Throughout U.S. history, brave men and women have fought, bled and died for our country and freedom. All those who have ever served honorably deserve the highest respect. Yet there are times when some rise above the call of duty and perform their service in a way that makes them legends among heroes.
Medals and decorations differ between time periods, as well as between branches of the military, so it is impossible to say exactly who the most decorated or most highly decorated service members are with absolute clarity. In fact, the only thing tougher than these brave men is trying to compare them.
However, here is a list — not in any particular order — highlighting 10 of the most decorated service members in U.S. history.
1. Sgt. Maj. Daniel J. Daly
Sergeant Major Daniel Joseph “Dan” Daly of New York enlisted in the United States Marine Corps on January 10, 1899. During his service he would earn the Medal of Honor twice, and was recommended for a third — all of valorous actions taken on separate occasions. In addition to his Medals of Honor, Daly was also awarded the Navy Cross and Silver Star, as well as numerous foreign decorations.
Sgt. Maj. Daly earned his first Medal of Honor for his actions during the Boxer Rebellion in China. His second Medal of Honor came after he and his men were on reconnaissance in Haiti. Crossing a river at night, they were fired upon by hundreds of combatants on three sides. Daly got them to safety, survived the night of gunfire and then led a successful charge against the enemy in the morning. In Belleau Wood, France, Daly led Marines into action by taking out a machine gun unassisted with his pistol and hand grenades.
He is said to have bolstered his fellow Marines into action by shouting, “Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?”
2. Maj. Audie Murphy
The most decorated soldier of World War II, Major Audie Murphy received the Medal of Honor, a Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars, a Legion of Merit with Combat Valor, and two Bronze Stars with Combat Valor. His foreign decorations included the French Forrager, Legion of Honor, and Croix de Guerre with Palm and Silver Star and the Belgian Croix de Guerre with Palm. By the end of WWII, Murphy was awarded a total of 28 medals. Yet for all of his distinguished service, Murphy was originally denied enlistment to the Marine Corps for being too short.
Maj. Audie Murphy enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1942 at the age of 17. On January 26, 1945, then-second lieutenant Murphy was with the 3d Infantry Division, at Holtzwihr, France when the men were attacked by six German Panzer tanks and 250 infantrymen. According to his Medal of Honor citation, Murphy ordered the rest of the men back into the woods while he remained alone firing at the German troops and tanks. When an artillery tank destroyer was hit and caught fire behind him, he climbed on top and used the .50 caliber artillery gun to fire at the enemy — completely exposed and at risk of blowing up — for an hour, holding off the German advancement and killing 50 Nazi soldiers. He was wounded in the leg.
Following his time in the Army, Audie Murphy went on to become an actor, portraying himself in war films such as “To Hell and Back” along with roles in films such as “The Red Badge of Courage.”
3. Col. Edward V. Rickenbacker
An “Ace of Aces,” Col. Edward “Eddie” Vernon Rickenbacker was a race car driver when he joined the Army in World War I. Given his occupational background, Rickenbacker was originally a driver but was soon reassigned to the newly created Army Air Corps (which would later become the Air Force). A Medal of Honor recipient, Rickenbacker shot down 26 enemy aircraft in 9 months. He was also awarded seven Distinguished Service Crosses.
In addition to his outstanding service as an ace fighter pilot and the impressive number of aerial victories, it was one particular instance that earned Col. Rickenbacker his Medal of Honor. On September 25, 1918, Rickenbacker was alone on a volunteer patrol flight over France when he was attacked by seven German planes. Despite being so outnumbered, he engaged all seven enemy aircraft and shot down two of them. He also received the French Croix de Guerre medal for his actions that day.
4. Lt. Gen. Lewis “Chesty” Puller
Known as the most decorated Marine in U.S. history, Lieutenant General Lewis “Chesty” Puller was as tough as they come and he proved that all over the world during his 37 years of service in the Marine Corps. Fighting in multiple campaigns and wars, he earned the Distinguished Service Cross, five Navy Crosses, and the Silver Star.
Lt. Gen. Lewis “Chesty” Puller enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1918, but graduated from Officer Training Camp too late to join World War I. He saw his first action fighting in Haiti (first Navy Cross), followed by Nicaragua (second Navy Cross), and then in World War II (third and fourth Navy Cross) and finally the Korean War — where he earned his unmatched fifth Navy Cross, Silver Star and Distinguished Service Cross.
An example of the true grit of the man, “Chesty” Puller was during his time in Korea. Commanding the 1st Marine Regiment, he and his men were cut off and surrounded by multiple enemy divisions. Chesty led his men through the Communist soldiers surrounding them, wiping out seven of the enemy divisions in total.
5. Boatswain’s Mate First Class James Williams
Boatswain’s Mate First Class James Williams is the most decorated enlisted man in the proud history of the United States Navy.
As a Petty Officer First Class in the Vietnam War, James Williams was made a patrol officer — a position normally held only by officers. October 31, 1966, Williams went on his first patrol with 10 men on Patrol River Boat (PRB) 105. They soon came across two enemy Sampans. He pursued the enemy boats, but after turning a corner in the river he found they had gone straight into a staging area for the enemy.
For three hours Petty Officer First Class James Williams led his men in an outnumber battle waiting for helicopter reinforcements. Despite the odds, and thanks to his skill and bravery, Williams took out 65 enemy boats and eliminated 1,200 enemy troops without losing a single man under his command.
Along with receiving the Medal of Honor for his actions and bravery that day, Boatswain’s Mate First Class James Williams earned the Navy Cross, the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars, and the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, making him the most decorated enlisted man in U.S. Navy history.
6. Col. David H. Hackworth
One of the most decorated soldiers in recent times, Colonel David Hackworth was tough and rebellious from the time he was a kid. After paying someone to impersonate his father so he could join the Army at age 15, Hackworth became the youngest captain in the Korean War at age 20. It was his service during the Vietnam War that set him apart, even inspiring one of the characters in the famous war film “Apocalypse Now.”
During the Korean War, Hackworth led a platoon known as the Wolfhound Raiders. During the war he was injured on multiple occasions, including a gunshot to the head, but continued fighting. He earned three Purple Hearts during the Korean War. He then went on to serve in the Vietnam War, commanding a battalion of the 101st Airborne Division. Hackworth and his men Huey helicopters and the colonel quickly shone as a hero in the war, risking his life time after time in daring missions. By the end of the Vietnam War, Hackworth eliminated 2,500 enemy soldiers while only losing 25 men under his own command.
In his 26 years of service in the U.S. Army, Col. David Hackworth received two Distinguished Service Crosses, 10 Silver Stars, 8 Bronze Stars and 8 Purple Hearts. General Hal Moore described him as “the Patton of Vietnam.”
7. Lt. Gen. James F. Hollingsworth
Lieutenant General James Hollingsworth started his military career in the U.S. Army as a second lieutenant after graduating from Texas A&M University. He served in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, along with becoming commander of U.S. Army Alaska. Throughout his service in the Army, Lt. Gen. Hollingsworth was awarded three Distinguished Service Crosses, four Distinguished Service Medals, four Silver Stars, four Bronze Stars, three Legion of Merits, three Distinguished Flying Crosses, the Soldiers Medal and six Purple Hearts, along with 38 Air Medals.
The legendary soldier joined the Army in 1940 and served overseas throughout World War II, participating in seven major campaigns from North Africa to the occupation of Berlin. During the Vietnam War, he came to be known by his radio call sign: “Danger 79er.” In 1972 he was the commander who led to victory at the Battle of An Loc, a 66 day battle and major victory for South Vietnam.
A bronze statue was erected of Lt. Gen. James Hollingsworth at Texas A&M University, which he joked was three feet taller than Gen. Patton’s statue at West Point.
8. Lt. Gen. Thomas H. Tackaberry
One of the most highly decorated officers ever to serve in the U.S. Army was Lt. Gen. Thomas Tackaberry. He enlisted in the Army in 1942 once the United States had joined World War II. He later went on to serve in the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Following his combat service in three foreign wars, Tackaberry became commander of the legendary 82nd Airborne Division and Fort Bragg.
His courage, bravery and leadership was renown in the Army, and his medals reflected that. Lt. Gen. Thomas Tackaberry was awarded three Distinguished Service Crosses, the Army Distinguished Service Medal, the Soldier’s Medal, the Purple Heart, three Bronze Stars, three Legion of Merits, five Silver Stars, the Distinguished Flying Cross and 52 Air Medals.
One of his sons, Brig. Gen. Burt Tackaberry, said of him, “He never talked about his awards. He was very humble. He knew what he achieved, but was very quiet about it.” He added, “He was a soldier’s soldier.”
9. Brig. Gen. John T. Corley
Brigadier General John Corley was one of the most highly decorated officers to ever serve in the the U.S. Army, and he earned his reputation both for this combat leadership and his contributions to tactical training. Serving in both World War II and the Korean War, Brig. Gen. Corley was known for continuously leading from the front lines, putting his life at risk to save those under his command.
Graduating from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1938, Corley started his career in the Army as a second lieutenant. His combat service started when the United States joined World War II. Fighting with — and later commanding — the 1st Infantry Division, Corley quickly moved up the ranks from Major to Lieutenant Colonel. He fought in the landings in North Africa and the Invasion of Normandy on D-Day. At the end of WWII, he participated in the Nuremburg Trials before returning to West Point as a tactical instructor. When the Korean War broke out, Corley was personally selected to command by Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
Retiring from the Army as a Brigadier General, John Corley had an impressive number of medals to his name. He received two Distinguished Service Crosses, the Soldier’s Medal, the Purple Heart, two Combat Infantry Badges, two Legion of Merits, the Ranger tab, four Bronze Stars and eight Silver Stars. He was posthumously inducted into the Ranger Hall of Fame.
10. Vice Adm. John D. Bulkeley
One of the most highly decorated naval officers in U.S. history and one of the true heroes of World War II was Vice Admiral John Bulkeley. Graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1933, Bulkeley was already a well-seasoned sailor when World War II broke out. His repeated acts of courage and leadership in some of the worst moments of the war, along with his service later in the Korean War, earned him multiple distinctions, including the Medal of Honor.
During World War II, then-lieutenant Bulkeley was in command of a Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron when he successfully performed the daring rescue of General Douglas MacArthur and Philippine President Quezon from the Philippines, evacuating them to safety. Two years later on D-Day, Bulkeley was instrumental in the Invasion of Normandy. He led the torpedo boat squadron that cleared the way to Utah Beach, stopping the Nazi E-boats and then rescuing wounded sailors. He would go on to serve throughout WWII and the Korean War.
For all of his heroism and service, Vice Admiral John Bulkeley received the Medal of Honor, two Distinguished Service Crosses, two Silver Stars, two Purple Hearts, two Legion of Merits, three Navy Distinguished Service Medals, the Navy Cross and the Croix de Guerre.
11. Jorge A Otero Barreto
Jorge A Otero Barreto was the most decorated soldier in Vietnam, and during his service earned the nickname “Puerto Rican Rambo.”
According to the American Legion, Otero-Barreto volunteered for five tours in Vietnam, during which he successfully completed 350 combat and aerial missions. He was wounded five times during the war, and came home with more than 40 military honors, including three Silver Stars, five Purple Hearts, five Bronze Stars, five Air Medals and four Army Commendation Medals.
Otero-Barreto’s military service has been retold time and again, not just because of tremendous ferocity against the enemy, but for his equally measured compassion for his platoon, and the willingness to sacrifice his own life for them.
During his five tours in Vietnam between 1961 and 1970, Otero-Barreto first as an advisor to Vietnamese troops, the Military Officers Association of America reports.
“He served in a variety of units over the course of his career, including the 101st Airborne Division, the 25th Infantry Division ‘Tropic Lightning,’ the 82nd Airborne Division and the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, notes the documentary Brave Lords, which chronicles the Puerto Rican experience in Vietnam,” the MOAA website details.
As Military Times reports, the veteran was given the National Puerto Rican Coalition’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006. In 2011 he was named citizen of the year in his hometown, and has also seen veterans homes and museums named after him.
Jacob H. is an award-winning journalist and photojournalist who currently resides is West Michigan with his wife. In his spare time, Jacob enjoys writing, photography, mountain climbing, and camping.