On this day in 1968, an American soldier engages in an action that would earn him the Medal of Honor. Robert L. Howard would ultimately become one of our most highly decorated Vietnam veterans. Would you believe he was nominated for the Medal of Honor three times?!
Two of the nominations apparently failed, at least in part, because of the covert nature of the operations in which he was engaged.
Hmm. Would he have received them otherwise?
On December 30, 1968, Howard was helping to search for a missing American soldier. Unfortunately, his platoon came under attack soon after insertion. Howard was knocked temporarily unconscious. But how did Howard survive that first blow at all?! When he woke, he had blood in his eyes and his weapon was destroyed.
“My weapon is just blown all to hell,” he later recounted, “and then I realized, what in the world did I survive to blow that weapon up like that? I had an AR-16.”
He looked around and realized that an enemy combatant was nearby with a flamethrower. He was using it to burn the bodies of dead Americans. Howard had no weapon, but he did have a grenade. The flamethrower looked straight at him. “We acknowledged each other,” Howard said later. The Vietnamese flamethrower stopped what he was doing, and he began calling in reinforcements. Howard threw the grenade in the direction of the newly arrived enemy forces.
By then, Howard had realized that his platoon leader was nearby, seriously wounded. He crawled in the direction of his leader, intending to help. “As 1st Lt. Howard was administering first aid and removing the officer's equipment,” his Medal citation notes, “an enemy bullet struck 1 of the ammunition pouches on the lieutenant's belt, detonating several magazines of ammunition.”
“[The enemy] riddled me across the center of my body,” Howard recounted, “and the ammo pouches blew up with the ammunition and actually picked me up off the ground and blew me away.”
For a “split second,” Howard said, he didn’t want to go back. “I had to go back, you know, but I didn’t want to go back. I didn’t want to go back because I was aware of the situation. I was wounded pretty bad and I knew I was wounded pretty bad, but at least if I didn’t survive, they could look and say that guy died the way he wanted to die . . . . Nobody else is going to be able to get that lieutenant but me. And I didn’t want to go back, but I did.”
Despite his own serious wounds, Howard managed to pull his lieutenant to cover.
For hours afterwards, Howard rallied his platoon and organized a defense. Eventually, rescue aircraft were able to get through.
A few years later, Howard would receive his Medal of Honor pretty much like he earned it. He learned of the award because he received a call while he was commanding a completely different engagement in Vietnam.
He’d just been shot in the foot when he got the call.
Howard thought Washington, D.C. was calling him because they wanted an update on the engagement he was commanding. Instead, he was notified that he would be receiving the Medal of Honor.
“Sir, I really appreciate that honor,” Howard told the Chief of Staff who’d call him, “[but] I think I’m going to have a problem getting out of here.”
He made it out, of course. He received the Medal in 1971, but continued in the Army until 1992. Hero that he was, he spent much of his retirement helping veterans before passing away late in 2009.
Edward F. Murphy, Vietnam Medal of Honor Heroes (rev. ed. 2005)
Medal of Honor citation (Robert L. Howard, 3/2/1971)
Medal of Honor: Oral histories (Robert L. Howard; Vietnam)
Peter Collier et al., Medal of Honor: Portraits of Honor beyond the Call of Duty (3d ed. 2011)