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Profiles in Aviation: Stephen Pless Was the Only Marine Aviator Awarded the MOH in Vietnam

The Crew of Cherry 6 Was the Most Decorated Helicopter Crew in Vietnam

Major Stephen W Pless USMC. Image via USMC

On 19 August 1967, a US Army Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopter with wounded men aboard was struck by ground fire and forced down on the beach south of Chu Lai in South Vietnam. Four of the crew left the helo to evaluate the damage to the rotorcraft. Suddenly a grenade exploded near the nose of the helo. The pilot lifted the big bird off, leaving the four men on the beach in close contact with a large number of Viet Cong. The pilot radioed immediately on guard that his aircraft was all shot up and he was trying to make for a safer location adding “I still have four men on the ground, the VC are trying to take them prisoner or kill them; God, can somebody help them?” The four men quickly ran out of ammunition and were surrounded. The VC moved in, intent on making the men prisoners. What happened next made Marine Corps history.

CH-47 Chinook. Image via USAF

Stephen Wesley Pless was born on 6 September 1939 in Newnan, Georgia. He attended Decatur High School and then Georgia Military Academy in College Park, graduating in 1957. While attending GMA Pless enlisted in the US Marine Corps Reserve on his 17th birthday. After graduation Pless served as an artillery spotter before attending flight training at Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola in Florida. Pless was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant on 16 September 1959. When Pless graduated from flight training on 20 April 1960 and pinned on his Wings of Gold he was promoted to First Lieutenant and designated a Naval Aviator.

UH-1Es. Image via USMC

Pless then served with several Marine Corps Light Helicopter Transport squadrons including HMR(L)-262 and HMR(L)-264. He also served as Squadron Adjutant at HMM-162. His first tour in Vietnam was with HMM-162 from 1962 to 1963, after which he went back to Pensacola as an instructor with Training Squadron ONE (VT-1) and was Officer in Charge of the Aviation Officer Candidate School (AOCS). After his promotion to Captain in 1964, Pless spent some time at Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Kaneohe Bay in Hawaii before serving as Officer in Charge of and Brigade Air Officer of a Korean Marine Corps unit. On 20 March 1967, Pless became a member of Marine Corps Observation Squadron SIX (VMO-6).

UH-1E. Image via USMC

When Pless first heard the frantic calls for help from the Army Chinook pilot he was flying a VMO-6 Bell UH-1E Iroquois helicopter gunship (callsign Cherry 6) with four men aboard: Captain Pless, co-pilot Captain Rupert E. Fairfield, gunner Gunnery Sergeant Leroy N. Poulson, and crew chief Lance Corporal John G. Phelps. Their assigned mission was medical evacuation escort of several UH-34D Seahorse helicopters. After locating the Army personnel on the beach and observing how many enemy were in the vicinity, Pless began making firing runs on the area, driving the VC back from the wounded men. With no other options available, after checking with his crew and getting a unanimous “Go”, Pless decided to land and retrieve the guys on the beach.

UH-1E. Image via USMC

Pless landed his Huey between the VC positions and the first wounded man he could see. While the UH-1E took heavy incoming fire, Gunny Poulson retrieved the first man. Then Pless lifted off and kept using the helo as a shield between the enemy and the Army wounded, landing near a second wounded man. It took Gunny Poulson, Corporal Phelps, and Captain Fairfield to retrieve him. The first wounded man, Army Staff Sergeant Lawrence H. Allen, was by then firing an M-60 machine gun at the VC who were trying to rush the helo. The crew retrieved a third man and by then one of the Army UH-1Es in the area was making strafing runs around the VMO-6 Huey. Captain Fairfield informed Pless that the fourth man was dead. At that point a South Vietnamese UH-34 landed near Pless to pick up the fourth man on the beach. It was past time for Pless to get going.

USMC UH-1E. Image via USMC

A Huey gunship is loaded down with quite a bit of weight to begin with. With a total of seven men in his UH-1E, Pless was overloaded by a fair margin. Knowing that the Huey must have sustained damage but unable to see any obvious signs of serious damage via his gauges, Pless tried to lift off but could not. Hueys are tough birds, and Pless literally bet the farm that the UH-1E he was flying would bring them back. After the Huey dragged across the beach for about a mile and then tried to settle in the water, bouncing off about four moderate-sized waves, it looked like it was still touch and go. The crew tossed everything that wasn’t bolted down overboard. That did the trick. Poulson and Phelps rendered first aid to the wounded men on their way to the 1st Hospital Company. Pless was later informed 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 back.

L to R- Gunny Poulson, Lance Corporal Phelps, Captain Fairfield, Captain Pless. Image via USMC

The crew of Cherry 6 ere all decorated for their bravery and selfless actions that day on the beach. Captain Pless was presented with the Medal of Honor on 16 January 1969. Captain Fairfield, Gunny Poulson, and Lance Corporal Phelps all received the Navy Cross- making the crew of Cherry 6 the most decorated helicopter crew to serve in Vietnam. Army Sergeant Allen received the Silver Star. After his return from Vietnam in 1967, Captain Pless became the youngest Major in the Marine Corps and went back to Pensacola again as an administrator at AOCS. On 20 July 1969, Major Pless, survivor of 780 combat helicopter missions in Vietnam, died when his motorcycle plunged off the drawbridge portion of the Pensacola Bay Bridge into Pensacola Bay. News of the death of Major Pless, the only Marine Corps Aviator presented with the Medal of Honor for actions in Vietnam, was overshadowed by another event that July day- the landing of Apollo 11 on the surface of the moon.

Collings Foundation UH-1E flown by Pless in combat. Image via author.

The United States Navy honored Major Pless by naming a Maritime Prepositioning ship after him- the SS Maj. Stephen W. Pless (T-AK 3007). The Marine Corps honored Major Pless by naming the Headquarters Building at MCAS Camp Pendleton in California after him. The Jackson-Pless National Guard Armory in Newnan, Georgia honors both of the town’s Medal of Honor recipients- US Air Force Lieutenant Colonel (later Colonel) Joe M. Jackson and US Marine Corps Captain (later Major) Stephen W. Pless. Today, the UH-1E Huey helo flown by Pless and crew as Cherry 6 on their 19 August 1967 mission is displayed at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, Virginia. The Collings Foundation currently operates a former VMO-6 UH-1E Huey in which Pless logged combat time.

SS Maj. Stephen W. Pless (T-AK 3007). Image via Maritime Sealift Command

Awards and Decorations : Stephen Wesley Pless

A complete list of Major Pless’ medals and decorations include the Medal of Honor, the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, 38 Air Medals, the Navy Commendation Medal with valor device, the National Defense Service Medal, the Marine Corps Expeditionary Medal, the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, the Korean Order of Military Merit, the Vietnam Service Medal, and the Vietnam Campaign Medal.

Medal of Honor 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 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. 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 the 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’s 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.

Medal of Honor. Image via US Navy

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Bill Walton

Written by Bill Walton

Bill Walton is a life-long aviation enthusiast and expert in aircraft recognition. As a teenager Bill helped his engineer father build an award-winning T-18 homebuilt airplane in their Wisconsin basement. Bill is a freelance writer, an avid sailor, engineer, announcer, husband, father, uncle, mentor, coach, and Navy veteran. Bill lives north of Houston TX with his wife and son under the approach path to KDWH runway 17R, which means they get to look up at a lot of airplanes. A very good thing.

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