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November 1, 2023

Profiles of Valor: SSG Joe Hooper (USA)

Joe was an Army of one, the most highly decorated American who served in Vietnam.

Joe Hooper was born in Piedmont, South Carolina, and would become both a Navy and highly decorated Army veteran.

He enlisted in the Navy in 1956 at age 18. After graduating boot camp in San Diego, he served aboard the USS Wasp and USS Hancock. He was honorably discharged in 1959 as a Petty Officer Third Class, and then switched service branches, enlisting in the Army in 1960. Graduating Basic at Fort Benning, he was assigned to Company C, 1st Airborne Battle Group, 325th Infantry, 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg.

He served a tour in Korea, where he was promoted to Sergeant as a squad leader. After Korea he was assigned to the 2nd Armored Division at Fort Hood and then the 502nd Infantry, 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell. He volunteered to serve in Vietnam in 1966 but was sent to Panama with the 3rd Battalion (Airborne), 508th Infantry.

Hooper was a renegade who faced several Article 15 hearings, and in July 1967 his rank was reduced to Corporal. But once back at Fort Campbell, his commanding officers, recognizing his strengths, restored his promotion to Staff Sergeant. After he again volunteered to serve in Vietnam, he finally deployed with Delta Company (Delta Raiders), 2nd Battalion, 501st Airborne Infantry in October 1967.

Hooper was on his second tour of duty in Vietnam during the 1968 Tet Offensive. He was a 29-year-old when he earned his Medal of Honor, only months after his deployment. Over the course of seven hours on February 21, 1968, during the Battle of Huế, he repeatedly displayed extraordinary heroic actions to protect his fellow soldiers.

He returned home for the presentation of that medal by President Richard Nixon on March 7, 1969.

His citation notes:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. S/Sgt. (then Sgt.) Hooper, U.S. Army, distinguished himself while serving as squad leader with Company D. Company D was assaulting a heavily defended enemy position along a river bank when it encountered a withering hail of fire from rockets, machine guns, and automatic weapons. S/Sgt. Hooper rallied several men and stormed across the river, overrunning several bunkers on the opposite shore. Thus inspired, the rest of the company moved to the attack. With utter disregard for his own safety, he moved out under the intense fire again and pulled back the wounded, moving them to safety. During this act S/Sgt. Hooper was seriously wounded, but he refused medical aid and returned to his men. With the relentless enemy fire disrupting the attack, he single-handedly stormed three enemy bunkers, destroying them with hand grenades and rifle fire, and shot two enemy soldiers who had attacked and wounded the chaplain. Leading his men forward in a sweep of the area, S/Sgt. Hooper destroyed three buildings housing enemy riflemen. At this point he was attacked by a North Vietnamese officer whom he fatally wounded with his bayonet. Finding his men under heavy fire from a house to the front, he proceeded alone to the building, killing its occupants with rifle fire and grenades. By now his initial body wound had been compounded by grenade fragments, yet despite the multiple wounds and loss of blood, he continued to lead his men against the intense enemy fire. As his squad reached the final line of enemy resistance, it received devastating fire from four bunkers in line on its left flank. S/Sgt. Hooper gathered several hand grenades and raced down a small trench which ran the length of the bunker line, tossing grenades into each bunker as he passed by, killing all but two of the occupants. With these positions destroyed, he concentrated on the last bunkers facing his men, destroying the first with an incendiary grenade and neutralizing two more by rifle fire. He then raced across an open field, still under enemy fire, to rescue a wounded man who was trapped in a trench. Upon reaching the man, he was faced by an armed enemy soldier whom he killed with a pistol. Moving his comrade to safety and returning to his men, he neutralized the final pocket of enemy resistance by fatally wounding three North Vietnamese officers with rifle fire. S/Sgt. Hooper then established a final line and reorganized his men, not accepting treatment until this was accomplished and not consenting to evacuation until the following morning. His supreme valor, inspiring leadership, and heroic self-sacrifice were directly responsible for the company’s success and provided a lasting example in personal courage for every man on the field. S/Sgt. Hooper’s actions were in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself and the U.S. Army.

Hooper would become the most decorated American serving in Vietnam, following in the tradition of 1LT Audie Murphy in World War II. In additional to his Medal of Honor, Joe earned two Silver Stars, six Bronze Stars, eight Purple Hearts, the Presidential Unit Citation, the Vietnam Service Medal with six campaign stars, and the Combat Infantryman Badge. He was one of three soldiers wounded in action eight times during the war. He is credited with 115 enemy killed in ground combat, 22 of which occurred on February 21, 1968.

In April 1970, he managed to convince his superiors to give him another tour in Vietnam, where he served as a pathfinder with the 101st Aviation Group, 101st Airborne Division, and then with Company A, 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry as a platoon sergeant. He was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in December 1970 and served the remainder of his tour with Company A, 2nd Battalion, 501st Infantry until April 1971. Despite his effort to get in 20 years, because he had completed only a few college courses, he was retired in 1974 but served in the Army Reserves until 1978, attaining the rank of Captain.

Distressed with the treatment of Vietnam vets after his return, and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Joe compensated with alcohol addiction. He died in 1979 at the age of 40.

Joe Hooper, your example of valor — an American Patriot defending Liberty for all and your fellow warriors at great risk to yourself — is eternal.

Semper Vigilans Fortis Paratus et Fidelis
Pro Deo et Libertate — 1776

“Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one’s life for his friends.” (John 15:13)

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