Steve Pless, MOH

I had the privilege of meeting Steve’s mother Nancy, GySgt Leroy N. Poulson (Navy Cross) and LCpl John G. Phelps (Navy Cross) in 2004. They are American Heros and I am honoroed to have spent a little time with them.

VMO-6 (Marine Observation Squadron Six)

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.




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  • Michael Pollard

    The first time I remember meeting Steve was when I was 6 years old. He was visiting our home and he was a teenager at GMA at the time. Instead of talking with all the adults he lay on the floor with me and did a “Lassie” coloring book. At that point he became my Hero and has been since. I am honored to have this American Hero as my Cousin. I have also recently rejoined my childhood relationship with Steve’s brother Travis – also an American Hero with 28 years of service in the US Navy.

  • Dr. Dave Gowan

    I knew Maj. Pless in my time in Navy OCS at Pensacola. We were both S. Ga. boys. He was recovering from his injuries, and we talked regularly. He suggested I apply to switch to the USMC platoon Leaders Course. I graduated OCS 20 July ’69, but Pless died in his motorcycle accident on the way to graduation. For years I did not know why he did not attend.

  • Mark Wortsmann

    I am stunned by the bravery and sheer determination of Capt. Pless and his crew. Makes me proud to be an American and very thankful for the freedom we have. I am a Woodward Academy graduate, formerly Georgia Military Academy, where Capt. Pless first started his military career. (Class of 1975). we still had many military traditions when I was at WA. I was a boarding student beginning in 8th grade in 1970. May he rest in peace and all Americans remember the bravery of those who serve!

  • Samantha West

    >The Marine Corps is indeed a small world even for me. I am proud that I have read enough of your history to be able to recognize Stephen Pless in the picture you posted. When I recognize faces in old Marine photos (and some not so old) it’s like seeing old photo’s of my family. What a great family I have!