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Sunday, August 24, 2003
Gone, but not forgotten by Marines: Family of Medal of Honor recipient visits Pless Hall
Submitted by: MCB Hawaii
Story Identification Number: 2003822171857
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."
Photos included with story:
UNITED STATES MARINE CORPS
for service as set forth in the following
MAJOR STEPHEN W. PLESS
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving as a helicopter gunship pilot attached to Marine Observation Squadron Six in action against enemy forces near Quang Ngai, Republic of Vietnam, on 19 August 1967.
During an escort mission Major (then Captain) Pless monitored an emergency call that four American soldiers stranded on a nearby beach, were being overwhelmed by a large Viet Cong force. Major Pless flew to the scene and found 30 to 50 enemy soldiers in the open. Some of the enemy were bayoneting and beating the downed Americans. Major Pless displayed exceptional airmanship as he launched a devastating attack against the enemy force, killing or wounding many of the enemy and driving the remainder back into a treeline. His rocket and machine gun attacks were made at such low levels that the aircraft flew through debris created by explosions from its rockets.
Seeing one of the wounded soldiers gesture for assistance, he maneuvered his helicopter into a position between the wounded men and the enemy, providing a shield which permitted his crew to retrieve the wounded. During the rescue the enemy directed intense fire at the helicopter and rushed the aircraft again and again, closing to within a few feet before being beaten back. When the wounded men were aboard, Major Pless maneuvered the helicopter out to sea. Before it became safely airborne, the overloaded aircraft settled four times into the water.
Displaying superb airmanship, he finally got the helicopter aloft. Major Pless' extraordinary heroism coupled with his outstanding flying skill prevented the annihilation of the tiny force. His courageous actions reflect great credit upon himself and uphold the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.
/S/ LYNDON B. JOHNSON
Text version of story is attached below:
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