August 19, 1967. Captain Stephen Pless, co-pilot Rupert Fairfield, Gunnery SGT. Poulson and Lance CPL. Phelps were enroute with their UH-1E Gunship, were speeding along on a emergency med-evac mission in a hotzone of Vietnam. Enroute they received an emergency call on the radio from a transport chopper that was shot up and grounded on a beach making repairs. It was under fire from a number of Viet Cong. The chopper was able to fly off, but four troops were left on the ground, under fire.
Cpt. Pless decided this mission was more important so they rerouted to help the four soldiers. As they neared the mouth of the Song Ka Truc river, they saw several explosions on a beach a mile to the North.
The explosions stopped abruptly and thirty to fifty armed Viet Cong ran from a tree-line onto the beach. As they passed directly over the top of the Viet Cong at an altitude of less than fifty feet, they saw the four American prisoners lying on the sand. One Viet Cong had a rifle and was smashing one of the prisoners in the head. However, another prisoner managed to raise his hand and wave.
Gunnery Sergeant Poulson opened fire with his door gun. As he did, the Viet Cong abandoned the four Americans and ran into a tree-line only thirty meters from the beach. Captain Pless pulled the aircraft to the right and fired fourteen rockets into the mass of Viet Cong. The rockets gone, Captain Pless repeatedly made machine-gun runs, firing into the smoke and through the trees at an altitude so low that the windshield quickly became covered with mud. Although they were receiving intense fire from automatic weapons, the smoke and their low altitude must have prevented them from taking any hits. Their ordnance almost exhausted, Captain Pless transmitted "I'm going land". He flared the aircraft to a spot on the beach directly between the four Americans and the Viet Cong and continued firing from a hovering position. Then he spun the the aircraft around, pointed the nose of the aircraft toward the ocean, and landed, shielding for the four soldiers.
Gunnery Sergeant PoulsonN jumped onto the beach and assisted the only American capable of walking back to the helicopter. Lance Corporal Phelps continued firing at the encroaching VC, and then he, too, jumped from the aircraft to help carry the three remaining men. The VC tried to overrun the Gunship, and got within ten feet of the craft. Pulling out their sidearms, the crew alternated firing and dragging the injured.
Then, running to the fourth man, they failed to detect heartbeat or pulse, and made certain he was dead. He had been badly mutilated and his throat was slashed. From the report of Cpt. Pless:
"At this point, a V.N.A.F. UH-34 landed next to me. Since I knew he would pick up the dead man, I departed to get to a medical facility. The V.C. were still firing at us with automatic weapons, and the only route of departure was over the water. I knew that I was well over the maximum payload for the aircraft; I also thought we had been hit, but had no idea as to the extent of damages. The gauges were all normal, so I could only pray that she was O,K, When I first lifted, it appeared that I had over-committed myself. After about a mile of straightaway and bouncing off the waves four times, I finally started picking up airspeed and built my RPM back up. I jettisoned my rocket pods and told the crew to throw anything else over the side to lighten the load so we could get more airspeed. During the trip, Lance Corporal PHELPS, aided by Gunnery Sergeant POULSON, continued to render first aid to the two most critically wounded men, undoubtedly accounting for the fact that both men were still alive when we reached the 1st Hospital Company.
On Sunday, August 20th, I was informed that my gun and rocket runs had left 20 confirmed killed V.C. on the beach, with an additional 38 estimated killed. I also learned that a round had severed the tail rotor drive shaft and an engine oil line, which should have caused the aircraft to crash during the trip home". S. W. PLESS
Cpt. Pless was promoted to Major in September, 1967, and was awarded the Medal of Honor on January 19, 1969. The rest of his crew, Captain Rupert Fairfield, GySgt Leroy Poulson and LCpl John Phelps were all awarded the Navy Cross.
Major Pless was killed in a motorcycle accident a few months later. He is buried at Barracas National Cmetary at NAS Pensacola Florida.