30 Most decorated servicemen in US Military history
The United States military has produced some of the most brave and heroic individuals in the world. From Medal of Honor to Silver Star recipients, these former service members looked fear in the eye and mustered the courage to press forward for their friends, family and country.
Here are some of the most decorated servicemen in American history and their extraordinary stories of heroism.
Major General Patrick Brady
Former Major General Patrick Brady received many awards during his service for the United States. Most notably, he obtained the Medal of Honor during his service in Vietnam, which involved a harrowing mission to save soldiers who were in enemy territory as an expert helicopter pilot.
For the mission, he was assigned to retrieve two injured South Vietnamese soldiers pinned down in enemy territory and thick fog. He then maneuvered the helicopter so the rotors parted it and eventually transported them to safety. Brady went on to rescue over 5,000 wounded soldiers during his tours in Vietnam.
Lieutenant General Lewis “Chesty” Puller
Lewis “Chesty” Puller’s career is pretty much as good as it gets in the history of the United States Marine Corps. After 37 years of service, he was awarded five Navy Crosses, which is the second best award in the military for valor. That total is second to the one and only Eddie Rickenbacker.
A West Point, Virginia native, Puller had fighting embedded in his veins. He reportedly wanted to enlist in the Border War of 1916 during his late teens but couldn’t, because his mother wouldn’t consent. You have to admire that dedication and determination!
Colonel Leo K. Thorsness
An expert Air Force fighter pilot, Leo K. Thorsness, served in the Vietnam War and was awarded the prestigious Medal of Honor for his brave service, specifically for a tense air combat engagement in 1967. He was eventually shot down and became a prisoner of war for six years in North Vietnam.
Injuries sustained during his time as prisoner and prior ejection from the aircraft resulted in his disqualification from the Air Force, but he later got involved in politics. Thorsness was a force to be reckoned with, and he certainly had the accolades and experiences to prove it.
Sergeant First Class Edward A. Carter Jr.
Edward Allen Carter Jr. wasn’t your typical staff sergeant. In fact, he had a very complicated past before coming to serve in the United States. But for his most distinguished accolade, he was awarded the most prestigious award, the Medal of Honor, during World War II. He was one of seven African-Americans to earn the distinction.
In regards to his intriguing past, Carter was born in Los Angeles, California, but later moved to India before immigrating to Shanghai, China. During this time, at age 15, he ran away from home and briefly joined China’s Nationalist Army to fight the invading Japanese. It seems his early exposure to fighting paid off in the long run.
Colonel James H. Kasler
Known by his nickname, “Destroyer,” James H. Kasler was not somebody to be trifled with in air to air combat. As a senior officer of the United States Air Force, he was awarded the Air Force Cross three times, making him the only person in this military branch to receive the distinction that often.
The distinction is second only to the Medal of Honor, and it specifically honors those who show unbelievable heroic efforts during combat. Kasler went on to serve in WWII, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. He was also a POW during the Vietnam War, for which received another Air Force Cross.
Major Audie Murphy
Add another decorated soldier to the list from World War II. This time it’s Major Audie Murphy, one of the most decorated servicemen in U.S. history. Perhaps the most notable award for Murphy came when he was just 19, during which he was awarded the Medal of Honor.
How did he earn this? Oh, you know, nothing major. He only single-handedly fended off a group of German soldiers for an hour and later mounted a successful counterattack without ammunition. He also went on a 21-year acting career and appeared in many westerns.
Vice Admiral John D. Bulkeley
You know you’re destined for post-military greatness when a destroyer is named after you.
One of the most decorated officers in the U.S. Navy, John D. Bulkeley, has quite a reputation. He received the Medal of Honor for his combat tactics in the Pacific in World War II.
While this was his main involvement in terms of wartime in the U.S., he would later provide exemplary leadership as a commander in the Korean War. Bulkeley was involved in the military to a lesser degree during the Cold War, too.
Major General Smedley Butler
U.S. Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler laid the groundwork for future marines through his stalwart service. During his career, which spanned 34 years (1898-1931), he tallied 16 medals, two of them being the Medal of Honor. But for all of his valor, he wasn’t your average gung-ho marine.
After he retired from the Marine Corps, Butler took on a new, contrasting role to his past. He joined many different anti-war groups and attended different meetings organized by churches. Eventually, he became an outspoken critic of U.S. military involvement in foreign countries.
Brigadier General Robin Olds
Robin Olds can be described in many different ways. Perhaps the most revealing way is how he was portrayed throughout his career, most notably, as a military bad boy. In addition to having celebrity connections through his marriage to Hollywood actress Ella Raines, he often grappled with authorities.
However, he was widely known as one of the most skilled fighter pilots in the Vietnam War and also served in World War II. Eventually, he reached the title of brigadier general. Olds was also on the forefront of showing off that prominent, well-kept mustache — a fashion statement that has transcended time.
Captain Eddie Rickenbacker
A Medal of Honor recipient, Eddie Rickenbacker was also a World War I expert fighter pilot. He led more than two dozen aerial victories and is said to lead all American personnel in awards of valor during the war. He was certainly a hard worker, logging 300 combat hours — the most by a U.S. pilot during the war.
In 1943, Rickenbacker was sent to the Soviet Union to help them maintain U.S. aircraft during World War II. This was seen as extremely odd at the time, given the U.S. and the USSR were at odds during the Cold War, yet he still managed to bridge the divide.
Brigadier General George E. Day
George Everette “Bud” Day is arguably the most decorated United States Air Force veteran in history. In addition to serving in the Vietnam War, Korean War and World War II, he also received the Medal of Honor and the Air Force Cross. He is the only military member, as of 2016, to receive both awards.
With more than 70 medals under his belt, Bud is considered to be within the reach of incredible leaders like General Douglas MacArthur for one of the most decorated military officers of all time. Day was also a prisoner of war in Vietnam for more than five years.
Sergeant Major Daniel Joseph Daly
A two-time recipient of the Medal of Honor, Joseph Daly was truly a legend among the Marines. In addition to being one of only 19 Marines to receive the award twice, he’s one of two to separately win the award for two acts of heroism and nominated for a third.
Don’t let his 5-foot-6 stature fool you. While it may not appear formidable, Daly certainly did not lack bravery. He reportedly held a position under heavy sniper fire overnight during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. One thing is for certain: You wouldn’t want to mess with Joseph Daly.
Major General Robert M. White
Major General Robert Michael White was a jack of all trades to boot. He was a fighter pilot and eventually became an astronaut before a career as an electrical engineer. That isn’t to say he didn’t have his fair share of war experience, though.
In World War II, White flew P-51 Mustang fighters over Germany until he was shot down one day and became a prisoner of war. He also received an Air Force Cross decoration for leading a combat force on a key vicinity in North Vietnam.
Boatswain James Elliot Williams
James Elliot “Willie” Williams is a Medal of Honor recipient and the most decorated service member in the long history of the Navy. He served for about 20 years, during which he intervened in the Korean and Vietnam War, receiving his Medal of Honor in the latter war.
The story goes that he was ambushed by the Vietcong in Mekong Delta and was able to fend them off before launching a successful offensive. This resulted in his Medal of Honor commendation. Williams was extremely young when he got into the Navy, too, at the age of 16. Now that’s bravery for ya!
General Creighton W. Adams
Another major proponent during the Vietnam War, Creighton W. Adams was also tasked with the esteemed duty of tank commander during World War II. Adams was so successful during the war that he earned the title “best tank commander in the army” from General George Patton.
He was purportedly verified to have destroyed 300 German vehicles under his command along with 15 tanks and numerous other military weaponry. As a top commander during the Vietnam War, Adams held line in South Vietnam while ensuring a successful retreat, which historians consider one of the most complicated tasks in military history.
Lieutenant General Thomas H. Tackaberry
Lieutenant General Thomas Howard Tackaberry is a decorated took part in multiple major wars: WWII, the Korean War, Cold War and the Vietnam War. After almost 40 years of service, Tackaberry remains in the 10 most decorated servicemen in American history.
Tackaberry set himself apart from many other lieutenant generals in the sense that he took extra emphasis on preparing his troops before battle. He would make sure his men were physically able to take on the trials ahead. He received the Purple Heart among many other awards.
Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale
James B. Stockdale’s military career is as gritty as it is impressive. He was a POW for seven years in the Vietnam War, enduring brutal conditions that eventually took a toll on his body and prevented him from flying, so he spent his time in the Navy and ascended the ranks.
He eventually received the Medal of Honor for his bravery in Vietnam. His award citation says he provided extraordinary leadership in the face of his captors and aided others in resisting their interrogation techniques and propaganda treatments, too.
General Douglas MacArthur
There simply isn’t enough time or space to talk about the many accolades earned by the illustrious General Douglas MacArthur over his decorated tenure. For starters, he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his stalwart campaign in the Philippines.
Along with two Purple Hearts, MacArthur’s Medal of Honor award puts him in unique company. It made him the first in a father/son duo (his father received one in 1890) to receive the distinction. To say the military runs in this family would certainly be an understatement.
General John C. Meyer
John C. Meyer was a man of many talents in the U.S. military. He won many awards throughout his career, including a Purple Heart, 15 Air medals, two Silver Stars and many more. Meyer took much experience from World War II, during which he was an expert fighter pilot.
After his involvement in the Korean War, Meyer became an instructor at the Air War College, Maxwell Air Force base in Alabama after graduating from there in 1956. He had quite an active lifestyle, and this certainly showed in his hard work both during and after his career.
General James A. Van Fleet
After nearly 40 years of service, General James A. Van Fleet was able to accomplish quite an impressive career. He ascended through the ranks during World War II after graduating from the U.S. Military Academy. Van Fleet also served in the Korean war as commander of the U.S. Army.
He was also an important in implementing the Truman Doctrine, a foreign policy initiative aimed at stopping Soviet western expansion. Van Fleet, he was primarily involved in curtailing the Greek Civil War after World War II through providing advice to their government.
Colonel Francis S. Gabreski
Francis Stanley “Gabby” Gabreski was certainly a conqueror of the skies. He was considered a top tier fighter pilot during the Korean War and WWII. Gabreski is perhaps best known for his impressive tally of 34 ½ destroyed aircraft and eventually reached the rank of colonel.
After taking to the skies throughout his storied Air Force career, Gabreski kept his feet on the ground. He helped start the Long Island Railroad in New York, which became the new focus of his career before entering retirement. Providing civic as well as infrastructural benefits to American society will always be his legacy.
Major Thomas McGuire
Thomas McGuire’s legacy is, without a doubt, special in its own way. While being one of the most decorated Air Force pilots in U.S. history, he was only 24 when upon receiving the Medal of Honor after being killed in action. He’s remembered for his heroism and bravery in air combat missions over the Philippine islands.
In regards to receiving the Medal of Honor, McGuire had performed an incredibly risky maneuver at low altitude in order to save one of his fellow fighters over an island in Papua New Guinea. The price, unfortunately, was his life.
Vice Admiral Joel T. Boone
Joel Thompson Boone has an interesting history in the United States Navy given he’s the most decorated soldier with the medical officer distinction. While the Medal of Honor is the highest award he achieved during his 36-year career, he was also awarded the Silver Star six times.
In 1918, he helped heal soldiers and treat their wounds while under constant fire from the enemy during World War I. For this incredible act of heroism, he was awarded the Medal of Honor. In addition, he also received the prestigious Distinguished Service Cross award, too.
Colonel Ralph S. Parr
Ralph Parr was as experienced as they come in the U.S. Air Force. According to the Washington Post, he flew more than 6,000 hours and earned more than 60 decorations. Included in these were the Silver Star and 10 Distinguished Flying Crosses along with 41 Air Medals.
After retiring from the military, Parr remained quite active. He lectured during seminars at distinguished military installations and remained a fixture at these institutions for quite some time. His famous quote, as told by his wife, was “I’ve been shot up, but not down.”
Major Richard Bong
Major Richard Bong has been characterized by many as shy in person but, in the air, he was completely different: fearless and heroic. Allegedly, he would often do incredible maneuvers around the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco in his spare time.
The Wisconsin native also had a somewhat humorous history, too.
This was during his training, so for disciplinary action, he had to do a woman’s laundry after flying too close over her housing and blowing her clothes off the clothesline. However, his playfulness eventually resulted in an astounding career, highlighted by the Medal of Honor and shooting down 40 Japanese aircraft in WWII.
Rear Admiral James B. Linder
James Benjamin Linder is easily falls in the 25 most decorated American servicemen in history. One of his highest commendations came after he commanded a squadron in North Vietnam, which earned him two awards for exemplary combat.
For his Navy Cross citation, Linder received it for courageously leading a successful air-wing strike force against a heavily fortified bridge in Vietnam. He also had a long and enduring career for more than 30 years. He’s certainly an iconic hero of the U.S. Navy as a Naval Aviator.
Lieutenant General John P. Flynn
Lieutenant General John P. Flynn received his Air Force Cross for staying strong as a POW in the Vietnam War. In fact, he was able to withstand interrogation techniques, which were focused on getting him to release potentially damaging information for U.S. Air Force fighters.
However, through amazing resilience and courage, Flynn resisted and kept his fellow comrades safe despite taking multiple injuries. He would continue to serve in other wars, too, for the U.S. Air Force. These included World War II, Cold War, Korean War and the Lebanon conflict.
General Norman Schwarzkopf
Herbert Norman Schwarzkopf Jr. is most notably known for his involvement as an army general during the Gulf War. However, he also served in the Vietnam War as a task force adviser. And his commendations are plentiful. He’s a recipient of two Purple Hearts, three Silver Star Medals, and many more.
Schwarzkopf had an interesting tenure during his time leading Desert Storm and Desert Shield. Initially tasked with defending Saudi Arabia, he led an offensive with more than 750,000 reported military troops under his command.
Lieutenant Colonel George Andrew Davis Jr.
George Andrew Davis Jr. was an honorable fighter pilot for the Army Air forces, particularly during WWII and the Korean War. For the latter war, he was awarded the Medal of Honor after he took part in the infamous “MiG Alley,” a region over northwestern North Korea of intense air combat action.
Davis’ tactical air prowess was practically unmatched. He’s fourth among U.S. scoring aces of the Korean War with a total of 21 victories. Davis would prove to be the only flying expert killed in action in Korea.
General Alexander M. Haig
Alexander Haig had a decorated military career and certainly a successful post-military career as well. He began his military journey under General Douglas MacArthur as a deputy chief of staff in the Korean War. This is quite impressive, given the position’s esteem and this being his debut into the military.
Haig went on to serve and climb the ranks in subsequent wars like the Vietnam War and numerous Pentagon assignments throughout his career. After accruing multiple awards – Purple Heart, more than two dozen Air Medals, two Silver Stars and many more – he went on to serve as the Secretary of State under the Reagan Administration.