Windham: Huey pilot Pless served country well

October 16, 2013 

Night after night, for the first time in American history, we saw war on our televisions. It was the era of the Vietnam War.

I remember it well being in high school and college. I had friends who fought there. I had friends who flew the most recognized aircraft of the war, the Huey helicopter, or UH-1 Iroquois.

The Huey was the centerpiece of air operations during the Vietnam War. There were more than 5,000 of these choppers that were used in Southeast Asia. The U.S. started using them there in 1962. The UH-1 did everything from being a gunship with machine guns and rockets doing command missions, air assaults, to medical evacuations and carrying personnel and materiel.

At the Museum of Aviation, we have a Huey on display in the back of the Southeast Asia Hangar. It is representative of the 16,000 Hueys that were produced and used all through the Cold War era into the present. Robins Air Force Base provides support for the U.S. Air Force UH-1s worldwide.

That brings me to a story of a young Marine who flew the Huey in Vietnam. It is stories like this that can inspire us all to go beyond what is asked of us to help our fellow man.

Stephen Pless was born in Newnan. He enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserves in 1956. By 1960, he had become a naval navigator. Pless served several tours of duty in Vietnam. With more than 780 combat missions, he was highly decorated for distinguished service, having been awarded the Purple Heart, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Silver Star and 32 Air Medals.

He became the only Marine pilot awarded the Medal of Honor in the Vietnam War. Pless received this high honor for his role in saving American soldiers who were surrounded on a beach by a large force of Viet Cong.

He was on another mission, but heard an emergency call for help from the crew of a downed U.S. Army helicopter. He flew over the scene and saw that the four soldiers were being overwhelmed by the enemy.

He drove off the enemy with machine gun and rocket fire from his Huey gunship. Then, seeing a soldier wave for help, Pless went into action and placed his Huey on the ground between the Viet Cong and our soldiers. His crew was able to retrieve the wounded. After taking on enemy fire, Pless lifted off, but the weight of the helicopter caused it to dip into the water four times. Pless finally got the Huey into the air and flew the men to safety.

On Jan. 16, 1969, President Lyndon B. Johnson presented Maj. Pless and another Newnan resident, Lt. Col. Joe Jackson, who flew a C-123 in Vietnam, the Medal of Honor.

As fate would have it, later that year on July 20, Pless was killed in Pensacola, Fla. He was riding his motorcycle over a drawbridge, not knowing it was open, he plunged into the water. His body was later recovered.

In 2012, Pless was inducted into the Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame, which is located at the Museum of Aviation. The Huey that Pless flew is on exhibit at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, Va.

Marilyn N. Windham, of Fort Valley, is a volunteer at the Museum of Aviation. Contact her at mnwindham@aol.com.

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