Colonel Robert L. Howard – The Real Rambo
Colonel Robert L. Howard was born on July 11, 1939 in Opelika, Alabama. He entered military service on July 20, 1956 in Montgomery, Alabama, following in the footsteps of his father and four uncles who had served with airborne units in World War II. He was medically retired on September 30, 1992. He lived his last few years in San Antonio, Texas, and died December 23, 2009.
As a staff sergeant of the highly-classified Military Assistance Command, Vietnam – Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG), Howard was recommended for the Medal of Honor on three separate occasions for three individual actions during thirteen months spanning 1967-1968. The first two nominations were downgraded to the award of the Distinguished Service Cross due to the covert nature of the operations in which Howard participated. As a Sergeant First Class of the same organization, he risked his life during a rescue mission in Cambodia on December 30, 1968, while second in command of a platoon-sized Hornet force that was searching for missing American soldier Robert Scherdin, and was finally awarded the Medal of Honor.
While leading a covert SOG platoon-sized mission in southeastern Laos on November 16, 1967, Sergeant First Class Howard carried out actions that led to his being recommended for his nation’s highest honor. While the main body destroyed an enemy cache, Howard’s team came upon four North Vietnamese Army soldiers, whom he shot. The team was then pinned down by heavy machine gun fire. Howard first eliminated a sniper and then charged the machine gun position, killing its occupants. When a second machine gun opened up, he crawled forward to within point-blank range and threw a hand grenade, disabling that gun.
When more of the North Vietnamese took over the same gun, Howard stood in the open and fired a light anti-tank weapon, knocking it out once again. The team was then successfully extracted by helicopter. Although recommended for the Medal of Honor, Howard’s award was downgraded to the Distinguished Service Cross. This would be the first of three recommendations within 13 months for the Medal of Honor for Robert Howard.
In mid-November Howard accompanied an FOB-2 Hatchet Platoon into Laos. After four days in the area, on November 19, 1968, the force was ambushed by Vietnamese troops, including a Soviet-built PT-76 tank. Braving intense fire, Howard crept forward and knocked out the PT-76 with an anti-tank rocket. After a medivac helicopter was shot down, Howard, already wounded, charged forward 300 yards through North Vietnamese fire to lead the two pilots and a wounded door gunner to safety. He was again wounded, this time by 14 pieces of shrapnel, but all that this seemed to do was aggravate him.
He charged the Vietnamese, killed two and dragged back a third as a prisoner. North Vietnamese anti-aircraft fire halted the extraction of the platoon until the following morning, when Howard, already perforated multiple times, moved forward and silenced a 37 mm anti-aircraft gun, allowing the extraction to be completed. For the second time, Howard was recommended for the Medal of Honor, but his award was again downgraded to a Distinguished Service Cross.
This series of events illustrates the difficulties faced when special operations personnel exhibited extraordinary bravery in denied areas. Recommendations for decorations always stipulated the location and circumstances of the action, and since the award of such a high decoration became public knowledge, the citation would have to be changed to place the action within territorial South Vietnam. The U.S. Congress and President were loath to create any sense of falsehood about the actions of the nation’s most highly decorated military personnel, so, in many instances, awards were downgraded to keep the recipient out of the limelight.
On December 30, 1968 Howard was serving as a member of a 40-man Bright Light rescue mission into northeastern Cambodia. The unit was in search of MACSOG Private First Class Robert Scherdin, who had been separated from his recon team. Bypassing a North Vietnamese Army company, Howard was leading his men up a hill when he and Lieutenant Jim Jerson were wounded by a land mine. While administering first aid to Jerson, a bullet struck one of the wounded man’s ammunition pouches, detonating several magazines. His fingers in shreds, Howard was dragging Jerson off the hill when he was shot in the foot.
The remaining 20 men were organized by Howard, who administered first aid, directed their fire, and encouraged them to resist. After three and one-half hours under attack, Howard prepared for a fight to the death. The team was saved from that fate, however, when an emergency night extraction took them off without any further casualties. As badly wounded as he was, Howard was the last man to board a helicopter. After his third recommendation in 13 months, Robert Howard was finally awarded a well-deserved Medal of Honor.
Perhaps no man represented the quandary of the political and moral dilemma of the Vietnam War in the heart and mind of America better than Howard. He had become arguably the most highly decorated serviceman in American military history, yet few of his countrymen even knew who he was. Unlike Alvin York or Audie Murphy before him, Howard was not touted as a national hero by the media, he was given no ticker tape parade, and no Hollywood movie was made depicting his extraordinary exploits. Of course, none of this bothered the quiet, unassuming Howard. He remained in the Army and retired as a full Colonel, after 36 years of active service, in September 1992.
It is believed by some historians that Howard is the most highly-decorated living American soldier in history. His residence was in Texas and he spent much of his free time working with veterans at the time of his death. He also took periodic trips to Iraq to visit active duty troops.
MEDAL OF HONOR CITATION:
ROBERT L. HOWARD
UNITED STATES ARMY
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.
The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, July 9, 1918 (amended by act of July 25, 1963), takes pleasure in presenting the Distinguished Service Cross to Sergeant First Class Robert Lewis Howard (ASN: RA-14628152), United States Army, for extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations involving conflict with an armed hostile force in the Republic of Vietnam, while serving with Command and Control (Central), 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne), 1st Special Forces.
Sergeant First Class Howard distinguished himself by exceptionally valorous actions on 21 November 1967, as Special Forces Advisor to a joint American and Vietnamese reconnaissance patrol conducting a search mission near the Laotian border. His patrol discovered a huge rice and ammunition cache surrounded by an enemy bunker complex. Sergeant Howard led a small team to provide security while the remainder of the unit began to destroy the stored supplies. His team encountered four North Vietnamese Army soldiers, and Sergeant Howard killed them with a fierce burst of rifle fire. He and his men were immediately pinned down by a murderous curtain of fire which erupted from a nearby enemy machine gun position. With complete disregard for his safety, Sergeant Howard crawled toward the emplacement and killed a North Vietnamese sniper who was firing at him as he maneuvered. He then charged the bunker, eliminating its occupants with rifle fire. A second machine gun position unleashed a savage barrage. Sergeant Howard moved his troops to a covered location and directed an air strike against the fortified bunker. While assessing the bomb damage, Sergeant Howard was fired upon by North Vietnamese soldiers in the bunker who had survived the blasts. Pinned down directly outside the strongpoint with a blazing machine gun barrel only six inches above his head, he threw a hand grenade into the aperture of the emplacement, killing the gunners and temporarily silencing the weapon. He then dashed to his team’s location and secured a light anti-tank weapon. As the enemy machine gun resumed firing, Sergeant Howard stood up amid a withering hail of bullets, fired his weapon, and completely demolished the position. His fearless and determined actions in close combat enabled the remainder of the patrol to destroy the enemy cache. Sergeant First Class Howard’s extraordinary heroism and devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, and the United States Army.
Awards and decorations
Medal of Honor
Distinguished Service Cross (with one oak leaf cluster)
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
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
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)
Badges, qualifications and tabs
Special Forces Tab
Combat Infantryman Badge
Master Parachutist 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
NOTE: Colonel Howard was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery on 22 February 2010.