cong and they all took off in a group for a tree line near a village. Captain PLESS, with a great show of airmanship, rolled in and shot his rockets into the fleeing Viet Cong. Captain PLESS then did a hard left and strafed the ville and tree line, while Lance Corporal PHELPS and I fired our internal machine guns. Captain PLESS’s airmanship was so fantastic in his gun runs and maneuvering of the helicopter, it was hard to believe if you were not there. After several gun runs, we landed on the beach. I unplugged my head set, unhooked my gunner’s belt and jumped out of the aircraft to get to the wounded. Lance Corporal PHELPS immediately came over to my internal gun and covered me as I went over to check the Med-Evacs. Lance Corporal PHELPS did an outstanding job of cover fire and I owe my life to his accurate fire. The first Med-Evac was fairly easy to get to the airplane because he could walk with my aid. After putting him in the aircraft, I went out to get another man. The second man was a large man, and was down in a gully or tide-line type place. I was having a hard time with him. As I bent over to try to pick him up, a round hit right above me. I waived for help, because every time I tried to pick the man up, I would sink into the sand. Captain FAIRFIELD came to my aid and we dragged the man into the aircraft. Captain FAIRFIELD and I went out to get the third man. He was heavier than the second man, so Lance Corporal PHELPS came out to help us. Lance Corporal PHELPS and Captain FAIRFIELD were at each arm and I had the man by his legs. At the same time they were carrying the man, they were firing at the enemy with their revolvers. At one time, Lance Corporal PHELPS dropped the man we were carrying and shot a Viet Cong that was about ten or fifteen feet from us. This Med-Evac was about thirty to forty feet from the helicopter and was quite difficult to get into the aircraft. We finally got him into the bird. We were receiving heavy automatic fire at all times while we were on the beach. I had determined that the fourth man was dead, for when 1 checked him, he appeared to have his throat cut and was not breathing and had no heart beat. We did not go back to get him. Captain FAIRFIELD also went over and checked this man and also felt he was dead.
As we were putting the third Med-Evac into the aircraft, an Army Huey began to strafe the ‘ville and tree lines to keep the enemy away from us. Without their support, we would have been unable to complete our mission.
As we put the Med-Evac in the aircraft, an H-34 landed on the beach. I later found out that it was an ARVN aircraft. We took off, so I cannot say if he picked up the last body. As we took off, we had extreme difficulty getting airborne. We skipped across the water and Captain PLESS, with another outstanding show of airmanship, managed to get us airborne. We were taking heavy fire on take-off, but made it, Once we were airborne, we took the wounded men directly to the First Hospital Company at Chu Lai, applying first aid enroute. Following their delivery, we returned to Ky Ha.
L. N. POULSON
CERTIFIED TO BE A TRUE COPY
Statement of Lance Corporal John G. Phelps, 2076835, USMC, Crewchief, Navy Cross
On 19 August 1967, Captain PLESS, Captain FAIRFIELD, Gunnery Sergeant POULSON and myself were assigned as the crew on an armed UH-1E helo on Med-Evac chase. We had just refuelled and headed out on another mission, a Med-Evac pickup in the R.O.K. area, with the Med-Evac pick-up bird a few minutes behind us. On our way to this next pick-up, we received a call on .Guard. from an unidentified aircraft. The message was that an aircraft had been shot up, and that four of the personnel aboard had been taken by the V.C.
We called on .Guard. and answered the call with .we are a fully armed UH-1E gunship and are in the area. Can we give assistance?. Our call was not answered, but we continued to the area. The aircraft in distress had said they were a mile or so north of the mouth of the Song Tra Khuc river.
When we approached the area, Captain PLESS asked the crew, .You all with me?. He knew the answer would be yes. As we flew on, we saw four U. S. personnel laying on the beach, and around them, not less than forty or fifty armed V.C. They, the V.C. were beating the helpless personnel. As we flew over the group of people, one of the men laying on the beach waved to us, and for his efforts got a rifle butt in the face. The V.C. were too close to the Americans to safely fire at them, but the V.C. were killing them anyway, so Captain PLESS ordered the right door gunner, Gunnery Sergeant POULSON, to fire on the V.C. It took only a short burst to send the V.C running for cover. When Captain PLESS saw this, he immediately rolled in hot with the rockets and guns. The smoke from our W.P. rockets obscured the V.C. who were running when we had started our attacks, but Captain PLESS continued to fire into the smoke, displaying the most remarkable airmanship I have ever seen in my eighteen months in country as an air crewman. As crewchief of the aircraft, and knowing its capabilities, I couldn’t believe what he was making the helo do, but when the smoke started to clear, I saw bodies laying everywhere.
We then flew to the edge of the water where the badly hurt Americans were located. Before setting down, Captain PLESS pointed the guns of the aircraft into the .ville. and fired off the remaining ammo. In landing, Captain PLESS put the aircraft between the wounded men and the V.C. The way he had landed put me facing the V.C.; I started firing my M-60, while the gunner, being on the side next to the wounded, jumped out and ran to the men. Picking up the first man who was the closest, he helped him into the aircraft; this man was still conscious, and didn’t seem to be in bad shape. Then the gunner, Gunnery Sergeant POULSON, ran to the next man, tried to pick him up, but found that the man was far too heavy to carry by himself. The co-pilot, Captain FAIRFIELD, and myself seeing this, jumped from the aircraft and started to run over to Gunnery Sergeant POULSON to help him. When several V.C., who were out of my line of fire, came running down the beach, Captain FAIRFIELD pulled the other door gun off its mount and fired at the V.C., killing all with the first short burst. At this time, Captain FAIRFIELD told me to return to the airplane to provide covering fire.
Then more V.C. came running at the aircraft from the “ville", shooting as they came. I fired until they all lay on the sand. Some of the V.C. were still shooting at the plane; I couldn’t see them, but I could see the sand kicking up all around the plane. I kept my gun going, firing in the tree line and under bushes at the end of the beach. About this time, the co-pilot and gunner came back to the plane with the second men, then went back for the third. Captain PLESS, seeing that the third man was far too much for the Captain and Gunnery Sergeant POULSON to handle, told me to go out and help them. I gave my gun to the one wounded man who was still conscious, and asked him if he thought he could use it; he said “Yes", so I jumped out and ran to the other men. The three of us could move him, and we were about twenty feet from the aircraft, when a lone V.C. with a hand grenade of some kind came running from behind the plane. I let go of the wounded man and drew my pistol, firing all six rounds into the V.C. He was only about ten or fifteen feet away, so I knew I was hitting him. We got the last man into the aircraft, and started to take off, but the plane was so heavy that we could hardly get it off the ground. We had to take off over the water because we were taking so much fire. One Army gun bird, a UH-l like ours, tried to suppress the fire and give us cover. After a few frightening moments, we lifted off. On our way to the 1st Hospital Company, we rendered first aid to the wounded men. We then returned to Ky Ha.
J. G. PHELPS
CERTIFIED A TRUE COPY
Statement of Staff Sergeant Lawrence H. ALLEN, US Army, VC prisoner on beach, Silver Star
On 19 August 1967, our aircraft was struck by ground fire and forced down on the beach south of Chu Lai. The crew chief and myself, along – with two other NCOs climbed out to check the extent of the damage. Three of us set up a security guard between the helicopter and the inland position of the beach. At this time, a grenade thrown by a Viet Cong exploded near the front of the aircraft. We attempted to withdraw to the helicopter, but the pilot had already lifted off. We then ran back to our position behind a sand dune. We began to receive a barrage of grenades; we returned fire, but soon ran out of ammo. The Viet Cong then moved in close and threw more grenades. Everyone was wounded by this time, when one Viet Cong appeared on our flank with an automatic weapon. His fire struck everyone but me. I crawled next to the sand dune and tried to pass as dead. I could hear the Viet Cong move among us, removing our weapons. At this time, I heard two explosions. I looked up and saw a Huey gunship making rocket and gun runs on the Viet Cong, who were returning the fire as they attempted to flee into the brush along the beach. At this time, several Hueys were orbiting the area, but Captain PLESS’s aircraft was the only one to come to our aid. After making several attacks, Captain PLESS landed by us on the beach. I was moved to the aircraft, and then the crewmembers of the helicopter moved out to recover my buddies. I could hear small arms fire all around us. I tried to lay down fire with one of the aircraft’s internal guns while the crewmembers loaded the others aboard. When the other survivors were on the aircraft, we lifted out. If it were not for the actions of Captain PLESS and his crew, I am sure all of us would have been killed.
L. H. ALLEN
CERTIFIED TO BE A TRUE COPY