Major Stephen Wesley Pless was born in Newnan Georgia on September 6, 1939.
Pless served as a UH-1 Iroquois “Huey” helicopter pilot in Vietnam from August 1966 until September 1967.
In addition to earning the Medal of Honor during his tour, Pless was also awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Silver Star medal, the Bronze Star medal, the Air Medal with seven Silver Stars and two Gold Stars, the Navy Commendation Medal with a Combat V, the Purple Heart, the Marine Corps Expeditionary Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, and the Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal.
During his tour, Pless successfully flew 780 combat missions. At the time that he was promoted to the rank of major, Pless was the youngest marine officer to hold that rank. Pless was the 18th marine to receive the Medal of Honor during the course of the Vietnam War, but was the only Marine aviator to do so.
A memorial to Major Pless stands outside the Coweta County Courthouse in Newnan, Georgia.
On January 16, 1969, four days before leaving office, President Lyndon B. Johnson presented with Stephen W. Pless the Medal of Honor at a White House ceremony. Also receiving the Medal of Honor that day was fellow Newnan native Joe M. Jackson, an Air Force pilot who, like Pless, had earned the nation’s highest military decoration for a daring air rescue in Vietnam. Legend states that, upon realizing that both Pless and Jackson were from the same small Georgia town, President Johnson quipped “there must be something in the water down in Newnan.”
The Department of Defense, recognizing the extreme circumstances of the helicopter rescue, awarded all three of Pless’s crewmates decorations. Rupert Fairchild, Leroy Poulson, and John Phelps were each awarded the Navy Cross, the 2nd highest Naval award for valor. The combined crew of four represent the most highly-decorated helicopter crew to fly in the Vietnam War.
After his return from Vietnam, Pless served as a Marine Aviator Flight Instructor. Stephen Pless was killed in a motorcycle accident in Pensacola, Florida on July 20, 1969, just over six months after receiving the nation’s highest award for gallantry in action.
In recent years, the United States Navy has honored Major Pless by naming a Maritime Prepositioning ship after him. In addition, the Jackson-Pless National Guard Armory in Newnan, Georgia honors both of the town’s Medal of Honor recipients.
In recognition of his distinguished military aviation career and love of his country, Major Stephen W. Pless was enshrined into the Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame on April 21, 2012.