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MONDAY, MAY 29, 2006

Faye Hooper of Decatur talks about her late husband, Joe Hooper, the most highly decorated soldier of the Vietnam War. Inset, the Vietnam Service Medal ribbon.
DAILY Photo by Emily Saunders
Faye Hooper of Decatur talks about her late husband, Joe Hooper, the most highly decorated soldier of the Vietnam War. Inset, the Vietnam Service Medal ribbon.

The Vietnam War’s Audie Murphy
Decatur widow recalls husband, conflict’s most decorated soldier

By Ronnie Thomas
DAILY Staff Writer · 340-2438

Faye Hooper will gather with others this morning at 10 at Roselawn Cemetery and do what she recommends for every American.

"When somebody goes to war, they offer everything they have," she said. "That's pretty impressive. The least we can do is to spend an hour one day a year honoring them. That's what Memorial Day means to me."

The Decatur resident learned how much some are willing to sacrifice for their country from her late husband. She also knows how easily people forget their contributions.

Staff Sgt. Joe Ronnie Hooper, who grew up in Moses Lake, Wash., was a squad leader in Company D, 2nd Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, known informally as Delta's Raiders.

Joe Hooper’s Medal of Honor in its presentation case.
DAILY Photo/Courtesy Photo
Joe Hooper’s Medal of Honor in its presentation case.
He was the most highly decorated soldier of the Vietnam War. During two combat tours, he earned 37 medals, including the Medal of Honor, two Silver Stars, six Bronze Stars and eight Purple Hearts. The Army credited him with killing 115 North Vietnamese.

Many believe the number was higher.

He died May 6, 1979, at age 40 of a cerebral hemorrhage in Louisville, Ky., after watching Spectacular Bid win the Kentucky Derby the day before. The media in his own state of Washington did not note his death until a year later, when a story about area Medal of Honor winners in The Seattle Times mentioned that Hooper was dead.

Twenty-seven years later, Faye Hooper easily recalls the slender, red-haired soldier as "a fun-loving man with a dry sense of humor who cared about people. Talk to any of the men he served with. They think he hung the moon."

'Fantastic inspiration'

Sgt. George Parker witnessed the almost seven-hour battle during the Tet offensive Feb. 21, 1968, near the ancient city of Hue, South Vietnam, action that earned Hooper the Medal of Honor. His account is several pages long. This is an excerpt:

"Sgt. Hooper in one day accomplished more than I previously believed could have been done in a month by one man. And he did it all while wounded," Parker said. "It wasn't just the actual count of positions overrun and enemy killed which was important. But far more so was the fantastic inspiration he gave every man in the company."

Faye and Joe Hooper in 1971.
DAILY Photo/Courtesy Photo
Faye and Joe Hooper in 1971.
Hooper, 29 at the time, suffered seven wounds that day but wouldn't leave the battlefield until the next morning. He finally passed out from loss of blood. He regained consciousness in a field hospital.

The next day, worried about his men, he stole a rifle and hitched a ride back to his outfit, still wearing the top half of his hospital gown. Technically, he was AWOL. By the time the Army found him two days later, he had been wounded again.

On March 7, 1969, President Nixon, in his first Medal of Honor presentation in the East Room of the White House, recognized Hooper, whom the Army had commissioned a second lieutenant, and two other soldiers. Then Hooper asked for special permission to return to Vietnam.

Kiddingly, Faye Hooper, also a redhead, who grew up in Courtland and graduated in 1958 from Hazlewood High School, said she knew she had married "a wild guy."

"But really, I did think he was a little crazy when we met in 1967 at an Atlanta hotel, where I was doing a fashion show for Revlon with another hair stylist, Gercia Landers, also of Decatur," she recalled. "He was preparing to leave for Vietnam, and he actually thought I would go on a date with him that night."

Romance in Decatur

The persistence Joe Hooper later showed in war also bubbled in matters of love. While Faye and Landers drove home after the show, he grabbed a flight to Decatur.

"The next morning, Gercia called and said, 'You won't believe who's at my house. Come on over. My daughter and I like him. You will, too.' Then, I thought she was crazy. I warned her to be careful. But he was just getting started. The next morning, he dropped by the salon and announced we were getting married!"

The former Faye Saint was slow warming to Hooper, but began corresponding with him after he went overseas.

"He talked about everything but the war. He talked about the beauty and the Vietnamese people," she said.

Hooper came home, and if he had any feeling of invincibility, the thought evaporated May 28, 1971, when actor Audie Murphy, a Medal of Honor recipient and the most highly decorated soldier of World War II, died in a plane crash in Virginia. Hooper was a pallbearer.

Three weeks later, on June 13, Joe and Faye Hooper married in California. The couple traveled extensively because of Hooper's status as a war hero.

In 1972 at the invitation of the queen of Holland, they attended a dedication ceremony of a monument honoring an American soldier, Medal of Honor recipient Joe Mann of Reardan, Wash. As a high school student, Hooper had written a paper on him and admired his heroics. Mann helped liberate Best, and while wounded, his arms bandaged to his body, he rolled over on an exploding grenade, saving several men around him.

Dutch get medal

"Joe thought he would spruce things up," his wife recalls. "The monument consisted of a huge pelican, and that night, he climbed up, reached under the tarp and hung his medal beneath the pelican. When officials unveiled it the next day, the medal caught everyone by surprise, but they were delighted."

She said the queen thanked Hooper and city officials told him they were placing the medal in their Airborne Museum.

"Joe looked at me quite startled and said, 'Faye?' I replied, 'Well, what did you expect? They consider it a gift.' He wrote the government for a replacement medal, but the Army wasn't too pleased with him."

The Hoopers attended Nixon's second inauguration that same year and, although he retired from the military in 1974, the invitations kept coming. They attended President Carter's inauguration in 1976.

She said one of the most touching moments involving a politician came when the couple met with author Joe McGinniss in U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy's office. McGinniss, famous for his bestseller "The Selling of the President, 1968," was working on a new book, "Heroes."

"He already had interviewed Joe, and he took us with him for his interview with the senator. We walked in, and when Sen. Kennedy greeted me, he said, 'You're having trouble with your back, aren't you?' I didn't realize how bad it was, but he had dealt with an airplane injury and apparently knew something I didn't. He made an appointment for me with his doctor in New York at no charge. He diagnosed me with ankylosing spondylitis, an incurable, degenerative spinal disease."

She went on with her life, helping her husband breed racehorses on a rented farm at Claremore, Okla., while he taught a class on horse betting at a junior college. They were guests at the Kentucky Derby in 1978, and officials invited them and their 3-year-old daughter, Joey, to return in 1979.

"After the race, Joe got with a lot of friends to discuss the horse business, and Joey and I flew home," she said. "He died the next morning in his motel room. You can't imagine how shocked I was to get that call. He jogged five miles a day. I was the sick one."

Burial at Arlington

The Army buried Joe Hooper in Arlington National Cemetery near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Audie Murphy lies about 60 feet to the south.

That November, Faye and Joey moved to Decatur, where Faye became an event planner. Joey, 30, graduated from Decatur High School in 1994 and lives in Denver.

"She returns from an Australian vacation next month, and in July, I'll fly up to join her at Estes Park in Denver for a 101st Airborne convention, where we'll remember Joe and our other brave soldiers again," Faye Hooper said.

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