Major Stephen W. Pless, Medal of Honor recipient who survived 780 combat helicopter missions in Vietnam, was killed, 20 July 1969, when his motorcycle plunged off an open drawbridge into Santa Rosa Sound which separates Pensacola from Pensacola Beach, Florida.
Major Pless was the 18th Marine to receive the Medal of Honor for heroism in Vietnam during August 1967. It was presented to him by President Lyndon B. Johnson in ceremonies held at the White House, 16 January 1969 (Click here to read Maj. Pless' citation).
Stephen Wesley Pless was born 6 September 1939, in Newman, Georgia. He attended Decatur High School at Decatur, Georgia, and graduated from Georgia Military Academy, College Park, Georgia, in 1957.
While at Georgia Military Academy, he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, 6 September 1956, and served with the 1st Motor Transport Battalion, USMCR, Atlanta, Georgia. He received recruit training and advanced combat training at Parris Island, South Carolina, graduating in October 1957. He then served as an Artillery Surveyor, 10th Marine Regiment, 2d Marine Division, until September 1958.
While attending flight training at Pensacola, Florida, he was commissioned a Marine Corps second lieutenant, 16 September 1959. He was promoted to first lieutenant, 16 March 1960, and designated a Naval aviator upon graduation from flight training 20 April 1960.
Lieutenant Pless next served successively as squadron pilot with HMR(L)-262, Marine Aircraft Group 26, at New River, North Carolina; with HMR(L)-264 aboard the USS Boxer; with HMR(L)-264 aboard the USS Wasp, again with HMR(L)-262, Marine Aircraft Group 26, at New River; as Assistant Administrative Officer of HMR(L)-262 aboard the USS Shadwell; and as Squadron Adjutant, HMM-162, Marine Aircraft Group 26, at New River.
Ordered to the Far East in June 1962, he saw duty as Assistant Administrative Officer of HMM-162, MAG-16, in Thailand, and at Da Nang, in the Republic of Vietnam.
Upon his return to the United States in June 1963, he reported to the Naval Air Station, Pensacola, Florida, and served as basic flight instructor, VT-1, and later as Officer in Charge, Aviation Officer Candidate School. He was promoted to captain, 1 July 1964.
After his detachment in April 1966, Captain Pless was assigned duty as Brigade Platoon Commander, 1st Anglico, Marine Corps Air Station, Kaneohe, Hawaii. In August 1966, he became Officer in Charge, ROK 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. He was awarded the Medal of Honor, the Silver Star Medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Purple Heart for wounds received, and 32 Air Medals for his service as Assistant Operations Officer, VMO-6, Marine Aircraft Group 36, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, in the Republic of Vietnam, from 20 March 1967 until 22 September 1967.
Upon his return to the United States, he assumed duties as Administrative Assistant, Officer Candidate School, Naval Air Station, Pensacola, Florida. While serving in that capacity, he was promoted to major, 7 November 1967. He was killed as a result of a motorcycle accident, 20 July 1969.
Major Pless was awarded the Avco-Aviation/Space Writers Association Helicopter Heroism award for his heroic rescue of three wounded American soldiers in Vietnam on 19 August 1967, the action for which he received the Medal of Honor.
A complete list of his medals and decorations include: the Medal of Honor; the Silver Star Medal; the Distinguished Flying Cross; the Bronze Star Medal; the Air Medal with seven Silver Stars and two Gold Stars in lieu of second through 38 awards; the Navy Commendation Medal with Combat V; the Purple Heart; the Marine Corps Expeditionary Medal; the National Defense Service Medal; the Korean Order of Military Merit; the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal; the Vietnam Service Medal; and the Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal.
Major Pless was survived by his wife, the former Jo Ann Smith of Summerdale, Alabama and three children; his father, Mr. Travis B. Pollard of Atlanta, Georgia; his mother, Mrs. Nancy Pless of Miami Beach, Florida; and one brother.
|Gone, but not
forgotten by Marines: Family of Medal of Honor recipient visits Pless
Story by Sgt. Joe Lindsay
MARINE CORPS BASE HAWAII, KANEOHE BAY, Hawaii (Aug. 22, 2003) -- The annals of Marine Corps history are filled with many heroes, and though it would perhaps be unwise to compare their valor and sacrifice, it would be safe to say that Maj. Stephen W. Pless, the first and only Marine aviator to receive the Medal of Honor in Vietnam, was as brave as they come.
Pless, a Newnan, Ga., native, who survived 780 combat helicopter missions in Vietnam, was tragically killed in a motorcycle accident in Pensacola, Fla., on July 20, 1969, just six months after being presented with the Medal of Honor by President Lyndon Baines Johnson at a White House ceremony.
Pless was survived by his pregnant wife, Jo Ann, (who had their fourth child two months after his death); mother, Nancy; and older brother Travis. Also surviving Pless was his first cousin, Ken Ray, who was more like a brother than a cousin to Pless, as the two were often raised together in the same house.
Recently, Ray, a native of Decatur, Ga., and his wife, Dina, a native of Lake Jackson, Texas, visited MCB Hawaii, Kaneohe Bay, to see the installation where Pless was once stationed. They especially were interested in visiting Pless Hall, the building named for Ray's cousin, which now serves as home to the Base Thrift Shop.
"It means an awful lot for me to visit here," said Ray, who now, along with his wife, calls Jackson, Miss., home. "Stephen and I grew up together, and it has always been a dream of mine to visit Kaneohe Bay and see the hall named after him. His memory is very special to our entire family."
That memory is especially strong to Ray's aunt Nancy (Pless's mother). She requested that her nephew come back home with photos of the hall.
"Ever since Stephen's death, the Marine Corps has stayed in touch with Nancy," said Ray. "It just shows that when the Marine Corps says things like 'Once a Marine, Always a Marine,' and 'Semper Fi,' that these are not just catch phrases, but that there is real meaning and merit behind the words.
"The Marine Corps is like a family, and they don't forget their own. That has meant so much to our family over the years."
The Rays recently had twin sons, the oldest (albeit by two minutes) they named Aidan Stephen.
"I never knew Steve, but I've heard so much about him," said Dina, her voice drifting off into tears. "Now that we have a child named after him, his legacy means so much personally to me now.
"I want my sons to know all about him, and what he did for his country," she said.
One place where little Aidan Stephen could learn more about his famous cousin when he gets older would simply be from asking any Marine he might run into, as Pless remains one of Corps' greatest legends.
"In boot camp, we learn about all the heroes of the Marine Corps," said Cpl. Steven Jenkins, a Headquarters Bn., MCB Hawaii, administrative clerk. "Of course, Chesty Puller, Dan Daly and Smedley Butler always jump to a Marine's mind, but Major Stephen Pless is one Marine that always stands out for me.
"For one, he basically went on a suicide mission to save those men in Vietnam," Jenkins explained. "He had to know there was probably no way he was going to survive, but he refused to leave American fighting men behind.
"Somehow he survived and got them all to safety. That's why Marines fight so hard, because they know there are men like Major Pless who've got their backs. That's why Marines are called a brotherhood.
"Major Pless is the poster of what you would want a Marine to be."
Indeed, Pless had a storied military career, Medal of Honor notwithstanding. When he was promoted to the rank of major, Pless became the youngest Marine officer of that rank in the Marine Corps.
Among his medals and ribbons - which are far too numerous to mention in their entirety - are the Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star, Navy Commendation Medal with Combat V and the Purple Heart.
"Stephen started out as an enlisted man, and had great aspirations," said Ray. "He had it in his mind that he was going to be commandant some day. There were no selfish motives behind his dream; he was just a goal setter. He was an inspiration.
"God uses ordinary people to do extraordinary things, and I think Stephen was an example of that," added Ray. "He was my hero long before he became a hero in the war. He always will be."
||President Lyndon B. Johnson presents the Medal of Honor to Maj. Stephen W. Pless during a White House ceremony. Pless was the first, and only, Marine aviator to receive the medal for service during the war in Vietnam.|
||Stephen W. Pless (left) and his brother, Travis, salute the camera in this 1942 photo. Both boys went on to join the military as young men -- more than 20 years later, Stephen would receive the Medal of Honor for heroism during combat in Vietnam.|
|(Left to Right) Lance Cpl. John Phelps, Maj. Stephen W. Pless, Capt. Rupert Fairfield, and Gunnery Sgt. Leroy Poulson, pose for a photo in Da Nang, Vietnam, following their daring rescue mission. Pless was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions, and all other members of his crew received the Navy Cross. Photo by: Official U.S.M.C. Photos from Pless Archives|
|Service members render honors at the funeral of Maj. Stephen W. Pless, the first and only Marine aviator to receive America's highest and most-revered medal -- the Medal or Honor -- for bravery and courage in Vietnam.|
|Barrancas National Cemetery - Pensacola,
This cemetery dates to the 1820's. Originally a small cemetery of
the marine hospital near the Pensacola Navy Yard. Marine hospitals served
the merchant fleets at major seaports. Army and Navy cemeteries operated
separately prior to establishment of National Cemetery in 1868 by
agreement of Secretary of War and Secretary of Navy by direction of
Congress to assure proper curial of civil war casualties. There are three
recipients of the Medal of Honor buried at this national shrine. Army SSgt
Clifford C. Sims' grave is located on the slope of Section 29, north of
the maintenance building. Marine Corps Major Steven W. Pless's
grave is located in Section 21 across from the Marine Memorial Monument.
Navy Lieutenant Clyde E Lassen's grave is located in Section 38. These men
were cited for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk
of his life above and beyond the call of duty, during the Vietnam War. Sgt
Sims was an Airborne Infantry squad leader who sacrificed his life to
protect his men from the blast of a boobytrap. Major Pless was a
Helicopter Gunship Pilot who rescued four stranded and wounded
soldiers who were being overwhelmed by a large Viet Cong force, by flying
through intense enemy fire. Lieutenant Lassen was a pilot of a Search and
Rescue helicopter operating against enemy forces in North Vietnam. He
effected the rescue of two downed aviators by his courageous and daring
actions, determination, and extraordinary airmanship in the face of great
risk and intensified enemy