U.S. Heroes: Backbone of Independence - Accounts of four most decorated war heroes

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Kevin Wallace
  • 100th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
This Sunday will be a day of celebration for all Airmen, civilians and family members as they head up to RAF Feltwell for an annual 4th of July celebration, which is ironic as the date marks 234 years since America declared its independence from England and engaged in war to secure that independence.

Since that day, America and the United Kingdom have forged an alliance key to worldly security.

Looking back over the past two and a half centuries, it's clear that heroes have defined both the nations' paths to greatness. But the 4th of July is one thing that, even here in the U.K., is a true testament to what it means to be American.

This Independence Day, it's important to remember that America's security has always rested on the backs of the men and women willing to sacrifice whatever necessary to defend it.

Following in the footsteps of our Soldier, Sailor and Marine brethren, Airmen stepped up to serve at the tip of the spear, more than 60 years ago.

Airmen have answered their Nation's call and continue to serve with tradition and honor.

In every battle America has seen, heroes have shone as a beacon for others to follow.

Heroes come from every branch of service, rank, race, gender and walk of life.

The memories of military heroes are kept alive when their names are immortalized in cadences and leaders repeat their quotes.

For America's warriors in uniform, it is vital to learn from our fallen heroes and equally vital to remember their contributions.

Below are the stories of four American heroes. Chief Master Sgt. Duane Hackney, Lt. Gen. Lewis 'Chesty' Puller, Boatswain's Mate First Class James Williams and Maj. Audie Murphy are beacons of leadership for their fellow servicemembers to follow.

Each man is the most combat-decorated member of his service. All are heroes and were faithful to their country regardless the cost.

Chief Master Sgt. Duane Hackney

While at basic training at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, during the Vietnam-conflict era, Chief Master Sgt. Duane Hackney chose to pursue a career in pararescue, a choice that continually put him in harm' s way and earned him more than 70 individual awards, including the Air Force Cross.

Chief Hackney graduated from pararescue training as an honor graduate in every phase of the course. For this, he earned the right to pick his first assignment. Instead of choosing a lush assignment stateside or in Europe, far away from the sweltering jungle, he volunteered for Det. 7, 38th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron Da Nang, Vietnam.

Three days after reporting for duty, he flew in his first combat mission. During the mission, he was struck in the leg by a .30-caliber slug. To avoid being grounded, he had a fellow pararescueman remove the bullet on the spot. This selfless act set the tone for his career and he participated in more than 200 combat missions in three and a half years of Vietnam duty.

On his tenth mission, while pulling a wounded Marine pilot aboard his HH-3E 'Jolly Green Giant,' helicopter, Chief Hackney was hit by enemy fire.

His helicopter was shot down five times over the following months, during which he earned four Distinguished Flying Crosses and 18 Air Medals for single acts of heroism.

He received his Air Force Cross while on a mission Feb. 6, 1967. He was the first living enlisted Airman to receive the second highest award for heroism given by the U.S. Air Force.

The dawn of the Feb. 6 mission started like any other. Chief Hackney descended from his Jolly Green Giant to look for a downed pilot near Mu Gia pass, North Vietnam. He searched for two hours, but inclement weather set in and he was forced to return to base.

A few hours later, radio contact with the pilot was re-established and the chief went out again to attempt another rescue. This time, he found the severely wounded pilot.

Chief Hackney safely carried the pilot back to the helicopter to egress the jungle. However, before they could clear enemy air space, the chopper was struck by anti-aircraft artillery and the compartment filled with smoke and fire. The Chief strapped his parachute on the pilot's back and shuffled the pilot out the door.

He then searched the craft for a spare parachute, finding one just prior to a second anti-aircraft shell ripping into the helicopter. Before he could finish buckling the chute, the Jolly Green Giant's fuel line exploded, blasting him out the door without the chute on his back. With the parachute clenched in his arms, he managed to pull the cord before plummeting into the jungle 250 feet below. Though the chute slowed his fall, he still plunged more than 80 feet into a rocky ledge below.

Despite being severely burned and wounded by shrapnel, Chief Hackney managed to evade the enemy and thwarted capture. The heroic rescuer was rescued by a fellow pararescueman and was returned to Da Nang Air Base. When he got back, he learned that he was the only survivor from the mission. Four other crew members and the pilot he rescued were lost in the operation.

For giving up his parachute and risking his own life, he received the Air Force Cross. He was the youngest Airman and the second enlisted member to receive the medal. The first was posthumously awarded to Airman 1st Class William Pitzenbarger, also a pararescueman.

After Vietnam, the chief continued his distinguished Air Force career, and retired in 1991. Two years later he died of a heart attack in his Pennsylvania home. He was 46 years old.

Lt. Gen. Lewis 'Chesty' Puller

Lt. Gen. Lewis 'Chesty' Puller, the most decorated Marine in U.S. history, is one of only two people to receive a Navy Cross, the Navy's second highest decoration, five times.

General Puller earned 52 separate, subsequent and foreign awards in his 37-year career with the Marine Corps.

With five Navy Crosses and a Distinguished Service Cross, the Army's second highest decoration, General Puller received the Nation's second highest military decoration six times.

Prior to his involvement in World War I, General Puller, then an Army sergeant, was accepted into the Virginia Military Institute, Lexington, Va., to pursue a commissioned career in the Army.

As America's involvement in World War I intensified, the sergeant, who was nicknamed 'Chesty' for his barrel chest, resigned from the college and enlisted as a private in the Marine Corps. His reasons were summed up in his quote, "I want to go where the guns are."

After his 1919 re-enlistment, he saw action in Haiti. There, he participated in more than 40 combat engagements over the course of five years.

In 1924, he returned stateside and was commissioned as a second lieutenant. He spent four years at various state-side assignments before returning overseas in 1928, where he earned his first Navy Cross in Nicaragua. He spent a second tour in Nicaragua in 1933 where he earned a second Navy Cross for leading five successive actions against superior numbers of outlaw forces.

General Puller earned three Navy Crosses in World War II. He received one in Guam, Guadalcanal and finally Japan.

On Guadalcanal, for action that is now known as the 'Battle for Henderson Field,'

General Puller's battalion was the only American unit defending an airfield against a regiment-strength Japanese force. In a three-hour firefight that night, his unit sustained 70 casualties while the Japanese lost more than 1,400 and he held the airfield.

General Puller was quoted as saying, "All right, they're on our left, they're on our right, they're in front of us, they're behind us ... they can't get away this time," about the battle.

General Puller earned his fifth Navy Cross in November 1950 during the intense 'Battle of Chosin Reservoir.' During the firefight, then Colonel Puller was quoted as saying, "We've been looking for the enemy for some time now. We've finally found him. We're surrounded. That simplifies things."

In 1966, he requested to be reinstated in the Corps in order to see action in the Vietnam War, but the request was denied on the basis of his age. He died October 11, 1971.

Boatswain's Mate First Class James Williams

Born and raised in South Carolina, Boatswain's Mate First Class James Williams was the most-decorated enlisted man in Navy history.

Petty Officer Williams received a Medal of Honor, Navy Cross, Silver Star, Navy and Marine Corps Medal, Bronze Star, Purple Heart and a Navy Commendation Medal with combat distinguishing device.

The petty officer received the Medal of Honor for his service on the Mekong River in Vietnam on Oct. 31, 1966, while serving as a boat captain and patrol officer.

His vessel and another river-patrol boat were searching for contraband when crewmembers spotted two speedboats. Petty Officer Williams pursued and sunk one of the boats, then turned and went after the second, which was hiding in an eight foot-wide canal in front of a rice paddy.

He knew his boat wouldn't fit in the canal, but after checking a map realized he could pass through a wider canal and intercept the enemy's vessel.

He proceeded with his plan. However, after exiting the canal, he found himself and his crew in a hostile staging area where they came under heavy fire from more enemy boats and North Vietnamese troops on the shore.

U.S. helicopter support eventually arrived so Petty Officer Williams moved his vessel to another enemy boat staging area down river where another fierce battle was under way.

After more than three hours of fighting, his patrol had accounted for the destruction or loss of 65 enemy boats and more than 1,000 enemy troops.

"You gotta stop and think about your shipmates," he said during a 1998 interview with the Navy's All Hands Magazine. "That's what makes you a great person and a great leader - taking care of each other."

Boatswain's Mate First Class James Williams passed away in 1999.

Maj. Audie Murphy

Immediately following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Audie Murphy, a 17 year-old son of poor, rural sharecroppers, tried to enlist in the military, but the services rejected him because he had not yet reached the required age of 18.

Shortly after his eighteenth birthday, Major Murphy tried to enlist in the Marine Corps but was turned down for being too short. Finally, the five-foot-five-inch man was accepted into the Army and was sent to Camp Wolters, Texas, for basic training.

During a close-order drill session, he passed out. Fearing his apparent weaknesses, his company commander tried to have him transferred to a cook and bakers' school, but the private insisted on becoming a combat soldier.

His initial thirst for combat was finally quenched when he was ordered to help liberate Sicily on July 10, 1943. Shortly after arriving, he experienced his first combat encounter and defeated two enemy officers. For this action, his captain promoted him to corporal.

Major Murphy distinguished himself in combat on many occasions while in Italy earning several promotions and decorations.

Following the Italian campaign, Sergeant Murphy's unit was ordered to invade southern France. Shortly thereafter, Sergeant Murphy's best friend was killed while approaching a German soldier feigning surrender. His friend's death sent him into a rage and he single-handedly wiped out the German machine gun crew responsible. He then used the German machine gun and grenades to destroy several nearby enemy positions. For this act, he received a Distinguished Service Cross.

He was awarded a battlefield commission and given a platoon. Twelve days after the promotion, he was shot by a sniper and spent ten weeks recuperating.

When he returned to his unit, Lieutenant Murphy became the company commander and was wounded by mortar rounds that killed two Soldiers near him.

The next day, despite the bitter-cold temperature and more than 24 inches of snow on the ground, his unit entered the battle at Holtzwihr, France. With only 19 of his 128 soldiers engaged, his men seemed doomed. Subsequently, he sent all of his men to the rear while he continued to engage the Germans until he ran out of ammunition.

Without the means to return fire, Lieutenant Murphy looked to an abandoned, burning tank nearby. He secured its .50 caliber machine gun and used it to saw down German infantry at a distance. During the engagement, he destroyed a full squad of German infantry that had crawled in a ditch to within 100 feet of his position. Lieutenant Murphy suffered several leg wounds yet released his fury on the enemy for almost an hour.

Eventually, his telephone line to the artillery fire-direction center was cut by enemy fire. Without the ability to call on artillery, he summoned his remaining men and organized them to conduct a counter attack, which ultimately drove the enemy away from Holtzwihr. These actions earned Lieutenant Murphy the Medal of Honor.

During World War II, Major Murphy was credited with destroying six tanks, killing more than 240 German soldiers, and wounding and capturing many others. By the end of World War II, he was a legend within the 3rd Infantry Division as a result of his heroism and battlefield leadership.

During his career, Major Murphy received 33 U.S. medals, five French medals and one from Belgium.

Despite suffering from insomnia, bouts of depression and nightmares as a result of post-traumatic stress disorder, he raised his hand and volunteered for duty when the Korean conflict broke out in 1950. However, he was never called up for combat duty.

By the time he retired in 1966, he had attained the rank of major. He died May 28, 1971.

These heroes have all since passed away. However, each and every day current servicemembers distinguish themselves honorably in battles far from home. While celebrating Independence Day with British friends, surely many U.S. Airmen here will remember those who have served and continue to serve.

Happy 4th of July!