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

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 act of saving others rather than inflicting violence on the enemy. As a Pararescueman, it was his job to descend into the jungles of Vietnam and recover downed pilots before the enemy.

Three days after reporting for duty, he flew his first combat mission.
Three days after reporting for duty, he flew his first combat mission.

He could rarely rely on the comfort of operating in mass numbers with his fellow airmen, but Hackney took solace in the fact that he fulfilled their promise that if a pilot should go down, America would go looking for him.

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

Born to Rescue

Duane Hackney was 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 US began to use air superiority in an ever-increasing fashion to hold back a relentless enemy. While America enjoyed technological supremacy in the air, North Vietnamese ground fire and surface to air missiles were regularly taking their toll on the US planes.

Duane Hackney via
Duane Hackney

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

However, America had made a promise to its pilots, that whenever possible and in cases when it seemed utterly improbable that they would go looking for them thanks to men like Duane Hackney. He flew more than 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 following months, the helicopter on which he served was shot down up to five times as the crew braved the most hostile of enemy territory in the search for downed pilots.

Duane Hackney preparing to jump via
Duane Hackney preparing to jump

By his own account, he could not 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. As the missions accumulated and enemy fire rained down, it became clear that each assignment brought with it a necessity to display unprecedented valor and the likelihood of near certain death.

After a year plus of demonstrating such valor, one particular mission in February 1967 set him apart and earned 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 oppressive enemy forces, he was able to locate the pilot and assist him in being hoisted up into the helicopter. While the aircraft departed, they became subjected to heavy 37 mm flak that tore into the craft creating an intense fire on board.

During the chaos, Hackney took off his parachute and placed it upon the downed airman with little regard for his own life. Just as Hackney made his way to the smoke-filled cabin and slipped another parachute around his arms, another 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 deploy the parachute that was still unbuckled and made a successful landing in enemy territory. The rest on board the HH-3E died in the crash, and Duane Hackney was left on the opposite side of a rescue that he had conducted time and time again.

Eventually, another jolly green giant was able to locate Hackney and bring him to safety. For his actions on that particular mission, Duane Hackney was awarded the Air Force Cross. Some people might think such a close call was plenty of reason to call it quits as inevitably death can only be cheated so many times. However, Duane Hackney took his calling seriously and was still earning distinguished flying crosses as late as 1970.

A Gallant Life Cut Short

Before his career was over, Hackney received 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 significant risk to his own life to save others, Chief Master Sgt. Duane Hackney retired from the Air Force in 1991.

Tragically the man who the entire North Vietnamese Army could not seem to kill, died of a heart attack in 1993 at the age of 46. While Hackney claimed 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.

Although his life was cut short, the untold ripple effect on 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 Hackney would go looking for them.

The United States Air Force is only 68 years old, but it appears Duane Hackney 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