Joe Ronnie Hooper receives Medal of Honor in White House ceremony on March 7, 1969.

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D.
  • Posted 2/25/2015
  • Essay 11032
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On March 7, 1969, President Richard Nixon (1913-1994) presents the Medal of Honor to Joe Ronnie Hooper (1938-1979) in a ceremony in the East Room of the White House. Hooper joined the navy in 1956 after graduating from Moses Lake High School. He left the navy in 1959 and joined the army. By February 1968 he was a sergeant serving with the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam. On February 21, 1968, near Hue, he was a squad leader when his squad and others from Company D were assaulting a heavily defended position. The American attackers came under withering fire. They were hit with rockets and automatic-weapons fire. Sergeant Hooper led an attack on the fortified position that overran it. He pulled wounded troops to safety and was himself wounded. Hooper engaged in hand-to-hand combat and also destroyed a number of bunkers with hand grenades. Despite his wounds he continued to lead his troops and reorganize their defense. He is awarded the Medal of Honor for these actions.

Farmer, Sailor, Soldier

Joe Ronnie Hooper was born in Piedmont, South Carolina. When he was 6 months old the family moved to Moses Lake in Grant County. His father operated a dairy farm and from a young age Joe Ronnie worked on the farm. He milked cows and did other chores. At Moses Lake High School he starred in football and track.

In 1956 Hooper joined the navy and served as an airman aboard the carriers USS Wasp and USS Hancock. While on aircraft training duty at Fallon Field in Nevada he proved his survival capability. He was in a party searching for a downed pilot in the desert when the group became lost and ran out of water. The officer in charge could not continue or effectively lead. Hooper took over and got the party to safety. In May 1959 he was promoted to Petty Officer Third Class. He left the navy in July 1959. However, he found civilian life boring and not to his liking.

In May 1960 Hooper enlisted in the army as a Private First Class and had basic training at Fort Ord in California. Following advanced infantry training he volunteered for Airborne School at Fort Benning in Georgia. He completed airborne training and was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. While at Fort Bragg he was promoted to corporal. In October 1961 he started a Korea tour and was quickly promoted to sergeant. His Korea duty ended in November 1963. Stateside assignments followed at Fort Hood in Texas and Fort Campbell in Kentucky. In September 1966 he was promoted to staff sergeant. However, he often found himself at odds with the army, had several Article 15 disciplinary hearings, and was reduced in rank to corporal. In November 1967 he was sent to Vietnam with the 101st Airborne Division.

Awarded the Medal of Honor

On February 21, 1968, near Hue, Hooper distinguished himself while serving as a squad leader with Company D, 2d Battalion (Airborne), 501st Infantry, 101st Airborne Division. His company was assaulting a well-fortified position on a river bank when it came under withering fire. Opposing forces hit Company D with rocket, machine gun, and automatic weapons fire.

Sergeant Hooper grabbed several soldiers and together they moved across the river and overran bunkers on the opposite side. This action inspired the remainder of the company to attack the enemy positions. During the attack Hooper recovered wounded soldiers and was wounded himself. He refused medical aid and rejoined the attack. He stormed three bunkers and destroyed them with hand grenades. Leading his squad he destroyed three more defenses. As he was attacking these defensive positions a North Vietnamese officer engaged him in hand-to-hand battle, and Hooper killed him with his bayonet. Still heavy fire came from a house to the front. Alone he charged this defense and destroyed it.

By now Hooper was bleeding profusely from multiple wounds but continued to lead his men. Heavy fire continued from four bunkers on the final defense line. Hooper raced down a trench line connecting the bunkers and tossed grenades into each bunker. He killed all but two men in these defenses. Next, while under fire he raced across an open field to rescue a wounded American. As he reached the wounded man he faced an enemy soldier who he killed. He moved the wounded soldier to safety and neutralized yet another enemy position. He reorganized his unit and they established a secure defense. Hooper refused evacuation until he was certain his troops were well-defended. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his exceptional valor. President Richard Nixon presented him the Medal in a White House ceremony on March 7, 1969.

Combat Accomplishments, Peacetime Difficulties

Staff Sergeant Hooper was discharged in June 1968 and went home to Moses Lake. Again, he found civilian life lacking. One year later he reenlisted and was assigned to Panama. He managed to obtain a second tour in Vietnam despite army policy against Medal of Honor recipients returning to combat. In April 1970 he was in Vietnam serving as a Pathfinder in the 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile). He gained a reputation for his ability to locate enemy forces. In December of that year he was made a platoon sergeant and then received a direct commission to second lieutenant.

Hooper left Vietnam in April 1971 as possibly the most decorated soldier of that war with 37 medals, two less than Audie Murphy's (1925-1971) World War II record. His medals included the Medal of Honor, Silver Star with oak leaf cluster, Bronze Star with Valor and five oak leaf clusters, Air Medal, and Purple Heart with seven oak leaf clusters. Hooper returned to stateside duty attending the Infantry Officer Course at Fort Benning. After this course he became an instructor at Fort Polk in Louisiana. The army encouraged and provided him the opportunity to complete college work. When he failed to do this the army released him in February 1974.

That year Hooper went work for the Veterans Administration in Seattle assisting veterans in obtaining home loans and benefits. He joined the Army Reserve and was promoted to captain in 1977. Given his poor Army Reserve attendance record he was released in 1978. His life was troubled by excessive alcohol consumption and an inability to adjust to civilian life. Other Medal of Honor recipients in the Seattle and Fort Lewis area frequently tried to help him. Hooper hoped for peace with horse breeding. He owned twelve thoroughbreds. This interest led him to the Kentucky Derby in 1979. While at the Derby he died of a cerebral hemorrhage in his hotel room. His heavy drinking probably contributed to his death at the age of 40. He was unable to survive peace. Joe Ronnie Hooper was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Joe Ronnie Hooper remained little-known for years following his death. In 1974 there had been plans to make a film depicting his life but the planned movie never happened. However, in 1991 the American Legion post in Moses Lake was named the Joe R. Hooper American Legion Post 209 in honor of the hometown hero. In 2005 the University of Nebraska press published a biography titled Looking for a Hero: Staff Sergeant Joe Ronnie Hooper and the Vietnam War.

Sources: Donald K. and Helen L. Ross, Washington State Men of Valor (Burley, Washington: Coffee Break Press, 1980); "Nixon Gives Medal of Honor to Three War Heroes," Oregonian, March 8, 1969, p. 6; James D. Snyder, "Our Most Decorated Serviceman," Ibid., November 16, 1969, p. 193; "V.A. Names Much-Honored Seattle Man," The Seattle Times, May 5, 1974, p. 16; "Joe Hooper: Forgotten Hero in a Forgotten War," Ibid., September 25, 1977, p. 15; Rick Anderson, "No Headlines for Hero," Ibid., May 25, 1980, p. 41; Peter Maslowski and Don Winslow, Looking for a Hero: Staff Sergeant Joe Ronnie Hooper and the Vietnam War (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska, 2005).

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