Looking for a Hero: Staff Sergeant Joe Ronnie Hooper and the Vietnam War

Looking for a Hero: Staff Sergeant Joe Ronnie Hooper and the Vietnam War

by Peter Maslowski, Don Winslow


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Widely acclaimed as the Vietnam War's most highly decorated soldier, Joe Ronnie Hooper in many ways serves as a symbol for that conflict. His troubled, tempestuous life paralleled the upheavals in American society during the 1960s and 1970s, and his desperate quest to prove his manhood was uncomfortably akin to the macho image projected by three successive presidents in their "tough" policy in Southeast Asia. Looking for a Hero extracts the real Joe Hooper from the welter of lies and myths that swirl around his story; in doing so, the book uncovers not only the complicated truth about an American hero but also the story of how Hooper's war was lost in Vietnam, not at home.

Extensive interviews with friends, fellow soldiers, and family members reveal Hooper as a complex, gifted, and disturbed man. They also expose the flaws in his most famous and treasured accomplishment: earning the Medal of Honor. In the distortions, half-truths, and outright lies that mar Hooper's medal of honor file, authors Peter Maslowski and Don Winslow find a painful reflection of the army's inability to be honest with itself and the American public, with all the dire consequences that this dishonesty ultimately entailed. In the inextricably linked stories of Hooper and the Vietnam War, the nature of that deceit, and of America's defeat, becomes clear.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803224933
Publisher: UNP - Nebraska Paperback
Publication date: 04/17/2009
Pages: 640
Sales rank: 1,059,079
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.70(d)

About the Author

Peter Maslowski is a professor of history at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and the author of several books, including Armed with Cameras: The American Military Photographers of World War II and (with Allan R. Millett) For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States of America. Don Winslow is the best-selling author of, among other works, A Cool Breeze on the Underground, which received an Edgar nomination for best first novel.

Read an Excerpt

Looking for a Hero

Staff Sergeant Joe Ronnie Hooper and the Vietnam War
By Peter Maslowski Don Winslow

University of Nebraska Press

Copyright © 2004 University of Nebraska Press
All right reserved.

Chapter One

Everybody saw the war movies. I mean, that was the big thing. Rusty Cutlip, Joe's boyhood friend, on growing up in Moses Lake, Washington

His hero was Audie Murphy.

As a kid, Joe Hooper spent hours at the Skyline Drive-In or the Lake Theater in his hometown of Moses Lake, Washington, watching Murphy dispatch Germans in To Hell and Back, or gun down bad guys in the endless horse operas that Murphy starred in.

The two had a lot in common-both came from poor, rural backgrounds, both had alcoholic fathers who would disappear for months at a time, both worked out the shame and embarrassment by fighting the biggest opponents they could find.

Both had movie heroes-just as Joe would sit enthralled by Murphy's cinematic exploits in the sterilized, glamorous Hollywood version of war, Murphy himself had scraped up just enough money to go see Gary Cooper as Sergeant York. That was the way, after all, that American boys learned about war, about courage, death, and sacrifice.

So Joe watched Audie Murphy, and when it wasn't Murphy in To Hell and Back it was John Wayne in Sands of Iwo Jima or Flying Leathernecks. And he learned the same lesson that thousands of other boys his age-thegeneration that would go to Vietnam-learned from these movies: War tested your courage and character. If you passed by fighting bravely you entered the ranks of manhood. If you didn't, you were something less than a real man.

But young men saw another "heroic" image on the screen other than the "all-American men" personified by Murphy and Wayne. They also saw Rebel without a Cause. James Dean's screen persona was the polar opposite of Murphy's and Wayne's: an alienated loner who was sensitive, almost feminine in his affect. His courage was more emotional than physical. Dean's heroism was rooted not in the unity of men tested together in battle, but in his nonconformity, in being an outcast. When he did fight, it was only when forced into it, and then only to defend his right to be an individual, to maintain his ambivalence toward mainstream society. His acts of daring were not Murphy's standing on a tank destroyer nor Wayne's charging a bunker, but racing a car toward the edge of a cliff.

Joe Hooper became neither Audie Murphy nor James Dean but instead embodied a lot of both. Like Murphy (and the screen image of John Wayne), Joe performed heroically in war. During times of peace, however, he was closer to Dean, always, always, racing toward the edge of a cliff.

Joe's family was part of the great, restless migration of rural southerners that left for the Northwest during World War II. John Henry Hooper and his wife Maggie first moved their family to Oregon, then back to South Carolina-where Joe had been born on August 8, 1938-then set out for Alaska but only got as far as Moses Lake, Washington.

There they settled, if John Henry's drunken binges and frequent disappearances could be called "settling." From the age of eight or nine he had been riding the rails. Now, even as a father of three (and stepfather of two of Maggie's children by a previous marriage) he would disappear without a word to anyone, hop a train or a bus, and be gone for weeks.

He had a hard time putting down roots-the Hooper family lived in three different houses in town and two small farms out in the country, trying to raise dairy cattle, sheep, and chickens. Neither the farming nor John Henry's series of part-time jobs was enough to make ends meet, so to provide a relatively steady income Maggie worked as a dishwasher at Elmer's Cafe. But the family still struggled financially. As Joe's high school girlfriend recalled, "his parents weren't real wealthy. They were sort of on the poor side. The kids didn't really have a whole lot." And while household life went on all around him, John Henry would barely say a word, sitting quietly in a corner reading the newspaper or western novels, particularly those by Zane Grey and Louis L'Amour.

In 1945 John Henry was thirty-eight, Maggie was forty-two; they had married in July 1935, almost a decade after Maggie's first husband, Raymond Roy Sweatt, died of tuberculosis in 1926. Their family included Joe, his older brother Douglas (born in 1936), a younger sister Audrey (1942), and Frances and Raymond Sweatt Jr., Maggie's children from her first marriage who were already into their twenties; both soon married and moved out of the house. John Henry and Maggie completed their family with another daughter, Kathryn, born in 1948.

John Henry was not much of a role model in an era when the ideal family featured an aggressive, protective, and patriarchal male breadwinner dominating a supportive wife and adoring children. In the Hooper household the kids "never asked Dad for anything. It was Mom. She handled everything. Whatever Mom wanted, she got."

Joe did get one thing from his father that he didn't have to ask for: alcoholism. His drinking would affect his career, his relationships, his marriages; in the end, whether directly or indirectly, it would kill him.

If Joe didn't see much to honor and obey in his father, he also found little to admire in his older brother, Douglas. Tall and thin and with a temperament much like his father's, Doug was an introverted, nonaggressive boy who disliked sports, preferred to back down from a fight, and never married. He did like horses, which have a certain rugged western panache associated with them. Although Joe shared Doug's love of horses, that was their only common interest, and they "never got along too well." Joe considered his brother a "sissy," which in the 1950s was often a veiled reference to homosexuality. Both Audrey and Kathryn believe that Doug probably was gay; if so, his sexual preferences were in stark contrast to the womanizing that became one of his younger brother's trademarks.

While Joe's relationship with his older brother was strained, he got along much better with his little sisters and younger relatives. Even as an adult Joe would have a special affinity for kids, perhaps because he was so impulsively childish himself at times. He used to help Audrey with her homework, made her play baseball "whether I wanted to or not," and taught her how to drive a pickup truck. Unfortunately, he "just didn't teach me how to step on brakes. So I ran into an irrigation ditch." Kathryn considered herself Joe's "pet." And whenever he visited his nephew Jim Gumm, Joe would roughhouse with him and take him bowling.

Moses Lake was a typical American small town. Nestled in the rainshadow of the Cascade Mountains, in 1940 the town was a struggling agricultural patch grafted onto a desert. The few hundred people who hung on did so only in the hope of the so far unfulfilled promise of federally funded, cheap irrigation. The war brought themnot water but an army air base that brought a few thousand more people, most of whom left when the war ended. Soon after, the government did begin construction on the long-awaited Columbia Basin Irrigation Project, thus making real the dream of cheap water. With adequate irrigation and a dose of fertilizer the sun-baked landscape turned green with alfalfa, sugar beets, potatoes, and wheat.

The population grew with the crops, from 326 in 1940, to 2,668 a decade later, to over nine thousand just five years later. By 1949 the town had its first hospital and started construction on its first sidewalks and curbs, it began putting in streetlights the next year, and soon a bus service began operating. The Columbia Basin Herald went from a semiweekly in 1953 to a daily by 1955.

Despite having a father who was frequently absent or drinking and a brother who was outside the norms of boisterous young male behavior, enjoying a happy childhood in Moses Lake was easy, especially if a kid liked being outdoors, which Joe did. Playing cowboys and Indians or cops and robbers, hunting for ducks and pheasants and rabbits, shooting tin cans with a .22 rifle or blasting away at the azure sky with a .410 pistol or a 12-gauge shotgun (which, said a friend, "just knocked the snot out of us"), tearing up one street and down another on a bike, fishing and swimming during the summer, doing tricks with a yo-yo for hours on end-Joe did them all within the comforting cocoon of a small, friendly community. Like so many boys in Moses Lake, Joe had "a Tom Sawyer-like type of life."

Mischief, of course, always beckoned, but Joe and his boyhood friends generally avoided it. But not always. Joe and Tom Johnson, for example, developed a scam when they discovered that a grocery store kept its empty pop bottles around back. They swiped a few bottles, took them to the front of the store, and turned them in for the deposit, which they promptly spent on peanuts and candy. Unfortunately for the minicriminals the storekeeper caught on after about the third time and called the parents, who "were not happy with us."

Overall, throughout grade school Joe was a fun-loving, happy-go-lucky kid. Redheaded and freckle-faced, he not only enjoyed playing but also participated in extracurricular activities and did his schoolwork. In the sixth grade he received a special certificate "as a reward for achievement in Practical Sales Work," and his eighth grade report card showed him ranked "strong" or "average" (but never "weak") in every subject and aptitude. However, in a prescient comment the teacher noted that Joe's "general attitude could be better."

As Joe grew up his attitude toward school, toward life really, underwent a transformation. According to Joe's sister Audrey, "when he became a teenager everything changed, and I don't know why it changed." His best boyhood friend, Tom Johnson, agreed that Joe changed suddenly and dramatically. Often at odds with both his brother and his father, he taunted Douglas about being a sissy, sassed his father, did little to help out around the farm, and virtually ignored schoolwork. He began socializing with a pack of classmates who considered themselves good guys but admitted they were neither typical nor the nicest kids in school. Others considered them "hoods," or outcasts. These new friends saw a different kid from the one his childhood playmates knew. The maturing Joe Hooper progressively lived at the edge of "ordinary," and his new buddies provided plenty of company out there. Those in the group were not exactly juvenile delinquents since they avoided committing criminal offenses, but they were not model citizens either.

Part of Joe's metamorphosis came from the normal crossing of the Rubicon of puberty, a time of extraordinary change in a child's biology, thinking capacities, and brain functioning that fills a near-adult with internal tumult. Also undoubtedly affecting his attitude was the distinct teen culture that emerged during and after World War II. Adults became deeply worried by the rebellious behavior of their teenagers, by "hot-rods" and rock 'n' roll, rapidly evolving slang and novel hair styles, irresponsibility and juvenile delinquency-according to the Columbia Basin Herald the rise in youth crime in the Moses Lake vicinity was "alarming." Nor did parents approve of new teen heroes. Actually, they were existentialist anti-heroes. One of the most influential was James Dean, the movie idol whose tragic death in an auto accident in October 1955 sparked a teen cult.

Dean first gained renown in East of Eden (1955), in which he played the troubled, misunderstood teenager Cal Trask with such searing conviction that, as a reviewer noted, the role might have led "to his being accepted by young audiences as a sort of symbol of their generation." Fulfilling that prediction was his performance as Jim Stark, the tormented, rebellious loner who respected neither age nor authority in Rebel without a Cause (1955), which was released less than a month after Dean's death. When Stark cried "If I had one day when I didn't have to be all confused, when I felt that I belonged some place," he articulated the bewildered anguish that was so much a part of Cold War teenage culture.

But something beyond puberty and teen angst affected Joe, driving him to extraordinary lengths to prove his manhood. Some prominent individuals at midcentury feared that a combination of "momism" (mothers pampering their sons) and aggressive women were undermining male virtues, rendering men weak and meek, and provoking fears about the survival of a neutered society. As the eminent historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. asked in a 1958 essay, "What has unmanned the American man?" Included in his explanation was a generalized "loss of a sense of identity," which developed out of an increasingly homogenized society that eradicated "all the differences between the individuals who compose it." He also emphasized the new role of women. In language replete with the military metaphors so common in Cold War literature, he argued that it appeared (at least to men) that women represented "an expanding, aggressive force, seizing new domains like a conquering army, while men, more and more on the defensive, are hardly able to hold their own and gratefully accept assignments from their new rulers." The result was "an age of sexual ambiguity" that left "the American male obsessed with his manhood," unsure of his sexual identity and forever worried that, in the words of one eminent doctor, he "will not be man enough."

How did a male prove that he was "man enough"? The answer was never entirely clear since perceptions of how men should act are a product of culture, not genetics. Ideas about manhood vary over time and from society to society. Mid-twentieth-century conceptions of manliness in western civilization arose between the French Revolution and World War I, an epoch that also saw the emergence of strident nationalism. During this era of the "militarization of masculinity," manliness and patriotism became closely linked. Male virtues included honor, aggressiveness, toughness, perseverance, daring, immunity to pain, and a willingness to sacrifice, all of which were especially noble when showcased in pursuit of a higher cause, such as preserving the fatherland. And unlike women, men were unemotional, unwilling, for example, to show fear or pain, which must be mastered and controlled, not displayed. That's why men did not cry readily. As one man put it, men did not weep. They "cry against crying. Their sobbing is distorted by the struggle not to cry out, by grunts and groans uttered only under the exertion of heavy labor." If a man faltered on the emotional front, the failure must be only momentary; men struggled mightily to regain control of their emotions quickly.

Whether or not a man possessed male virtues was never self-evident, so he repeatedly had to prove his manliness, and prove it not so much to women but to other men. Manhood was a relentless series of tests that a man had to pass. Consequently, significant arenas for demonstrating one's manliness were male-dominated activities such as war and competitive sports, where fear could be repressed, pain stifled, and tears rejected. Heterosexual conquests were, of course, a demonstration of manhood, but often collecting sexual "trophies" had less to do with the women involved than it did with impressing other men. Male pleasure-seekers often considered women merely as objects of pleasure or ornamental accessories. Tough, courageous, aggressive, womanizing males were also hard-drinking fellows bent on demonstrating (to themselves and one another) that they could hold their liquor. When it came to male bonding, the barroom was equal to a foxhole or the locker room.


Excerpted from Looking for a Hero by Peter Maslowski Don Winslow Copyright © 2004 by University of Nebraska Press. Excerpted by permission.
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