A Most Decorated American Warrior, Colonel Robert L. Howard, US Army Special Forces, Vietnam Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, Part 2 – The Andalusia Star-News


To further describe the “larger-than-life” soldier Robert L. Howard, the author would like to quote one of his contemporaries, Major John L. Plaster, US Army Special Forces, “Take all the John Wayne movies – add Clint Eastwood too – and those fictions couldn’t live up to the real Bob Howard. Officially, he received eight Purple Hearts, but he was actually injured 14 times. Six of the injuries, he decided, were not serious enough to merit the award. Keep in mind that for every time he was injured, there were probably ten times he was nearly injured, and you get an idea of ​​his combat service. He lived up to America’s greatest heroes – Davy Crockett, Alvin York, Audie Murphy – the inspiring example that we fellow Green Berets tried to live up to.

By the end of 1968, Robert Howard was back in Vietnam operating with a Ax strength which had been inserted in Laos. As the team made their way through dense vegetation, they came across an open field. The lieutenant who was marching forward in the column announced by radio that his mountain guides refused to cross the terrain. Their inexperienced captain ordered the men across the field anyway. Howard walked over and joined the lieutenant and told him he suspected an ambush. The lieutenant said he couldn’t see anything wrong. Howard told the lieutenant to watch the tree line through the terrain as he raised his M-16 and fired a round. An enemy soldier fell in the treeline across the field and there was an immediate volley of return fire which injured the lieutenant.

sergeant. Robert L. Howard, US Army Special Forces, Vietnam. [Photo: sogsite.com]

Howard rushed to apply tourniquets and was injured in the back and legs by an RPG rocket. After stabilizing the lieutenant, Howard picked up a light anti-tank weapon [LAW] and taking several Mountaineers [the American forces called them “Yards”] with him, tried to outflank the enemy. At this time, they were taking fire from an enemy PT-76 amphibious tank.

Howard circled around and managed to get behind the enemy tank and fire a rocket into the turret. It took two rounds before the tank was silenced. More and more, the Ax strength was taking enemy fire and Howard’s concern grew as his captain seemed unclear in his directions. As they struggled to establish a defensive perimeter, a Medevac helicopter approached to evacuate some of the injured. It quickly came under fire and began to drop in altitude until it crashed, not far from the treeline where the enemy had opened fire. Unaware of his own injuries, Howard sprinted across the field to help the fire crew huey.

When he reached the helicopter, he could see that one of the door gunners was dead and the other was unable to move. As the pilot helped his co-pilot free himself from the wreckage, Howard put one of the door gunners on his back and told the pilot to follow him to his unit. The remains of Ax strength poured out suppressing fire into the treeline as the men struggled to regain their own lines. After falling several times from exhaustion, they managed to cross the field and join Howard’s unit. By then another Medevac helicopter had landed and Howard was asked to board with the other injured soldiers. He refused because he wanted to stay and finish the job.

Howard went on patrol the next day even though he was still suffering from exhaustion and injuries from the day before. He surprised three NVAs, killing two and bringing one prisoner back to the camp for questioning. They learned from the prisoner that they were surrounded by a battalion and that a regiment was a few miles away. By then another Medevac helicopter had arrived and Howard’s captain chose to leave despite a flesh wound. This left Howard and the remaining NCOs in charge. They managed to survive another night before being extracted the next day. Again, Howard was recommended for the Medal of Honor. This time he received the silver star.

There have been many times where Howard has shown a fearless and quick spirit. On one occasion, he was standing in a line in Vietnam when a Vietnamese terrorist rode past on a motorbike and threw a grenade. Howard quickly grabbed an M-16 from a startled security guard and shot the driver. He then chased the passenger and killed him as well.

On another occasion, a SOG section [Special Operations Group] and the reconnaissance party led by Joe Walker had been overrun near a major Laotian highway and most of his men had been killed or wounded. Howard took another reconnaissance team and was inserted some distance from the trapped men. After dark, Howard managed to fight his way to the trapped men. He crawled among the corpses, searching for a heartbeat until he found one. Joe Walker’s lanky legs were a giveaway, as were his horn-rimmed glasses. Walker remembered saying, “You sweet son of a gun!” Howard managed to get Walker out safely. Howard was not nominated for any awards this time.

Another of Howard’s feats seems straight out of the Wild West. He and his reconnaissance team had been inserted near the Ho Chi Minh Trail for night operation. Howard could smell the exhaust fumes of Soviet-built diesel trucks as the NVA convoy approached in the dark. Running alongside one of the trucks, Howard destroyed a Claymore mine. Whirling the detonation wire above his head like a lasso, he let the mine fly in the back of a truck. Falling into the bushes by the side of the road, Howard let a few more trucks pass before detonating the mine. The resulting explosion created a flaming carcass in the middle of the road, stopping traffic. The wreckage burned for hours before it could be pushed off the road. Meanwhile, Howard and his team had quietly slipped back into the jungle and escaped.

Howard knew that recon units were usually under surveillance when inserted or extracted. Recon units often left behind booby-trapped items when they left, such as 35mm cameras that exploded when opened. The idea was to make the enemy less eager to strip American bodies. An innocent-looking canteen with sloshing liquid was set to activate the second time it was opened. Howard decided to make his own trap.

He found an old foot locker, painted it red, stuffed it with TNT with a time switch and left it in an LZ [landing zone] that his team had just left. Howard and his men turned back to a point where they could observe the LZ. Howard recalled, “Of course, people were coming from all over… I actually think some of them were opening it when it exploded. It blew stuff for a quarter of a mile.

Most Sgt. Robert Howard’s exploits occurred before 1970, when he was part of the secret US program to interdict NVA personnel and infiltrate South Vietnam via the Ho Chi Minh Trail. President Richard M. Nixon first acknowledged U.S. involvement in Laos in March 1970. He estimated that since 1964 more than half a million NVA soldiers had used the trail to invade South Vietnam. As soon as the involvement of the United States was made public, Congress passed the Cooper-Church modification of the Defense Finance Act of 1970. It prohibits the use of American ground troops in Laos.

It is the author’s opinion that such an amendment has handcuffed the US military. This allowed the enemy to move soldiers and supplies into South Vietnam, unhindered, where they could carry out attacks and quickly return to safety in Laos or Cambodia. The book, “Dereliction of dutyby HR McMaster, is an indictment of the kind of civilian interference that has crippled the US military effort in Vietnam.

In next week’s conclusion, Sergeant First Class Robert L. Howard will finally receive the Medal of Honor for which he was nominated for the third time. [To be continued].

John Vic

Sources: Wikipedia; Interview transcript, memory.loc.gov; “SOG – America’s Secret Commando Wars in Vietnam” by John L. Plaster, Major, US Army, Special Operations Group; dmagazine.com; arsof-history.org]


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