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First Name: Stephen

Last Name: Pless

Birthplace: Newnan, GA, USA

Gender: Male

Branch: Marines (present)

Home of Record: Atlanta, GA
Middle Name: Wesley

Date of Birth: 06 September 1939

Date of Death: 20 July 1969

Rank: Major

Years Served: 1956 - 1969
Stephen Wesley Pless

•  Vietnam War (1960 - 1973)


Stephen W. Pless
Major, U.S. Marine Corps
Medal of Honor Recipient
Vietnam War

Major Stephen Wesley Pless (6 September 1939 - 20 July 1969) was a U.S. Marine Corps officer during the Vietnam War. He earned the Medal of Honor as a UH-1 Iroquois "Huey" helicopter pilot for rescuing soldiers trapped by heavy enemy fire.

Pless was born Stephen Wesley Pollard on 6 September 1939, in Newnan, GA. After his parents divorced, his mother Nancy Lassetter Pollard moved to Atlanta and remarried, to Berlin Pless. Stephen was adopted by his stepfather and took the Pless surname. He attended Decatur High School in Decatur before transferring to Georgia Military Academy in College Park, graduating from that school in 1957.

Early Military Service

While a senior at Georgia Military Academy, Pless enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve on 6 September 1956, and served with the 1st Motor Transport Battalion in Atlanta. After graduation, he attended recruit training and advanced combat training at Parris Island, SC, finishing in October 1957. He then served as an artillery surveyor with the 10th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, until September 1958.

While attending flight training at Pensacola, FL, he was commissioned a Second Lieutenant on 16 September 1959. He was promoted to First Lieutenant on 16 March 1960, and designated a naval aviator upon graduation from flight training on 20 April 1960.

Pless next served successively as squadron pilot with HMR(L)-262, Marine Aircraft Group 26 (MAG-26), at New River, NC; with HMR(L)-264 aboard the USS Boxer (CV-21) and later the USS Wasp (CV-18); again with HMR(L)-262, Marine Aircraft Group 26, at New River; as Assistant Administrative Officer of HMR(L)-262 aboard the USS Shadwell (LSD-15); and as Squadron Adjutant, HMM-162, Marine Aircraft Group 26, at New River.

Vietnam War

Ordered to East Asia in June 1962, he saw duty as Assistant Administrative Officer of HMM-162, MAG-26, in Thailand, and at Da Nang, in the Republic of Vietnam. Upon his return to the U.S. in June 1963, he reported to Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida and served as a basic flight instructor, VT-1, and later as Officer in Charge, Aviation Officer Candidate School. He was promoted to Captain on 1 July 1964.

After his detachment in April 1966, Pless was assigned duty as Brigade Platoon Commander, 1st ANGLICO, Marine Corps Air Station Kaneohe Bay, HI. In August 1966, he became Officer in Charge, Republic of Korea Detachment, and later Brigade Air Officer, 1st ANGLICO, Sub-Unit 1, with the 2d Brigade Korean Marine Corps, at Chu Lai, in the Republic of Vietnam. For his service in this capacity, he was awarded a Bronze Star Medal and the Korean Order of Military Merit.

From 20 March to 22 September 1967, Pless served in Vietnam as Assistant Operations Officer, VMO-6, Marine Aircraft Group 36, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing. While serving in that capacity on 19 August 1967, near Quang Nai, he performed the heroic actions for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor.

Medal of Honor

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, Newnan, 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.

Over the course of his time in Vietnam, Pless flew a total of 780 combat missions. He was the only Marine aviator awarded the Medal of Honor in the Vietnam War.

Life After Vietnam

After his return from Vietnam, Pless served as an administrative assistant of Aviation Officer Candidate School at Naval Air Station Pensacola, FL. While serving in that capacity, he was promoted to major on 7 November 1967.

On 16 January 1969, four days before leaving office, President Lyndon B. Johnson presented Major Pless with the Medal of Honor at a White House ceremony. Also receiving the Medal of Honor that day was fellow Newnan, GA, native Joe M. Jackson, an Air Force pilot who, like Pless, had earned the nation's highest military decoration for an air rescue in Vietnam. Legend states that, upon realizing that both Pless and Jackson were from the same small Georgia town, President Johnson quipped "there must be something in the water down in Newnan."

The Department of Defense, recognizing the extreme circumstances of the helicopter rescue, awarded medals to all three of Pless' crewmates. Rupert Fairfield, Leroy Poulson, and John Phelps were each awarded the Navy Cross; the second highest Naval award for valor. The combined crew of four represents the most highly-awarded helicopter crew to fly in the Vietnam War.

Major Stephen Wesley Pless died in a motorcycle accident on 20 July 1969, just over six months after receiving the nation's highest award for gallantry in action. While driving across a drawbridge which connected the city of Pensacola to Pensacola Beach, his motorcycle plunged off the end of the open bridge into the water. The center span of the bridge opened horizontally, and Pless did not realize it was open until it was too late. His body was recovered by divers seven hours later. News of his death was overshadowed by the Apollo 11 moon landing, which occurred the same day.

Medals and Awards

Medal of Honor
Silver Star Medal
Distinguished Flying Cross
Bronze Star Medal
Purple Heart
Air Medal (38)
Navy Commendation Medal with Valor Device
Marine Corps Expeditionary Medal
National Defense Service Medal
Korean Order of Military Merit
Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal
Vietnam Service Medal
Vietnam Campaign Medal


• The U.S. Navy honored Pless by naming a Maritime Prepositioning ship after him.

• Dedicated in the 1970s, the Jackson-Pless National Guard Armory in Newnan, GA honors both of the town's Medal of Honor recipients.

• The Huey helicopter which Pless flew during his Medal of Honor mission is on display at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, VA.

• The Collings Foundation of Stow, MA, currently owns and operates a VMO-6 UH-1E Huey flown by Pless in combat. This aircraft is a sistership to the MOH aircraft on display at Quantico. It is based in Houston, TX with other aircraft of the Collings Foundation Viet Nam Memorial Flight. It is flown at airshows and special events.

Death and Burial

Major Stephen Wesley Pless was killed in a motorcycle accident at Pensacola, FL, on 20 July 1969. He is buried at Barrancas National Cemetery in Pensacola, Escambia County, FL, in
Section 21, Grave 929A.

Honoree ID: 1058   Created by: MHOH




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