Para Rescue Jumper Duane Hackney, The Most Decorated Enlisted Man In The History Of The US Air Force

An Air Force Cross, the Silver Star, 4 Distinguished Flying Crosses with a Combat V, 2 Purple Hearts, 18 Air Medals, and ok, we have an article to write so we have to move on for time’s sake.  To list this man’s 70 plus individual achievements would be overwhelming as Duane Hackney is by far the most decorated enlisted man in US Air Force history.

What is remarkable about Chief Master Sgt. Duane Hackney is that he earned his accolades through the acts of saving others rather than gifting violence to the enemy. As a Pararescueman, it was his job to descend into the jungles of Vietnam and recover downed pilots before the enemy. He could rarely rely on the comfort of operating in mass numbers with fellow airmen, but this man took solace in the fact that he fulfilled the promise that if a pilot should go down, America would come looking for him.

Duane Hackney via
Duane Hackney

More often than not the materialization of that promise was none other than Duane Hackney.

Born to Rescue

Duane Hackney is a native of Flint Michigan who joined the Air Force in 1965 to become a Pararescueman. As the Vietnam War was picking up steam, the United States began to use air superiority in an ever-increasing fashion to hold back a relentless enemy. And while the United States enjoyed technological superiority in the air, North Vietnamese ground fire and surface to air missiles were regularly enough to take its toll on the American planes.

When one of these pilots would go down over the jungles of Vietnam, this typically meant death or capture that led to a less than courteous stay at the infamous Hanoi Hilton.

Duane Hackney preparing to jump via
Duane Hackney preparing to jump

But America had made a promise to his pilots, that whenever possible and in cases when it seemed completely improbable that they would come looking for them thanks to men like Duane Hackney. This man would fly over 200 combat missions over 3 ½ years of volunteer duty in Vietnam. Just days after reporting for his first assignment, he took a .30 caliber slug to the leg and had it removed himself to avoid medical evacuation.

In the months ahead, he would see the helicopter on which he served shot down up to five times as they braved the most hostile of enemy territory in search for downed pilots.

By his own account, he couldn’t recall the number of times he descended into the thick canopy of the Vietnamese jungle to search for downed pilots or exactly how many he was able to extract. But as the missions accumulated and the enemy fire came raining down, it became clear that each mission brought with it a necessity to display unprecedented valor and an opportunity for near certain death.

After a year plus of demonstrating such valor, one particular mission in February 1967 would set him apart and earn him the Air Force’s second-highest military honor.

Jolly Green 05

On February 3, 1967, Hackney was riding in one of two HH-3E jolly green giant long-range search and rescue helicopters over Vietnam. On his second rescue mission of the day near Mu Gia Pass North Vietnam, Hackney descended into the jungle as he had many times to search for the downed pilot.

Despite the presence of heavy enemy forces, he was able to locate the pilot and assist him in being hoisted up into the helicopter. Once the crew departed, they became subject to heavy 37 mm flak that tore into the craft creating an intense fire on board.

During the chaos, Hackney was able to take off his own parachute and place it upon the downed airmen with little regard for his own life. Just as Hackney made his way to the smoke-filled cabin and slipped another parachute around his own arms, a second burst of 37 mm flak tore into the craft sending it into an uncontrollable spin.

Unsecured Hackney was flung from the helicopter out the open door. Despite being dazed and confused, he was able to employee the parachute that was still unbuckled and made a successful landing over enemy territory. The rest on board this particular HH-3E, died in the crash, and Duane Hackney found himself on the opposite side of a rescue that he himself had conducted time and time again.

Eventually, another jolly green giant was able to locate Hackney and bring him to safety. It was for his actions on this particular mission that Duane Hackney was awarded the Air Force Cross. One might think such a close call would be plenty of cause to call it quits as surely one could only cheat death so many times, but Duane Hackney took his calling seriously and was earning distinguished flying crosses as late as 1970.

A Gallant Life Cut Short

Before his career was over, Hackney would receive more than 70 individual awards making him the most decorated enlisted man in Air Force history. After 26 years of unprecedented service where he served at great risk to his own life in order to save others, Chief Master Sgt. Duane Hackney retired from the Air Force in 1991.

Tragically the man, the entire North Vietnamese Army couldn’t seem to kill, died of a heart attack in 1993 at age 46.  And while Hackney would claim he was just doing his job, his record of unprecedented gallantry is without rival in the Air Force.

In 2006, a training facility at Lackland Air Force Base near San Antonio was named in his honor. In 2009, he was inducted into the Michigan aviation Hall of Fame.

While his life was cut short, the untold ripple effect of the pilots he pulled from the hostile jungles of Vietnam is immeasurable. Men lived because Duane Hackney saw to it that it was so. He honored the commitment of a nation to its pilots enabling them to enter harm’s way with the confidence that men like Duane Hackney would be coming for them.

While the United States Air Force is only 68 years old, it appears this man will hold the title of most decorated for quite some time.

Jeff Edwards

Jeff Edwards is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE