Joe Ronnie Hooper’s service record remains one of the more difficult to fathom combat resumes in United States military history.
Throughout the course of his Army career — one that came in the wake of a three-year Navy enlistment — the Piedmont, South Carolina, native who was raised in Washington state earned two Silver Stars, six Bronze Stars, and eight Purple Hearts, among an abundance of other accolades.
Principal among these recognitions is the Medal of Honor Hooper earned for Herculean efforts during the evening of February 21, 1968 — during the savage Battle of Hue — a day in which he would be credited with 22 confirmed kills.
Then-Staff Sgt. Hooper was on his second deployment to Vietnam when he was tasked with leading a squad from Delta Company, 2nd Battalion, 101st Airborne Division in an assault of a heavily defended Viet Cong position on the bank of a 20-foot-wide stream.
Unfortunately for Hooper’s men, the enemy was ready, unleashing a steady response of small arms, machine gun fire, and rockets that pinned down the majority of the company.
Hooper and a few of his men, meanwhile, managed to avoid the enemy’s concentrated areas of fire just long enough to make a valiant push across the stream in the face of a series of hostile gun emplacements.
The display of fearlessness inspired the rest of the company to follow suit despite being greeted by waves of lead.
Inevitable friendly casualties mounted, prompting Hooper, now grasping the carnage being dispatched by the North Vietnamese defenses, to shift his focus to moving the wounded to safety.
Hooper himself was seriously wounded while retrieving one hobbling soldier, but would refuse medical attention.
Instead, he opted to turn back and resume the assault with renewed ferocity, charging three enemy bunkers that had been tormenting the advancing soldiers and, lobbing grenades and firing his rifle, destroyed each — along with the bunkers’ occupants.
Two more enemy combatants who had just shot an Army chaplain were then spotted by the vigilant staff sergeant.
Hooper promptly shot them both before moving the wounded chaplain to safety.
Gathering his men to sweep the rest of the area, Hooper spotted three more enemy emplacements, small buildings where riflemen were still peppering the advancing U.S. forces.
Meticulously attacking one after another, Staff Sgt. Hooper decimated the buildings.
Hooper had just finished destroying the last of the three sites when he encountered a North Vietnamese officer face-to-face.
“The officer’s rifle jammed and Sgt. Hooper was out of ammo as the enemy tried to escape," Lonnie Thomas, a soldier who served under Hooper, told the Department of Defense.
"But Sgt. Hooper chased him down and stabbed him with his bayonet.”
Hooper then turned his attention to a small house facing the front of the Delta Company assault, one that was causing them fits.
Storming the house alone, Staff Sgt. Hooper once more used a deadly combination of rifle fire and grenades to kill the shelter’s inhabitants.
Despite bleeding severely from multiple wounds, Hooper then reorganized his men into an assault formation, pushing them forward until reaching a staunch line of last-ditch resistance.
To the left flank of Hooper’s men was a daisy chain of four enemy bunkers that unleashed hell upon spotting the weary soldiers.
Once more, however, the bloody, shrapnel-filled Hooper waited for no one, sprinting along the enemy line and dropping grenades into each bunker, an image reminiscent of Jim Brown in the “The Dirty Dozen.”
All but two of the enemy fighters were killed. Scanning the area, Hooper located two more bunkers, which he quickly destroyed.
A brief pause in the fight allowed Hooper to spot a wounded soldier laying in a nearby trench line.
Out of ammunition, he sprinted across open terrain to retrieve his comrade.
“I called to him and tossed him a .45-caliber pistol, mentioning that he might need it," Thomas told the Department of Defense.
“No sooner had he caught it and turned than he came face to face with an NVA raising a rifle to Sgt. Hooper’s head. Sgt. Hooper calmly shot the man dead with the pistol, then carried the wounded man back to safety.”
And yet, Hooper was still not done, finding and shooting three more NVA officers before getting his men to establish a line of defense.
Only then did he finally acquiesce to receiving medical treatment. He refused to be evacuated, however, until the following day.
Seven hours had passed since the fight of his life began — an eternity.
“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," Sgt. George Parker, who served with Hooper, said in a DoD release.
"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.”
Hooper, who was credited by the Army with 115 confirmed kills, was presented the Medal of Honor by President Richard Nixon on March 7, 1969.
He would be commissioned as an officer before retiring from the military in 1974. Tragically, he would pass away at the young age of 40 after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage.
Joe Ronnie Hooper is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
J.D. Simkins is a writer and editor for Military Times, and a USMC veteran.