Bob Howard was and still is, a legend among the Special Operations and Special Forces communities. He was the only man ever nominated for the Medal of Honor three times, all within a 13-month period, and truth be told, should have been awarded it for all three.
Howard was wounded 14 times in combat but was awarded just eight Purple Hearts, why? According to him, the other wounds weren’t bad enough to keep him out of action. By war’s end in Vietnam, he’d spent nearly 5 ½ years there. Again, when asked why, he simply responded, that there was he could do the most good.
Even among the SOG (Studies and Observations Group) veterans who performed all kinds of derring-do behind the lines in Vietnam as well as Cambodia and Laos, he was still referred to in hushed reverent tones.
World War I and II had the national heroes such as Alvin C. York and Audie Murphy. Had not the Vietnam War been so unpopular at home and with the press, Howard would be there right beside them and be as well known to the public. Because sadly, outside of the Special Operations community, few really know the story of Bob Howard.
His exploits read like the script of a bad “B-war film” and yet every word of those are absolutely true. One of his recommendations for the Medal of Honor, which was later downgraded to the Distinguished Service Cross was recalled by Major John Plaster who served with Howard in SOG in Vietnam. Plaster recalls the operation as a typical Bob Howard, then a Sergeant First Class (SFC), as a tale filled with heroism.
“Accompanying a larger SOG force, he performed magnificently, single-handedly knocking out a PT-76 tank. A day later he wiped out an anti-aircraft gun crew, and afterward rescued the crew of a downed Huey. Repeatedly wounded, he was bleeding from his arms, legs, back, and face, but he refused to be evacuated. Again submitted for the Medal of Honor, his recommendation was downgraded, this time to the Distinguished Service Cross.”
On December 30, 1968, just six weeks after the previous incident, Howard’s actions would result in President Nixon awarding him the Medal of Honor in the White House. Howard accompanied a platoon of SOG troops, American and Vietnamese going into Laos in search of a missing recon man, Robert Scherdin.
Upon infiltration, they were ambushed by a much larger enemy force, Howard was badly wounded, his M-16 was blown out of his hands and rendered useless.He was temporarily knocked unconscious. But as soon as he came to, he knew what to do. Howard low-crawled to the aid of a wounded lieutenant. He then had to drag the man nearly two hundred yards under heavy enemy fire. A sergeant gave him a .45 pistol and fought off NVA soldiers with it and a grenade. As if that weren’t enough, Howard then formed the men into a tight perimeter and called in an airstrike right on top of their position. The resultant explosions would lift the Americans into the air and peppered them as well as the enemy with shrapnel. He described his actions a few years ago in an interview.
“When I come to, I was blown up in a crump on the ground, and my weapon was blown out of my hand. I can remember seeing red and saying a prayer, hoping I wasn’t blind. I couldn’t see. And I knew I was in a lot of pain and my hands were hurting. I couldn’t get up, and I really didn’t want to get up anyway because I couldn’t see. And then I finally starting getting the vision back and it was like blood was in my eyes, and I started feeling, but my hands were all blown up.
“And then it was like there was a big flame and there was smoke and there were people screaming and hollering. It, in fact, was an enemy soldier that was burning the people that would have been ambushed with a flamethrower. And the guy walked up to me and was getting ready to burn me, and he looked at me and he didn’t burn the lieutenant. The lieutenant was about 5 feet away from me, and he’s laying face forward, and he was hollering and he was screaming. I knew he was hurt. And the guy looked at me with the flamethrower, and then I looked at him. I guess I looked so bad and pitiful, he decided not to burn me up. He just turned and walked off.”
“So I’m pulling him back down the hill, and there was a sergeant that was laying down behind a log with a weapon that hadn’t been wounded that had seen this. But he was crying and not using his weapon. Here I am, begging him to help me because I can’t walk and drag the lieutenant back down.
“I said, ‘Well, give me your weapon,’ and he wouldn’t give me his weapon, but he did give me a .45. Just as he gave me the .45, and I’m trying to tell him to give me a couple more magazines of rounds for it, a bunch of enemy soldiers come running toward us. So here I am trying to fire the handgun, and I can remember shooting this enemy soldier that was fixing to stick me with a bayonet. He was running toward me. In fact, he fell across the lieutenant that I was dragging, and so just as he fell across there was another one behind him. They were trying to get us alive is what they were trying to do.”
“They brought the fire into our position,” Howard said of the airstrike. “In fact, I remember fire landing right between my feet and, you know, ricochet hitting me in the face. You know, that’s how intense it was.”
Howard was wounded so badly that his SOG teammates feared that they’d never see him again. But not afterward, Bob Howard went AWOL from the hospital and rejoined his unit. He was given a battlefield promotion to 1LT and stayed on active duty until retiring as a full Colonel.
It is amazing that no one has of yet, told his story in a film. Perhaps someday, Steven Spielberg, or Clint Eastwood who would do Bob Howard’s story justice, will do a film, finally honoring his heroism. It is long overdue.
Howard’s Medal of Honor Citation
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. 1st Lt. Howard (then Sfc .), distinguished himself while serving as platoon sergeant of an American-Vietnamese platoon which was on a mission to rescue a missing American soldier in enemy controlled territory in the Republic of Vietnam. The platoon had left its helicopter landing zone and was moving out on its mission when it was attacked by an estimated 2-company force. During the initial engagement, 1st Lt. Howard was wounded and his weapon destroyed by a grenade explosion. 1st Lt. Howard saw his platoon leader had been wounded seriously and was exposed to fire. Although unable to walk, and weaponless, 1st Lt. Howard unhesitatingly crawled through a hail of fire to retrieve his wounded leader. As 1st Lt. Howard was administering first aid and removing the officer’s equipment, an enemy bullet struck 1 of the ammunition pouches on the lieutenant’s belt, detonating several magazines of ammunition. 1st Lt. Howard momentarily sought cover and then realizing that he must rejoin the platoon, which had been disorganized by the enemy attack, he again began dragging the seriously wounded officer toward the platoon area. Through his outstanding example of indomitable courage and bravery, 1st Lt. Howard was able to rally the platoon into an organized defense force. With complete disregard for his safety, 1st Lt. Howard crawled from position to position, administering first aid to the wounded, giving encouragement to the defenders and directing their fire on the encircling enemy. For 3 1/2 hours 1st Lt. Howard’s small force and supporting aircraft successfully repulsed enemy attacks and finally were in sufficient control to permit the landing of rescue helicopters. 1st Lt. Howard personally supervised the loading of his men and did not leave the bullet-swept landing zone until all were aboard safely. 1st Lt. Howard’s gallantry in action, his complete devotion to the welfare of his men at the risk of his life were in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit on himself, his unit, and the U.S. Army.
Photos: US Army/White House