Although every American who has served in the United States military is a hero in their own right, there are those who stand out for their acts of valor and bravery in the face of danger. Although not all are as recognized as others for their deeds, the United States government does the best they can to honor and give thanks to particular soldiers who rose beyond the call of duty. Here are some of the highest-decorated servicemen in American history, and the stories that separate them from the rest.
Boatswain’s Mate First Class James "Willie" Williams
A Cherokee Indian, James Elliot Williams was born in Fort Mill, South Carolina, in 1930. He went on to join the United States Navy in 1947 when he was just 16 years old. His first chance at active-duty came just three years later when he served in the Korean War on the USS Douglas H. Fox.
There, he led small boats to perform raiding parties on the shores of North Korea. After his service in Korea, in 1966, Williams was deployed to Vietnam, where he commanded River Patrol Boat 105, assigned with fighting Viet Cong soldiers and arms shipments.
He Was Ambushed On The Water
During a pursuit of an enemy watercraft, Williams and his men were led into a surprise attack in which the Viet Cong outnumbered them three to one. However, after an extensive three-hour bloody battle, Williams led his crew to victory resulting in the deaths of over 1,000 Viet Cong and the destruction of more than 60 enemy vessels.
For this, he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in this battle. On top of this, over the course of his career, he earned every level of valor award, making him the most decorated sailor in US Naval history.
Major Audie Murphy
Born in 1925 in Kingston, Texas, Audie Leon Murphy was one of 12 children born to an Irish-American sharecropper family. Unfortunately, his father abandoned his family when he was just a boy, and his mother passed away when he was a teenager.
Because of this, Murphy was forced to leave school and take up work picking cotton. In 1942, at the age of 17, Murphy falsified his age and joined the United States Army for a chance at a better life.
War Hero Turned Film Star
In July 1943, Murphy took part in the seaborne invasion of Sicily, although he ended up landing in mainland Italy. There, he was awarded a Bronze Star after taking out an enemy tank in March 1944. He then went on to join in the invasion of France, where he was distinguished with a Medal of Honor for his bravery, repelling a German attack while wounded.
By the end of the war, he had obtained every American bravery award then available. He was also granted several foreign awards from the French and Belgians. He then returned home and became a movie star.
Lieutenant General Lewis “Chesty” Puller
Lewis Burwell "Chesty" Puller was born in West Point, Virginia, in 1898. In 1918, he joined up with the United States Marines with the intention of serving in France during World War I. Unfortunately for Puller, the war ended just before he could land in Europe.
However, he did serve during the United States occupation of Haiti and Nicaragua, where he would demonstrate his bravery in battle. There, he earned a Navy Cross in 1930 and a second Navy Cross in 1932.
He Was In Command Of The First Batallion Marines
Upon the outbreak of World War II, Puller was then in command of the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines. He was then sent to Samoa in the Pacific Theater and eventually to the harsh fighting at Guadalcanal. There, he earned his third Navy Cross for defending an airfield from a Japanese attack and a subsequent fourth Navy Cross for his heroism in battle once again.
After World War II, he continued his service fighting in the Korean War, where he earned a Distinguished Service Cross and another Navy Cross fighting at the Chosin Reservoir where he oversaw the defenses that were under attack for five days.
Colonel Edward V. Rickenbacker
Born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1880, Rickenbacker was a race car driver before joining the United States Army in 1917 when America entered World War I. He was sent to France with the rank of sergeant with the desire to fly planes.
However, his lack of formal occupation didn’t allow it, as he was forced to drop out of school when he was just 13 after his father had died. Instead, he was consigned as a staff driver. However, this would all change when he met Col. Billy Mitchell, an aviation pioneer, who saw him reassigned to the new Army Air Corps.
An Ace Of Aces
Rickenbacker took out his first enemy aircraft on April 29, 1918, with many more to come. Within his first month flying, he shot down five German planes, making him an “Ace” in the Air Force, also earning him the French Croix de Guerre.
In just nine months, he shot down a total of 26 enemy planes where he became an “Ace of Aces,” simultaneously earning him the Distinguished Service Cross on seven occasions. Furthermore, he also received the Medal of Honor, making him one of the most decorated American in World War One and a legend in the Air Force.
Sergeant Major Daniel "Dan" Daly
Daniel Joseph “Dan” Daly was born in Glen Cove, New York in 1873. As a young man, he joined the United States Marine Corps in 1899, and just one year later was sent to China.
There, he fought in what is known as the Boxer Rebellion, a conflict in which Chinese citizens rose up against the spread of Western and Japanese influences. In one engagement, Daly held a critical defensive position, in which he repelled numerous attacks, killing over 200 enemies. For this, he earned his first Medal of Honor.
One Medal Of Honor Down, One To Go
In 1915, while fighting rebels in Haiti at the Battle of Fort Diptite, Daly’s unit was ambushed a much larger force of Haitian rebels. Although they were heavily outnumbered, Daly managed to fight his way through the chaos and return his men to safety. This earned him his second Medal of Honor.
Furthermore, he went on to fight in World War I during the horrific battle Belleau Wood in France in 1918 and was awarded a Navy Cross for his bravery. To this day, he is one of two soldiers to have earned two Medals of Honors during separate conflicts.
Colonel David H. Hackworth
Born in 1930, at the age of 15, David Hackworth served on a Merchant Marine ship until joining the US Army, using forged Marine documents where he served as a rifleman in Italy.
However, upon returning to the United States, he volunteered his service again, fighting in the Korean War, eventually volunteering for a second term. At age 20, he was the youngest captain in the Korean War where he won three Silver Stars for his bravery.
The Patton Of Vietnam
When the Vietnam War started, Hackworth volunteered yet again and was sent into the war zone. It was there that he founded a unit called Tiger Force, designed to fight against the North Vietnamese fighting style of guerrilla warfare. he was regarded for hos effective methods although they are noted for being regarded as unconventional at times.
By the end of the Vietnam War, Hackworth was credited with eliminating more than 2,500 enemies while losing only 25 men under his own command. In his years of service, he received two Distinguished Service Crosses, 10 Silver Stars, 8 Bronze Stars, and 8 Purple Hearts.
Lieutenant General James F. Hollingsworth
James Hollingsworth began his career in the United States Army in 1940 shortly after graduating from Texas A&M University. He served overseas in World War II where he participated in seven major campaigns ranging from North Africa to the occupation of Berlin.
When he was just 26, he was placed in command of an armored regiment which was greatly involved in the Allied invasion of Europe, mostly in Germany.
During the Vietnam War, Hollingsworth became well-known by his radio call sign "Danger 79er." He is credited as the commander who led the victory at the Battle of An Loc, a relentless 66-day battle that proved to be a huge victory for South Vietnam.
For his numerous years of service and wars fought, he was awarded four Distinguished Service Medals, four Silver Stars, four Bronze Stars, three Distinguished Flying Crosses, three Legion Merits, the Soldiers Medal, and six Purple Hearts. He also went on to become the commander of the U.S. Army of Alaska.
Lieutenant General Thomas Tackaberry
Born in 1923 in Los Angeles, Thomas Howard Tackaberry made a name for himself fighting in both the Korean and Vietnam Wars. After training as a parachutist, he took his position as 2nd lieutenant in September 1945, shortly after the end of World War II.
Following his numerous peacetime assignments, after the start of the Korean War, he was shipped to Korea where he commanded a company of the 9th Infantry Regiment. For his actions in combat, he was awarded two Silver Stars and a Distinguished Service Cross.
Heroism In Vietnam
He earned himself another Distinguished Service Cross during the Vietnam War when, in 1966, he led an attack on a North Vietnamese position with no regard for his own safety. Again, in 1969, he was awarded a third Distinguished Service Cross after he showed superior leadership during a fierce engagement with the enemy.
All in all, during his military career, he received three Distinguished Service Crosses, the Army Distinguished Service Medal, the Purple Heart, three Bronze Stars, and the Legion Merits, five Silver Stars, and the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Sergeant William Henry Johnson
Born in 1892 in North Carolina, William Henry Johnson was eager to enlist in the United States Army just weeks after America had joined in the first World War. An African American soldier, he was sent to France for labor duties rather than combat.
At the time, this wasn’t uncommon for non-white servicemen during World War I. However, when Johnson’s unit was taken over by the French, his segregated regiment was given a chance to fight.
He Single-Handedly Fought Off A German Raiding Party
One night in May 1918, Johnson had been assigned guard patrol in the Argonne Forest. To his horror, he discovered that 24 German soldiers were approaching with intentions to raid the area. Instead of fleeing, he single-handedly fought them off by himself using whatever he had on him, which included grenades, a Bolo knife, and even his fists.
His prowess in combat earned him the nickname the “Black Death.” The French were amazed by his actions and presented him with the prestigious Croix de Guerre. Unfortunately, the United States was slow to follow and honored him with the Purple Cross, The Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross more than half a century after his death.
Captain Joe Ronnie Hooper
Born in Piedmont, South Carolina in 1938, Joe Ronnie Hooper enlisted in the United States Navy when he was just 18 years old. After some time as an Airman on the USS Wasp and USS Hancock, he was honorably discharged in July 1959.
Itching for more action, he enlisted into the United States Army in 1960 where he found himself in trouble on more than one occasion. He went on to serve a tour of duty in Vietnam where he was made squad leader before being assigned to Fort Hood, Texas.
He Personally Saved Several His Own Men Under Heavy Fire
Hooper later continued on to serve two tours in Vietnam in which he earned an incredible eight Purple Hearts, two Silver Stars, six Bronze Stars, and the most prestigious of all, the Medal of Honor. He received this honor for his actions of February 21, 1968, when he led an attack on a heavily defended position.
It was at that time that Hooper and his men came under heavy fire from the enemy with many of his men and himself becoming gravely wounded. However, Hooper ignored the danger and disregarded his own safety, fighting back and personally evacuating several men. He then continued to fight, leading his men to victory.
Sergeant First Class Sammy Lee Davis
In 1965, Sammy Lee Davis joined the United States Army, just a year and a half after finishing high school. The War in Vietnam was already well underway, so that’s where he was going. After extensive training, in 1967, he was shipped to Vietnam with the rank of private first class.
It wasn’t long before his skills and bravery were tested when his 43-man unit was ambushed by over 1,500 Viet Cong at their position known as Firebase Cudgel in the Mekong Delta.
He Used A Raft To Save Other Men
With bullets and motor fire hailing in all directions, Davis jumped into action providing cover fire so his men could fire artillery shells at the enemy. In the process, he was injured badly enough to make him incapable of swimming.
Yet, he managed to acquire a floating mattress, which he used to save three other soldiers trapped on the other side of the river. For his bravery during the battle and his determination to save his fellow soldiers, he received the Medal of Honor.
Brigadier General Robin Olds
A fighter pilot, Robin Olds was first introduced to military combat when he was 21 years old during World War II, flying in missions from England in 1944. Still a young man, he demonstrated his prowess in the air, taking down twelve German planes, earning him the title of double ace.
Although he stayed in the Air Force after the end of World War II, he was assigned a station that refused permission to fight in the Korean War, something that deeply irritated him.
He Eventually Became A Triple Ace
Upon arriving in Vietnam, Olds was the holding command of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing in 1966. The next year, on August 11, 1967, Olds took a unit of eight fighter planes on a mission to destroy a bridge that was of utmost strategic importance to the North Vietnamese. Knowing his crew would come under considerable fire, they faced the challenge head-on and completed their mission.
By the end of his military career, he was a triple ace and was awarded numerous decorations as well as the renowned Air Force Cross. Today, along with his mustache, he is a legend in the Air Force.
Lieutenant Colonel Matt Urban
The American-Polish Matt Luis Urbanowicz was born in Buffalo, New York in 1919, although he later shortened his name to Urban. Enlisting in the military and fighting during World War II, Urban is known for participating in more than seven extensive military campaigns, including the invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944.
It was reported that just two days after landing in France, Urban picked up a fallen soldier’s bazooka and single-handedly destroyed two enemy Panzer tanks.
Injuries Wouldn’t Stop Him
Although taking out two tanks with a bazooka is an impressive feat, this was just one of the many impressive acts done by Urban. From June to September of 1944, Urban continued to lead his unit through extremely dangerous missions, even after sustaining a serious leg injury.
In a charge against the enemy in Belgium on September 3, he was wounded again in the neck, one of his countless injuries during the war. For his actions in World War II, he was given numerous accolades and was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1980.
Major Richard Ira Bong
Born in Superior, Wisconsin, Richard Ira Bong had his first flights while he was in college as a member of the Civilian Pilot Training Program. Bong put his flight knowledge to use when he joined the Army Air Corps Aviator Cadet Program in 1941.
By January 1942, he was a full-blown pilot. From there, he trained to become a pilot of the Lockheed P-38 Lightning and was then posted for combat in the West Pacific during World War II.
He Was Death In The Skies
In 1942, the same year that he earned his wings, he shot down two Japanese airplanes which earned him his first Silver Star. As the war progressed, he was responsible for the destruction of another four Japanese aircraft for which he received a Distinguished Service Cross.
By December 1944, Bong had personally taken down a remarkable 40 enemy airplanes, the most of any other American pilot fighting during World War II. The same month, he was presented with the Medal of Honor. Tragically, Bong died in a test pilot crash in August 1945.
Rear Admiral Eugene Bennet Fluckey
Born in 1913 in Washington D.C., Eugene Bennet Fluckey graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1935. Just three years later, he enrolled in Basic Enlisted Submarine School in Connecticut. After graduating, he served on two different submarines but still wasn’t done with his education yet.
In 1943, he sought out further training at the Prospective Commanding Officer’s School in New London. Now ready for combat, and at the peak of World War II, he was assigned command of the USS Barb.
For 18 months, Fluckey commanded the USS Barb, and during that time, he proved to be more than formidable. Under his command, the USS Barb was responsible for an incredible 17 confirmed sinkings, which included a cruiser and an entire aircraft carrier, giving him the name “Lucky Fluckey.”
Because of efforts, he received four Navy Crosses as well as a Medal of Honor. Of course, it is known that his nickname wasn’t given to him because he was lucky in combat but a skilled soldier and leader.
Sergeant First Class Jorge A. Otero Barreto
When he completed the 101st Airborne Division’s training program in 1960, Jorge A. Otero Barreto eas the first Puerto Rican to have done so. Just a year later he started the first of five tours of duty in Vietnam.
Eventually earning the nickname the “Puerto Rican Rambo,” Barreto initially studied biology in college before enlisting in the armed services and becoming one of the most decorated soldiers of the Vietnam War.
More Than 200 Combat Missions
During the course of his distinguished service, Otero Barreto participated in more than 200 combat missions. Unfortunately, he was injured five times during those missions. As a result of his sacrifices, he earned many prestigious medals. These included 38 total awards which included five Purple Hearts, five Bronze Stars and two Silver Stars.
One of the Silver Stars was earned after Barreto led a successful, although incredibly risky, attack against a heavily-defended position in North Vietnam.
Major Thomas Buchanan McGuire Jr.
Thomas Buchanan McGuire Jr. was born in Ridgewood, New Jersey, in 1920. After briefly attending college, he left to enlist in the U.S. Army Air Corps Aviation Cadet Program. In 1942 he became a pilot and was soon afterward being sent on dangerous combat missions in the Northern Pacific.
1943 saw McGuire soar, in more ways than one. Stationed in the Southwest Pacific theater during the second world war, he proved that he was an excellent pilot. In fact, he downed five enemy Japanese aircraft in a span of just two days that August.
He Took Down 38 Enemy Planes
In total, McGuire took down 38 enemy planes during his service in WWII. For his bravery and excellent piloting skills, he was awarded a Silver Star and a Purple Heart. Sadly, he didn’t make it out of the war. On January 7, 1945, he took what would ultimately prove to be his final mission.
During a risky maneuver, his P-38 stalled and went down. Despite his attempts to pull out, McGuire crashed and died on impact. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 1946, and in 2007, a memorial to McGuire was erected at the site of his fatal crash.
Sergeant First Class Edward A. Carter Jr.
Although Edward Allen Carter Jr. was born in Los Angeles, California, he grew up in India and China as his parents were missionaries. He initially enlisted with the Chinese National Army during its war against Japan, but later joined the U.S. Army in 1941. This was just a few months before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
He was stationed in Europe in 1944, becoming a sergeant in the 56th Armored Infantry Battalion. Badly wounded by German troops who attacked his tank, he nevertheless managed to slay six enemies and capture two more. For his valor, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, which was later upgraded to the Medal of Honor.
Carter was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery in Germany. He and six other black WWII veterans were given the Medal of Honor in 1997. They are the first, and the only, black Americans who were given the honor for their service during the second world war.
After his death, he was first was buried at Los Angeles National Cemetery and later re-interred at Arlington National Cemetery in 1997.