Valor Friday

| November 6, 2020

Duane Hackney

Today’s subject comes from a request. Boomer and Poetrooper wanted to hear about Chief Master Sergeant Duane Hackney, the most decorated enlisted man in US Air Force history. Along with Colonel Bud Day, Major Richard Bong, and Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, Chief Hackney can also stake a claim as one of the most decorated American airmen of all time.

Born in 1947, Hackney was born and raised in the Flint, Michigan area. During high school he lettered in football, baseball, and swimming. These sports would lay an excellent groundwork for his later chosen profession.

Graduating high school in 1965, Duane enlisted into the Air Force days later on 18 June. He later joked that he joined the Air Force “on a whim” to “get out of cutting the grass back home.”

Hackney volunteered and completed the arduous training program to become a US Air Force Pararescueman. He claims he volunteered for the job as it was the shortest line at the career counselors when he was at basic training. Commonly known as Pararescue Jumpers (PJs), these are the combat search and rescue (CSAR) airmen who are dropping in to retrieve downed aircrew.

The training for a PJ took about a year (now it’s even longer) and includes Army airborne training, scuba training, medical training, Army Ranger school, and the infamous “goat lab” at Eglin AFB, Florida. That latter one is a test of a person’s skills at lifesaving by plying their trade on a critically wounded live animal.

During the Vietnam War, PJs aided countless aircrews who had gone down in hostile territory. They also famously assisted anyone who called for help. Airman First Class William Pitsenbarger, who we’ve discussed before, was killed in action and earned the Medal of Honor for helping a company of Army 1st Infantry Division soldiers engaged in a bitter fight with the enemy.

It’s been said that even Navy SEALs and Army Green Berets need heroes. When they are on an operation and get wounded, PJs are their heroes and saviors. Anywhere, anytime, and under any condition, the pilots, crews, and PJs will go out to effect a rescue.

Hackney was the honor graduate of his PJ class. That meant he got his pick of assignments. “The top graduates got lucky and could pick Vietnam,” he said. “Others got stuck with Bermuda or England. We all knew where the action was.”

By September 1966, Hackney was in Vietnam. Just a few days after his arrival he conducted his first combat mission. During that mission he was shot in the leg, a .30 caliber bullet lodging in the limb. Not wanting to lose his flight status, he hid the serious injury. A fellow PJ, being trained in combat and trauma medicine, removed the bullet for him.

Duane would ultimately perform more than 200 combat missions in Southeast Asia. Five times he’d have the helicopter he was riding in shot down. He earned a bevy of awards, most of them for individual bravery and not related to the quantity of missions he flew.

On 15 November, 1966 Hackney answered the call for help again. This time it was from a US Navy sailor whose boat had capsized in turbulent seas and near gale force winds. Without hesitation he was dropped into the water. Fighting against Poseidon’s worst, he was able to get to the stranded seaman. With the help of his helicopter crew, Hackney was able to get the man out of the churning surf and back to shore safely.

Hackney received the Airman’s Medal, the Air Force’s highest award for non-combat bravery. The Airman’s Medal is considered the non-combat equivalent of the Air Force Cross.

A man of small build, Hackney was stronger than he looked. At one point a group of Navy SEALs lost a bar bet that Hackney couldn’t beat their champ in one-armed pushups. That strength would come in handy as he dropped into the jungle over and over again.

On 6 February, 1967, two Air Force O-1 Bird Dog aircraft were operating as forward air controllers calling in airstrikes from larger aircraft along the Ho Chi Minh trail. Captain Lucius L. Heiskell and his wingman started to take ground fire. As they took evasive action, an anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) gun opened fire, striking Heiskell’s aircraft. Tearing apart his wing, he steadied the plane long enough to reach an altitude of 1000 feet above ground level and bail out. His wingman watched as the plane crashed, but Heiskell’s ‘chute opened. They called for a search and rescue operation.

As other friendly aircraft arrived in the area, Heiskell came on the air over his rescue radio. He announced that the enemy forces on the ground were after him and he was hiding his parachute. Enemy AAA fire near the crash sight drove his wingman’s Bird Dog from circling overhead. Heiskell transmitted for about four or five minutes before they couldn’t raise him on the radio. The immediate assumption is that the captain was hiding and had turned the radio off.

Two USAF Jolly Green Giant HH-3E rescue helicopters were scrambled. They arrived on station 30 minutes later. Then-Airman Second Class Hackey was the PJ aboard the lead chopper “Jolly Green 05.”

Despite the presence of large numbers of hostile forces and no radio contact with the lost pilot, Hackney volunteered to go down and look for him. Alone on the ground, with hostile forces all around him, Hackney looked for Heiskell. Unable to locate him, Hackney called for the jungle penetrator cable to hoist him out. The helicopters remained until they were forced back to base for fuel.

Later that day, in the afternoon, radio contact was re-established with Captain Heiskell by aircraft circling the area of the crash. Once again, Jolly Green 05 and its covering helicopter “Jolly Green 36” were scrambled.

The weather over the crash area was extremely overcast. Some of the thick clouds were touching the nearby mountains. Unsurprisingly, the fearless airmen of the rescue choppers were undeterred. All four men on Jolly 05 agreed to attempt the rescue knowing the situation on the ground and knowing they would have no covering aircraft. From the ground, Captain Heiskell helped to guide the Jolly Green Giant by voice vector.

Once again, Airman Hackney was dropped into the trees. Heiskell had guided them in like the professional aerial controller he was. In the minimum amount of time on target, Hackney had secured the pilot and himself to the litter and they were ascending through the jungle canopy to board Jolly Green 05.

The big, loud helicopter easily drew the enemy’s attention despite whatever concealment the weather provided. As soon as Hackney and Heiskell were aboard, fire erupted on the helicopter from below. The pilot of Jolly Green 05 Major Patrick Wood and his co-pilot Captain Richard Kibbey looked for a hole in the clouds to ascend. Wood had radioed at 1634 hours they had the downed pilot recovered safely. At 1635 hours, only one minute later, he radioed he’d been hit and the helicopter was on fire.

Inside the stricken airship, Hackney immediately took his parachute and put it on Captain Heiskell in an act of extreme selflessness. “That others may live” is the motto of the PJs, and Hackney demonstrated that by giving up his parachute to the captain. Hackney reached for a spare chute as fire overtook the aircraft.

The helicopter was now a complete inferno. The other aircraft involved in the rescue sortie watched in horror as the fireball that was Jolly Green 05 crashed into the peak of a nearby mountain at a high rate of speed.

Hackney had just slipped his arms through the straps on the chute when the helicopter exploded, throwing him out the open door. Shell shocked, he was able to pull the ripcord just before hitting the jungle’s canopy. He fell an additional 80 feet into a rocky crevasse on the jungle floor.

“I was bending over him [Heiskell] doing a medical evaluation when flak hit us,” Hackney said. “There was smoke and flames everywhere. The survivor reached out for help. I kept my emergency parachute hanging on the forward bulkhead near the left scanner’s window. I grabbed it and helped the survivor put it on. I left the survivor by the crew entrance door and headed aft to find another parachute. I found one hanging by the ramp and began to put it on. That’s when the second burst of flak hit us. There was an explosion and I was thrown backwards—hard. I felt a sharp pain in my left arm. I tried to get my balance and was surprised to see my helicopter flying away from me. I had been blown out the aft ramp of the HH-3. I did not have the parachute completely on yet, and was only a couple of hundred feet above the treetops.”

The crash site drew the enemy’s attention, Hackney watched as North Vietnamese Army troops jumped over the crevasse he’d landed in, mere feet above his head.

The remaining aircraft, including Jolly Green 05’s wingman Jolly Green 36, made a single pass over the crash site. They immediately assessed that there were no survivors and a second pass was unnecessary. As this was unfolding, the already terrible weather was worsening.

The overall commander on scene, in another aircraft, asked Jolly Green 36 to make another pass to make sure that there would be nobody left behind. Jolly Green 36 descended into the clouds and made a 10-minute long low pass of the area of the wreck of Jolly Green 05.

During this closer look, the crew of Jolly Green 36 noted two open parachutes in the area. One about 30 yards from the wreckage, the other 60 yards away.

Suddenly one of the aircraft picked up an emergency beacon signal. It was Hackney. As Jolly Green 36 came over him, he lit a smoke flare and waved his arms. Jolly 36 was able to pull him from the jungle. Hackney had been the parachute furthest from the crash site.

Hackney reported only he and Heiskell were wearing chutes at the time of the crash. Hackney had given Heiskell the best chance of survival and only survived himself by happenstance. Due to the worsening weather, the nature of the crash, and the increasing enemy activity, further recovery attempts were called off.

In shock and burned badly, Hackney’s condition was so dire, he remembers one of the med techs at the hospital remarking that he thought Hackney was already dead.

Hackney would receive the Air Force Cross for his heroism that day, becoming the first living enlisted airman to receive the honor. Major Wood, Captain Kibbey, and Staff Sergeant Hall were listed as missing in action. Wood would also receive the Air Force Cross with Kibbey and Hall both receiving Silver Stars. Hall had previously earned a Silver Star and had conducted more than 100 combat rescue operations.

The remains of the crew of Jolly Green 05 and Captain Heiskell were not recovered until much later. While listed as missing in action, Wood and Kibbey were promoted to colonel, Heiskell to major, and Hall to chief master sergeant.

Colonel Wood’s remains were accounted for in May 2016. Chief Hall’s were identified in September 2017. Colonel Kibbey’s were identified in August 2018. Major Heiskell’s remains are still unaccounted for.

Hackney’s father, a veteran of the Pacific Theater of World War II, earned a Silver Star during the war for kicking a Japanese grenade out of his foxhole and diving on three of his comrades to protect them from the blast. Duane said, “My father told me to keep my head down in Vietnam. While I was [there] in the hospital, I got a letter from dad. He wrote, I told you to keep your head down.”

Hackney wasted no time in recovering from the events of 6 February, 1967. He had an endless supply of work to do and lives to save. Just weeks later, on the night of 22 February, he was already back to duty and answering a call for a SAR mission.

At night and in adverse weather, with inert flares dropping into the helicopter’s flight path, Hackney and his crew flew into Thailand to rescue two downed aviators. Dropping into the downed pilot’s position, he located the injured man, secured him to the hoist, and administered first aid once aboard the helicopter, saving the man’s life.

Hackney received the Distinguished Flying Cross for this night’s action.

A few weeks later, 13 March, two Marine troop transport helicopters had gone down on the side of a mountain. The area the Marines were in was so steep that the HH-3’s 240ft rescue hoist had to be fully extended to reach the ground.

After evacuating all the wounded, Hackney was making his final ascent through the jungle. As he did so, the pilot reported that they were being hit with so much small arms fire that it sounded like popcorn popping.

Once aboard the chopper, while tending to the wounded, one of those rounds found Hackney. Hitting him in the helmet, the bullet knocked him out momentarily. Once he came to he continued on with the important work of setting broken bones, dressing wounds, and applying tourniquets.

Hackney received another DFC for this day’s work, this one with “V” for valor. Before his Vietnam tour would be done in October, Hackney would still display an incredible level of bravery.

On 15 July, 1967, in the pre-dawn hours a total of 83 NVA rockets were launched at the very large Da Nang Air Base where Hackney was based. The attack was a combination of 140mm Russian-made fragmentary munitions and 122mm Chinese-made penetrating rounds were one of the most devastating attacks on the base during the war. Eight people were killed, nearly 200 wounded, and more than 60 aircraft were destroyed or damaged. Much of the damage and carnage was caused by American armaments cooking off in fires.

It’s nor surprising that the now-Airman First Class Hackney was out there saving lives. He went out, during the attack, into the hardest hit part of the base. He’s credited with personally saving the lives of six men during and immediately after the enemy attack. He repeatedly went burning aircraft and exploding ordnance to effect his rescues.

Hackney would receive a Silver Star for his bravery under fire that day. He received the Air Force Cross and the Silver Star at a presentation in September 1967, just before his Vietnam tour ended in October.

Hackney being awarded the Air Force Cross and Purple Heart

Upon his return to the states he was assigned to Hamilton AFB, CA. He was given a heroes welcome home. He appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, as well as on Art Linkletter and Joey Bishop’s shows. His home state put on “Hackney Day” at which he was the guest of honor. He was selected as the Military Airlift Command’s Airman of the Year for 1967. He even got to spend Christmas 1967 in Monaco as the guest of Prince Rainier and Princess Grace!

I still dream of Jeannie. To have her look at me like that…

Duane, now a staff sergeant, returned to another combat tour in Vietnam in 1970. On 7 June, 1970, he was aboard an HH-53 Super Jolly Green Giant helicopter going to the aid of a Marine aviator who had been shot down. These larger aircraft had three pintle mounted GAU-2/A miniguns, which the flight engineers and the PJs would man. That was Hackney’s position as they came into the hostile area where the missing Marine was.

Hackney received yet another Distinguished Flying Cross for the mission, as he had repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire by manning his machine gun. By providing covering fire, he greatly aided the rescue of the downed aviator, helping to save the man from death or capture.

On 9 April, 1971 Hackney was aboard one of three HH-53s that responded to a call for evacuation of four South Vietnamese soldiers in Laos who were surrounded and near to being overrun by the enemy.

One of three PJs on Jolly Green 70, they arrived on station and attempted to lower the jungle penetrator but were turned away by intense enemy ground fire. One of the other PJs, manning the minigun, took out an enemy machine gun emplacement.

Hackney sold the crew on a bold strategy. Hover the helicopter alongside the steep mountain slope and grab the stranded soldiers and pull them into the side door of the helicopter. The three miniguns of the Super Jolly Green blasted out hundreds of rounds as they came into a dangerously low hover.

Airman First Class Ervin Petty (who earned at least three DFCs for his service in Vietnam) straddled Hackney, who stood in the door. Hackney would grab the soldier’s arms and pull them up enough that Petty could grab them and pull them into the helicopter. As they were doing this, the enemy fire intensified. The enemy downed one close air support A-1 airplane.

Hackney’s helicopter got hit. They took a round to the number one engine and into other critical components. Being in the door, Petty and Hackney were tossed out. A PJ on another helicopter saw the men go down. He could see Hackney took a shot to his helmet and that Petty had also been hit to his arm. Hackney was up, but stumbling.

The additional rescue resources on scene were able to get both PJs recovered. Petty had taken a machine gun round to his bicep and was at serious risk of losing his arm. Once they’d stabilized Petty they turned their attention to Hackney. The bullet hole in his helmet didn’t give them a lot of hope. Once they took the helmet off though, they could see that the enemy machine gun round went into the helmet, followed the top of his skull, and exited out the other side of the helmet.

He received a fourth DFC for service in Vietnam, but the details of the citation aren’t immediately available. I would not be the least bit surprised if it was for these actions on 9 April. Before leaving Vietnam he’d earned the Air Force Cross, Silver Star, four Distinguished Flying Crosses (1 w/ “V”), Airman’s Medal, two Purple Hearts, 18 Air Medals, an Air Force Commendation Medal w/ “V”, and three Presidential Unit Citations (the unit-level equivalent of the Air Force Cross).

Hackney returned stateside again. In 1973 he had made technical sergeant and had a line number for master sergeant, but decided to leave the service. Returning home he became a deputy sheriff with the Genesee County Sheriff’s Department in his hometown of Flint.

Missing the travel and camaraderie, he jumped when given the chance to return to the Air Force in 1977, even if doing so meant he came back as an E-4 buck sergeant.

Returning to the PJs, he made rank quickly, getting staff and tech at the first try. He became a PJ instructor and served in Turkey and Grenada with special operations forces. In 1980, while stationed in England he participated in the rescue of two stranded British hikers. Suffering a broken hip and skull from the mission and having a heart attack in 1981 while still in England ended his time as a PJ.

In 1982 he was at Scott AFB in Illinois working in the intelligence division of 23rd Air Force. One day at the soda machine he met a young senior airman, Carole Matlack. The two hit it off and were soon married.

While not a May-December romance, Hackney was 35 to Carole’s 21. Most of his exploits in Vietnam happened when she was too young to remember. In fact, prior to meeting him, she’d never heard of Duane Hackney.

“He did not want a Purple Heart,” said James Scott, a PJ who roomed with Hackney for a while at Da Nang. “He did not want any recognition. He just wanted to pull his share and do his job.” This continued back home. He never talked about Vietnam with his new wife.

While studying for her promotional exam Carole came across descriptions of Duane’s many deeds of valor. That was how she learned about what the man she married had done in the war.

A son was born in 1984. Hackney tired of intelligence work quickly and cross trained into security police, becoming the first sergeant of his squadron at K.I. Sawyer AFB, Michigan. Named First Sergeant of the Year for the 8th Air Force in 1987, he made chief master sergeant not long after. He retired from the Air Force in 1991. During his career he’d earned 28 awards for his combat bravery and more than 70 decorations in all.

The Hackneys built a new home in Pennsylvania and moved there in November 1992. Duane started taking college classes at Lycoming College in Williamsport with the intent to become a nurse anesthetist. He’d attended one semester when he had another heart attack in September 1993. He’d tempted fate too many times and this was to be his final battle. He was only 46.

The funeral home in Flint that hosted his memorial was packed for three straight days as people came to pay their respects. The funeral procession was five miles long.

Category: Air Force, Air Force Cross, Historical, Real Soldiers, Valor, Vietnam

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5th/77th FA

Understandable that a Jolly Green could lift him and those big brass ones Wonder if the pall bearers did weight lifting as a hobby?

BZ and RIP Chief Hackney.

Great write up Mason! Thanks!


Great read.

Old tanker

As Gen Patton said, “Thank God that men like him lived”. RIP Sir you sure as hell earned it.



RIP, CMSgt Hackney.


I met CMS Hackney in 1972. He was a good and humble man. Great sense of humor and a true leader. Rest in peace Sir.



Green Thumb



This cannot be true. No military helo could ever hoist that load of brass. This is a true hero. Never sought the spotlight, just did his job far and above anyone could reasonably expect.


Mason, thanks for a great writeup of a true hero.

RIP, CMS Hackney…


The amount of dust in the air increased when I got to the end. Had to get a few tissues to wipe my eyes dry.


Re the events of 13 Mar 67. Those Marine birds were from Joe Williams’ outfit HMM-163 and unfortunately two young aircrew were lost and their bodies never recovered.

They were on UH-34D #15074 and were PFC Paul W. Harris and LCPL Virgil B. Terwilliger.