This Day in History: Joe Ronnie Hooper, most decorated soldier in Vietnam

On this day in 1938, a future Medal of Honor recipient is born. Joe Ronnie Hooper would serve in both the Army and the Navy, and he would become one of our nation’s most decorated soldiers.

Those who knew his rough background surely didn’t expect him to become a war hero.

Hooper’s father wasn’t the best role model in life. He couldn’t seem to hold down a job for very long. He went on drunken binges, and he would sometimes leave without warning for weeks at a time. Obviously, this had a bad effect on the younger Hooper. Joe wasn’t a very good student, and he was always getting into trouble.

This tendency didn’t go away after he joined the Navy.

Hooper’s biographer speculates that Joe was trying “doubly hard to compensate for what he considered the failure of his father and brother to act like men. Was it happenstance that Joe relished fighting, excelled at war, concocted legends about himself regarding athletics, and became an inveterate womanizer and heavy drinker?”

Probably not.

Hooper left the Navy when he was almost 21 years old, and his military career appeared to be more or less over. But then his life took an unusual twist.

Not too long after he left the Navy, he found himself working a menial job in a factory. It was more than a high-spirited fellow such as himself could take. He was bored. He needed excitement! He decided to re-enlist in the Navy. In a weird quirk of fate, he arrived at the Navy recruiting office to find the Navy recruiter already gone. Since an Army recruiter was nearby, he joined the Army instead. Within a matter of months, he was training to be a paratrooper.

Perhaps Hooper was more at home in the Army? He would end up serving for years.

By February 1968, Hooper was leading a company of men in Vietnam. They were assaulting a heavily defended enemy position near Hue. The conflict that ensued lasted for hours. Hooper was seemingly everywhere. He stormed enemy bunkers single-handedly. He ran across open fields to pull the wounded to safety. He defended a chaplain who had been wounded. He ran down a trench that ran alongside enemy bunkers, tossing hand grenades as he went and eliminating a threat. When faced with armed enemy combatants, he killed them with a pistol—he even killed one with a bayonet.

He took all of these actions while already injured. In fact, his wounds were being made worse by grenade fragments. He was losing too much blood, yet he simply refused to stop or to be evacuated.

One observer later spoke of what he saw: “Hooper in one day accomplished more than I previously believed could have been done in a month by one man. And he did it all while wounded. It wasn’t just the actual count of positions overrun and enemy killed which was important. . . . [His personal courage] kept everyone going against some of the heaviest fire I have ever encountered.”

Hooper would be awarded the Medal of Honor for his action, and he would become the most decorated soldier in the Vietnam War. Yet he never received the kind of attention received by World War heroes such as Audie Murphy and Alvin York.

Perhaps Hooper himself best understood why. “So many people wanted to forget [the Vietnam War] when I was fighting it,” he observed. “Why would they want to remember us now?”

Maybe so. And yet he was still an American hero, doing what heroes do.

Primary Sources:

  • Editors of the Boston Publishing Company, The Medal of Honor: A History of Service Above and Beyond (2014)
  • Edward F. Murphy, Vietnam Medal of Honor Heroes (2005)
  • Eyewitness Account of Sgt. George Parker
  • Medal of Honor citation (Joe R. Hooper, March 7, 1969)
  • Peter Maslowski & Don Winslow, Looking for a Hero: Staff Sergeant Joe Ronnie Hooper and the Vietnam War (2005).