Just A Little Walk In The Woods
Most decorated soldier died without any public notice
Taken from the December 1989 Issue #20, Delta Raider Newsletter
Reprinted from the Seattle Times.
Joe Hooper was the most decorated soldier in the Vietnam War, earning more decorations than World War II's Audie Murphy or World War I's Sgt. Alvin York.
But Sgt. York's widow received more media notice when she died earlier this year than Joe Hooper did when he died in May 1979 of a cerebral hemorrhage. And Hooper was local, raised in Eastern Washington and working in Seattle after he got out of the Army. But hardly anyone noticed.
Hooper was just 40 years old when he died in a hotel room in Kentucky, where he had gone to learn about raising race horses. In his own way, Hooper was an appropriate hero for the Vietnam War and the millions of men and women it touched. He was a good soldier, but a troubled civilian.
Hooper had been awarded 35 medals, including the Congressional Medal of Honor, two Silver Stars, six Bronze Stars and eight Purple Hearts. He was credited with killing 115 North Vietnamese, but the number was probably higher. He used to say he could smell the enemy.
Hooper knew that heroes from other wars would be remembered long after him. In 1977, Hooper summed up his fleeting fame and the war in Vietnam.
"It's sort of like the war itself," he said. "So many people wanted to forget it when I was fighting it. Why would they want to remember us now?"
Hooper was raised in Yakima, became a state scoring champion in football and top national runner in high school. But instead of continuing his education, Hooper joined the service. He went into the Navy, but when it came time to re-enlist, the Navy recruiter was out to lunch, so he joined the Army.
It was in the Army with the 101st Airborne Division that Hooper founded his specialty. Hooper could kill enemy solders.
On Feb. 21, 1968, during the Tet offensive and some of the hardest fighting of the war, Staff Sgt. Joe Hooper was leading a recon squad near the northern city of Hue. "We stumbled across what turned out to be the North Vietnamese divisional headquarters," he recalled later. "It was six of us against maybe 140 of them. It was hand to hand and the main battle lasted 6 1/2 hours and it seemed like a long time before other companies got there to help."
"In all we killed 85 and captured 13. I was credited with 22 killed."
When Hooper used to talk about the day for which he won the Congressional Medal of Honor, he told the story matter of factly. The telling wasn't much different than the way it is told on the official citation that went with the award.
Hooper and his men came on a heavily defended North Vietnamese position and were hit by machine-gun fire, rockets and automatic weapons. Hooper was wounded four times, but kept up the attack.
At one point, Company D was coming under enemy fire from four bunkers. Hooper gathered an armful of hand grenades and ran down the line of bunkers, tossing the grenades inside. Then he ran across an open field and rescued a wounded soldier. While rescuing the soldier, Hooper shot three more North Vietnamese officers and set up a defense line before allowing himself to be taken out for treatment.
He was promoted to second lieutenant, went on a worldwide speaking tour and then went back to Vietnam for a second tour. "I went back partly because on my first tour I didn't lose a man," he said, "and with my training and leadership qualities, I thought I could save some lives again."
After his second tour, Hooper went to Fort Polk, La., where he was in charge of basic trainees. But he didn't fit in well with the stateside version of the Army, and he resigned his commission. He returned to Yakima, but found civilian life a bit boring.
"When you retire from guerrilla fighting, it is not something you just walk away from without losing some part of you," he said. "In those days, you lived, almost thrived, on fear. Now there is no fear in my life, and I admit I'm a little flat."
The boredom led to drinking, and that led to other trouble. "Joe was a hell raiser," a friend said, "and he was fast becoming an alcoholic."
But the Medal of Honor society protects its own, and Hooper was brought to Seattle where he got a job with the Veterans Administration as a counselor. He did that for a few years before he became bored again, and wanted to get back into raising horses as he had in Eastern Washington.
Hooper moved to Kentucky to attend school on raising thoroughbreds, and he was going to the Kentucky Derby when he died peacefully in his hotel room on May 4 or 5, 1979. A blood vessel had burst in his head.
His death was not noted by the media until a year later, when a story about local Medal of Honor winners mentioned that he was dead. The only mention before that was in the Medal of Honor Society's newsletter. Hooper was buried in Arlington, VA....near the tomb of the unknown soldier.
Their was some talk of making a movie about him, as was done with Audie Murphy and Alvin York, but the Vietnam war and its soldiers were not popular subjects back then.
When Hooper talked with high school students, the veteran with the most decorations from the Vietnam war would offer this piece of advice about serving in that war:
"I would tell my children, if I were to do this over, 'Go to Canada, don't fight.' Don't fight a war you can't win."
Joe Hooper receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor from President Richard Nixon
Hill 100 | Delta Raiders Overrun Outpost | Infantry, Arty Chew Up NVA Unit
Going Home | Heavy Fighting Near Bastogne | Hill 805, A First Sergeant Remembers
The Introduction | Across The River & Into... | Raiders "Lighten The Load"
You should know Joe Hooper | Most decorated soldier dies | The List
Airborne Trooper Saves Girl | Flashback | Night Sweats | 'Grunt' More Than A Name
Delta Raiders Ambushed Near Firebase Bastogne | To My Dad on Veterans Day
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