Valor Friday

| January 8, 2021

This is Part II in a continuing series exploring just who is the “Most Decorated”. Part I can be found here from last week. We worked our way up through the Second World War. Things get a bit difficult after that.

The Korean War happened just after World War II. Many of those decorated during the Korean War already had decorations from WWII. Vietnam started just more than a decade after the Korean War. Unlike most other conflicts, with the Cold War raging, there was not a massive drawdown of personnel after Korea. Therefore, many of those with a proven record of exceptional combat performance were able to remain in the service and participate in the later conflict in Vietnam.

Without spending an excessive amount of time going through each man’s award citations and counting which happened in which war, I cannot separate the most decorated during the Korean War and limit the list to only that conflict.

Therefore, the list will include those who were also decorated for either WWII, Vietnam, or both.

Korean War

Colonel Hackworth

The most decorated man and the Army’s most decorated officer – Colonel David Hackworth of the US Army began his lengthy career as an infantryman in post-WWII Army service in Europe’s occupation forces. When the Korean War started, he was an enlisted man in the 25th Infantry Division. Receiving a battlefield commission he earned three Silver Stars and three Purple Hearts before the war’s conclusion. He then deployed to Vietnam where he led a unit that employed guerrilla tactics against the Viet Cong. He would earn a Distinguished Service Cross, seven more Silver Stars (10 total), a Distinguished Flying Cross, eight Bronze Star Medals w/ “V”, five more Purple Hearts (8 total), 34 Air Medals, and Army Commendation Medals w/ “V”.

Colonel Burke

The most decorated Army officer for actions just in Korea seems to be Lloyd Burke. He’s enlisted during WWII and served as a combat engineer in Italy. After the war he returned to college and commissioned through ROTC in 1950. In Korea he’d earn the Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross, and two Purple Hearts. He continued his service into Vietnam, earning two more Purple Hearts and two Bronze Star Medals w/ “V”.

Ben Wilson

Army enlisted – Benjamin Wilson enlisted in 1940. He was at Schoffield Barracks in Hawaii during the opening salvos of World War II. Commissioning in 1943 he left the Army after the war but returned several months later. During the post-war drawdown there was no room for him as an officer, so he returned to the enlisted ranks as a private. By the time of the Korean War, he was a first sergeant. It was in that role that he would be recommended twice for the Medal of Honor for two separate events on two separate, but consecutive, days. His heroics for the first day would earn him the medal while the recommendation for the second would be downgraded to a Distinguished Service Cross. He would be commissioned again shortly after his medal-earning heroics.

Navy most decorated – Rear Admiral James Linder (discussed in Part I) takes the spot here.

Air Force most decorated – Colonel Ralph Parr (discussed in Part I) takes this slot.

Col Reusser

USMC’s most decorated officer – Colonel Kenneth L. Reusser earned a Navy Cross as a naval aviator in the Pacific Theater during WWII. He earned another Navy Cross and was the first Marine decorated for gallantry in Korea. His service continued to Vietnam where his helicopter was shot down, requiring extensive skin grafts. In addition to his two Navy Crosses, Colonel Reusser has two Distinguished Flying Crosses, a Bronze Star Medal w/ “V”, five Purple Hearts, and 18 Air Medals.

Stanley Wawrzyniak

USMC’s most decorated enlisted Marine – Stanley J. Wawrzyniak would eventually be commissioned and retire as a lieutenant colonel. During the Korean War though he was an enlisted Marine when he earned two Navy Crosses, a Silver Star, and two Purple Hearts (both for severe injuries during his Navy Cross-earning battles). After commissioning he would serve in Vietnam and earn two Bronze Star Medals w/ “V”.

We now move onto the Vietnam War. Here, again, there is quite a bit of overlap with previous conflicts, but there are also several standouts whose only exploits were in Southeast Asia.

We’ve already talked about Major General Patrick Brady, who is the most decorated American officer, Army officer, Army man, and American of the war. Let’s look at some others. Colonel Hackworth is a very, very close second. He comes in only three points behind Brady.

Joe Hooper – He might be the most crazy looking MoH recipient ever

Army most decorated enlisted man – Though he was eventually given a commission and retired as a captain, Joe Hooper was the Army’s most decorated enlisted soldier of the war. Originally in the Navy from ‘56-59, Hooper enlisted with the Army in 1961. He rose to the rank of staff sergeant by 1966, but was in trouble and got busted down to corporal after several Article 15s. He finally got his wish to see the jungles of Vietnam in 1967 with the 101st Airborne Division. He eventually served multiple tours in Vietnam and was direct commissioned towards the end of the war. As an NCO though he earned the Medal of Honor, two Silver Stars, six Bronze Star Medals w/ “V”, eight Purple Hearts, five Air Medals, and two Army Commendation Medals w/ “V”.

Robin Olds

Air Force most decorated officer – Brigadier General Robin Olds, he who wore the most epic ‘stache of Vietnam, is the Air Force’s most decorated man of Vietnam. He began his career in the Army Air Forces in World War II, flying to ace status in both the P-38 (5 confirmed kills) and P-51 (8 confirmed kills), the only man to do so. During that war he earned two Silver Stars and two Distinguished Flying Crosses. Missing the Korean War, he again sought glory in the skies over Vietnam. Flying an F-4 Phantom II he shot down four MiGs, becoming a triple ace. In Vietnam he earned an Air Force Cross, two more Silver Stars (4 total), four more Distinguished Flying Crosses (six overall), and a grand total of 40 Air Medals.

James Kasler

A close second candidate for the title is Colonel James Kasler. One of the first jet aces of the Korean War, Kasler would fly 97 combat missions in Vietnam before being shot down in 1966. He would be a POW for six and a half years. During his service he earned three Air Force Crosses (the only man to ever do so), two Silver Stars, a Legion of Merit, nine Distinguished Service Crosses, two Bronze Star Medals, two Purple Hearts, and 11 Air Medals.

Air Force most decorated enlisted man – Duane Hackney, who we talked about as the Air Force’s most decorated enlisted man of all time, conducted all of his incredible feats of courage in Vietnam.

James Stockdale

Navy most decorated officer – Vice Admiral James Stockdale is the Navy’s top scoring officer of the war. He missed World War II since he was attending the US Naval Academy, then missed Korea because he was receiving aviation training and then test pilot training. In the early days of the war, flying over Vietnam in 1965, he was shot down. As a commander he was the highest ranking naval officer held in North Vietnam as a POW. For nearly eight years he was subject to daily torture and severe isolation (after repeatedly fighting against his captors). For his leadership, courage, and perseverance as a POW he was awarded the Medal of Honor, two Navy Distinguished Service Medals, four Silver Stars, a Legion of Merit w/ “V”, two Distinguished Flying Crosses (for action before becoming a prisoner), two Bronze Star Medals w/ “V”, two Purple Hearts, and 10 Air Medals.

The Navy’s most decorated enlisted man is the already discussed Petty Officer First Class Willie Williams who conducted his feats of courage in a span of just a single year, earning all of the country’s awards for valor (both in and out of combat).

Stephen Pless

USMC Officer – Major Stephen Pless is the Corps’ most decorated officer of the war. Enlisting in 1956 he was commissioned while undergoing naval aviator training in 1960. He first saw Vietnam in 1962, then again in 1966 while serving with the Corps’ elite ANGLICO units. He earned a Bronze Star Medal on the latter tour. In Vietnam again in 1967 he earned the Medal of Honor, Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross, Purple Heart, and 32 Air Medals (to join an earlier six for 38 overall). He was the only Marine aviator to receive the Medal of Honor in Vietnam. Tragically he died in a motorcycle accident on July 20, 1969. His death was greatly overshadowed by the news of the Apollo 11 moon landing on the same day.

Jimmie Howard

USMC Enlisted – Jimmie Howard enlisted into the Corps in July 1950, days after the start of the Korean War. He’d eventually be assigned duty in Korea in 1952 where he’d earn the Silver Star and two Purple Hearts. In 1966 Howard was leading a platoon of 15 Marines and two corpsmen atop Hill 488 in Vietnam in an observation post. Within days the Viet Cong attacked with a battalion-sized force of at least 300 men. Over the next 12 hours of combat, despite being wounded himself, Howard led his men on a valiant defense of their position. By daybreak 200 enemy lay dead to just six of his men lost. Howard would be awarded the Medal of Honor and another Purple Heart. His men would earn four Navy Crosses and 13 Silver Stars for their bravery during the battle.

Join me next week as we look at the post-Vietnam award recipients.

Category: Air Force, Army, Historical, Marine Corps, Navy, We Remember

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sgt. vaarkman 27-48thTFW

Col. Bud Day USAF Vietnam also highly decorated


Heroes, one and all! “…that such men lived…”

Battalion Gun Salute…PREPARE…FIRE!!!

Great write up, Thanks Mason!