The Special Forces Sergeant pulled the small rectangular Claymore mine from its pouch. Though he couldn’t see the Soviet-built truck, he smelled its fumes. The distinctive low rasp of its diesel engine spewed a heavy, acrid odor that hung under the dense jungle canopy for hundreds of yards.
Unwinding the detonation wire, he sensed the vehicle coming closer, absent of any light in this the darkest of nights. He rested on his boots ready to spring, the mine in one hand and its detonator in the other. A warm rush of air and dust washed over him as the vehicle passed, and he leapt to the road running alongside it.
With just enough taut in the wire, he began to twirl the Claymore over his head like a lasso. He slowed a bit letting the truck get ahead. Timing it perfectly, midway through a twirl he released the Claymore, its wire unfurling as it clanked onto the rear deck between the legs of unsuspecting North Vietnamese Army soldiers.
Vanishing back into the bush, he waited a couple more seconds as more trucks passed, then clicked the detonator. Sparks and flame roared skyward as the truck disintegrated, raining molten metal and smoldering body parts down upon the hoods and roofs of the stunned column swerving to avoid smashing into the sizzling hulk.
Hearing voices shouting on the road, he summoned his Recon Team into formation and they melted back into the jungle, leaving the embers of his work burning for several minutes, as the startled caretakers of the Ho Chi Minh trail struggled to push aside the glowing wreckage so the tangled column could resume its trek to the South Vietnamese border.
For some of the soldiers, clambering back aboard the same kind of vehicle those minutes before had met a fiery end on a seemingly quiet part of the road, left them agonizing over a simple thought the rest of the night…
Who did this?
The Greatest Soldier America Never Knew
For those who knew Robert Howard, however, such exploits were commonplace for a man who served time and again as an example of courage and patriotism to all during a period when the nation he fought for struggled find its way through a turbulent decade. When the war finally ended and the protests faded, Howard stood alone as a soldier whose combat decorations exceeded those of World War II’s Audie Murphy.
Robert Lewis Howard was born on July 11, 1939, in Opelika, Alabama. Barely walking, he witnessed his father join the U.S Army paratroopers along with four uncles. Two of whom were later killed. His father would later die of wounds suffered during the war.
As the years passed, he and his sister picked cotton to support the family, learning the value of hard work and sense of humility. He was always polite and gracious, tipping his hat to females.
In high school, he became a star football player, receiving a full athletic scholarship. But service called and he joined the U.S Army, desiring to wear the same emblem his father and uncles had, and soon enough he sported the paratrooper wings of the 101st Airborne division.
He continued rising in rank throughout the years and finally deployed to Vietnam, where he was involved in numerous firefights before being wounded in 1966. While recovering, he bonded with some fellow patients who belonged to the 5th Special Forces Group. There and then, he made a life-changing decision to become one of them and left for training soon after being discharged from the hospital.
He returned to Vietnam in early 1967 wearing the beret and flash of the 5th group and joining S.O.G. (Studies and Observation Group), running missions across the border into Laos and Cambodia. Here, in perhaps the most dangerous locations of the war, Howard proved himself time and again to be more than just a brave soldier.
On one occasion, a company-sized Hatchet Force needed insertion to destroy large weapons cache and rice cache in southern Laos. The site was already under surveillance from by a recon team, and Howard volunteered to land another team to lead the force to the link-up.
Heavy fire greeted the Hatchet Force, damaging several choppers, but the team landed and Howard guided them between the numerous NVA patrols scouring the area.
After completing the link-up, Howard and his men slipped back into the jungle scouting for potential ambushes. He found some unsuspecting enemy soldiers and cut them down with his M16. Moving again, from the base of a hill, a machine gun chattered from an earthen bunker almost invisible from the layers of leafy vegetation camouflaging it. Rounds walked between the team raining branches upon them. The team returned fire as best they could, but the position kept pinning them down.
Howard crawled ever closer toward the gun. A muzzle flashed from trees up the hill, Howard locked his sights onto it and fired a burst. The sniper was dead before he hit the ground. Continuing towards the machine gun, he shot to his feet and charged it point-blank, pouring lead into the surprised occupants.
Another machine gun barked at him from a bunker further up the hill. Moving his team up, he called in air support. A run was made on the position, appearing to silence it. Howard crawled up the hill to check the results. The gun opened up again. He crawled closer… suicidal close. The gun barrel was six inches above his head, flame spouting tracers at his team. He flipped a grenade through the positions narrow opening. The blast showered him with clods of dirt.
Recommended for the Medal of Honor, it was downgraded to the 2nd highest decoration for valor, the Distinguished Service Cross. More NVA approached the stricken site. He fell back, retrieved a Light Anti Tank Weapon (L.A.W) and returned, standing unmovable as bullets sang around him to send a stubby rocket streaking into the bunker. The position ruptured into a yawning hole. Stunned NVA remaining on the hill abandoned their positions, thinking a much larger force had moved in, leaving the cache site to be destroyed unhindered, largely, due to S.O.G’s one-man army that day.
Another incident above and beyond occurred in November 1968, when Howard landed with a Hatchet Force to lure NVA forces away from a CIA team operating deeper in Laos. For days, their journey belied an eerie calm as they made their way along roads through tangled jungle and moonscapes of bomb craters. He and the experienced NCO’s knew something was up. It seemed that they were being drawn into an ambush. The force leader, an inexperienced captain, shrugged off warnings and continued pressing onwards.
Just as they were about to cross another field, the head of the column halted. A young lieutenant radioed back that the Montagnards were begging him not to walk into the field. The captain rejected their pleas and told him to move forward. Keeping low, Howard reached the lieutenant who was walking point.
“Can’t you see them?” Howard said. “There’s enemy in that woodline, over there.” The lieutenant shook his head.
“OK. I’ll kill two and then you’ll see them.”
He raised his rifle and ticked off a shot, one soldier fell.
A storm of return fire leapt out at them and they hit the ground. Seeing the lieutenant wounded Howard worked on him, taking shrapnel in his backs and legs from an RPG rocket as he applied tourniquets. Once stabilized, Howard retrieved some L.A.W.’s and Montagnards to lead them against a new target that emerged.
It was a PT-76, an amphibious tank in another part of woods that vectored its machine-gun fire at Howard and the ‘Yards as they closed in.
Howard dodged between several trees to get a shot as the gun tracked him. Finally, he was able to flank it and fire a L.A.W. into the boat-shaped vehicle’s turret. A rain of sparks marked the hit, dead center, but the gun kept firing. He sent another round just below it, and a pyre of hissing flames churned out the fractured turret, silencing it.
As the day wore on, the Hatchet force continued to fight against growing odds, seeing dozens more of their comrades falling dead or wounded, and Howard to his amazement listened to his Captain continually just request ammo status and casualty count as his men struggled to establish a defensive perimeter.
A Medevac chopper approached. The enemy drew a bead on it and peppered its olive skin with dozens of holes. It began to slip sideways, yawing as the pilot fought for control. It lumbered a few seconds more and crashed in flames some 300 yards away in the same woodline where the NVA had returned fire earlier.
Watching a crewman leap from the shattered bird and collapse, Howard, still bleeding from his earlier wounds ran alone into the field, bullets crisscrossing and nipping at him as he forced his battered body to give more and more until he reached the burning Huey.
Checking over the crew, he realized one of the door gunners was dead, the other unable to move as the pilot helped his wounded copilot free of the crash.
Howard lifted the injured door gunner into his arms and told the pilot to follow him and stay close to the ground.
What was left of the Hatchet Force provided covering fire as Howard led the men in. They fell and rose several times, not from taking cover, but from sheer exhaustion, before they reached safety. Another Medevac landed and Howard was urged to get on board, but he refused, because more fighting remained, and he wanted to be part of it.
And part of it he was. The next day, bloodstained and tired, he surprised three NVA, killing two and tackling the other. He brought the prisoner back for interrogation, where the size of what they faced was revealed. A battalion lurked around them while a regiment was gathering for the march a few miles away.
The captain now insisted on being medevaced despite suffering a minor flesh wound, while in front of him sat Howard, perforated over 50 times in shredded clothes and still willing to fight. But in the end, the captain medevaced himself out and left Howard and the remaining NCO’s to run the show.
The force managed to survive another night, with Howard calling the shots, and was extracted the next day.
Another Medal of Honor recommendation came his way. Again, it was downgraded, this time to a Silver Star, the 3rd highest award for bravery. The incompetent captain put himself in for a Distinguished Service Cross… and received it.
Back in action again on December 30th, Howard was second in command of a Hatchet Force led by Lieutenant Jim Jerson. They were sent in on what was called a Bright Light mission to Cambodia, trying to recover a missing Green Beret.
Landing under fire, the force pushed the NVA back and engaged several more clusters of enemy before reaching the base of a hill, where the missing man’s radio beacon was sending.
Howard muttered to Jerson that they’d probably get ambushed, but there was no way in Hell they were leaving a man behind, so the force began treading up the incline.
Sure enough, the NVA opened up, explosions and gunfire rocked the mountain hitting Jerson, Howard and several other Hatchet members.
“There were five that were killed near me, during the ambush,” Howard recalled. “The blast just blew me back and upside down.” When I finally came to, I couldn’t see. Blood was running down my face into my eyes and that was why I couldn’t see.” When his vision began clearing, “I smelled the most horrible smell” He saw an enemy soldier burning dead Montagnards with a flamethrower.
Howard felt for a grenade on his shattered body, and as he held it in his hand with the pin pulled, the NVA stood over him, the two men staring at each other for several seconds before the NVA moved away, shouting commands at his comrades as Howard’s grenade sailed toward them.
Hearing the explosion, Howard, unable to walk because of his wounds, pulled himself to Jerson and dragged the injured man back down the hill.
Knowing they would never make it undetected. Howard hid Jerson in some vegetation and tried to make the rest of the way alone for help. An NVA fired at him setting off rounds in his ammo pouch which caused him to tumble the rest of the way. He came to a stop beside a sergeant, praying and sobbing as he fired his weapon.
“Give me your, M16,” Howard said. Instead, the NCO offered him a .45 pistol with two magazines. Howard told him “It’s not time to pray or cry, it’s time to fight or die!”
Encouraged by his words, the NCO followed Howard back up the hill, both killing several NVA before they reached Jerson. Howard grabbed the wounded man with one hand and fired with the other as he pulled him down the slope. Heavy fire caused them to abandon Jerson once, but they went back again – aided with help of another team member who was ultimately shot and killed – and got the man down and back into friendly hands.
It had taken six hours.
By this time, in addition to shrapnel wounds, Howard had been shot in the leg and could no longer hear. Still, he managed to stand, once again.
Beyond exhaustion, deferring rest, he assessed the situation and organized the force into defensive positions to prepare them for the coming night.
He maintained command throughout the darkness, even to the point of calling in fire from an AC-130 Spectre gunship onto his position to break up NVA assaults that threatened to overrun them.
When morning came the NVA had withdrawn, demoralized and defeated, as choppers swept in to extract the Hatchet Force. Howard ensured all his men were aboard before he hauled his broken body aboard, hallucinating and mercifully passing out before reaching the hospital.
He’d given his all.
Reviewers read the after-action reports of his heroism with incredulity. This time there would be no injustice. And on a sunny day in Washington D.C., Robert Howard stood silent as President Richard Nixon draped the Congressional Medal of Honor around his neck.
He had served 5 tours, 58 months in combat, been wounded 14 times and received a battlefield commission to 2nd lieutenant.
There was almost no mention of it in the papers. Anti-war protests had stolen the headlines.
For Howard though, medals really didn’t matter much. Always humble about his accomplishments, he continued in Special Forces, training and inspiring future warriors with his commitment to service and country before retiring in 1992.
He kept on even as a civilian, helping new generations of soldiers by making trips to Iraq and Afghanistan, and giving motivational speeches at veteran’s organizations before his death in 2009 of cancer.
A few years ago he spoke to a graduating class of infantry leaders; it is only fitting that this article ends with an excerpt of his words:
“You young men, your word is your bond. But your character is your actions. You have demonstrated the character that the forefathers bequeathed you, that made this great nation that we got today… Never surrender your weapon, and face the enemy!”
Colonel Robert Howard’s Decorations
- Medal of Honor
- Distinguished Service Cross (with one oak leaf cluster)
- Silver Star
- Defense Superior Service Medal
- Legion of Merit (with three oak leaf clusters)
- Bronze Star (with three oak leaf clusters and “V” device)
- Purple Heart (with a silver and two bronze oak leaf clusters)
- Meritorious Service Medal (with two oak leaf clusters)
- Air Medal (with “V” Device and numeral 3. One award for heroism and two for aerial achievement)
- Joint Service Commendation
- Army Commendation Medal (with “V” device and one each silver and bronze oak leaf clusters. 4 awards for valor and 3 for achievement)
- Joint Service Achievement
- Army Achievement
- Good Conduct Medal, 4 Good Conduct Loops (4 awards)
- National Defense Service Medal
- Armed Forces Reserve Medal
- Vietnam Service Medal
- NCO Professional Development Ribbon with 2 device
- Army Overseas Ribbon
- Army Service Ribbon
- Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, w/3 Service stars (3 awards)
- Army Presidential Unit Citation, 1st Oak Leaf Cluster
- Presidential Unit Citation (United States) 2001, Studies and Observations Group
- Navy Unit Commendation
- Army Meritorious Unit Citation
- Foreign decorations
- Vietnam Campaign Medal with 60 device
- Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Gold Star (Corps citation)
- Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Silver Star (Division citation)
- Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Bronze Star (Regiment or Brigade citation)
- Vietnam Armed Forces Honor Medal 2nd Award
- Vietnam Wound Medal
- Vietnam Civil Actions Medal 2nd Award
- Vietnam Cross of Gallantry Unit Citation with Palm, 1st Oak Leaf Cluster (Unit citation)
- Republic of Korea Order of National Security Merit (Samil Medal)
Colonel Robert Howard Badges, Qualifications and Tabs
- Ranger Tab
- Special Forces Tab
- Combat Infantryman Badge
- Aircrew Badge
- Master Parachutist Badge
- Pathfinder Badge
- Air Assault Badge
- Expert Infantryman’s Badge
- Vietnamese Ranger Badge
- Vietnamese Master Parachute Badge
- Thai Master Parachute Wings
- Korean Master Parachute Badge
- Thai Balloonist Badge
- French Parachutist Badge
Col. Robert Howard Videos
SOFREP recommends watching the Courage Under Fire series about Robert Howard. This three-part series gives interviews with Robert Howard and shows how he continued to mentor and motivate our fighting men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan prior to his death in 2009.
You’ll also want to see the excellent series on Robert Howard presented by USFALLEN.org. Video 2 is especially compelling as he tells today’s Generals point-blank to pay attention to the troops because they’re the ones doing the fighting.
This article was written by Mike Perry. It was originally published on 06.10.2012.