Military and Defense

Medal of Honor Monday: Marine Corps 1st Sgt. Jimmie Howard

Not a lot of people have the skill and demeanor to keep their counterparts focused during an overwhelming battle. However, Marine Corps 1st Sgt. Jimmie Earl Howard was a natural leader and managed to keep the majority of his platoon alive during a lopsided hours-long firefight in Vietnam. His courage and leadership earned him the Medal of Honor.   

Howard was born on July 27, 1929, in Burlington, Iowa, to Raymond and Edythe Howard. He had two brothers and a sister and enjoyed playing football while growing up, doing well enough at the sport to earn a spot on The Des Moines Register newspaper’s All-State team in 1948.  

After graduating from Burlington High School in 1949, Howard studied for a year at the University of Iowa before deciding to take his life in a different direction. In July 1950, he joined the Marine Corps, graduating from recruit training the following January. 

Howard spent a year in San Diego as a drill instructor before completing advanced infantry training in February 1952. He was then ordered to Korea, where he served as a forward observer with the 1st Marine Division. During his deployment, he was wounded three times and earned the Silver Star.

He returned to U.S. soil in April 1953, then spent the next decade of his life serving in various capacities in the San Diego area. At some point, Howard married a woman named Theresa. They went on to have five daughters and a son.  

By January 1965, Howard was a staff sergeant working as an instructor for a counterguerrilla warfare course, just as U.S. involvement in Vietnam was escalating. In April 1966, the 37-year-old was sent to the southeast Asian nation to be a platoon leader with Company C of the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Marine Division.

On June 13, 1966, Howard’s 18-man platoon was deep into enemy-controlled territory near Chu Lai, Vietnam, searching for enemy troops to call air and artillery strikes on from the top of Hill 488, which later became known as Howard’s Hill. It was about 1,500 feet and dominated the terrain for miles, historians said.  

There was no place to hide on Hill 488, and the enemy knew it. However, Howard’s platoon still spent two days on the hill carrying out their mission without being bothered. 

Shortly before midnight on June 16, that changed. A battalion-sized Vietcong force launched a vicious attack on Howard’s platoon using small arms, automatic weapons and mortar fire.  

Their chances of survival didn’t look good, but Howard jumped into action anyway, determined to defend his men, most of whom were only about 18 years old. He quickly organized the platoon into a tight perimeter defense and calmly moved from position to position to direct the fire of his young Marines. They continued to hold their ground for hours overnight during wave after wave of assaults. 

According to Howard’s Medal of Honor citation, his courage and firm leadership inspired and motivated the men around him to continuously repel the furious fire, despite how seemingly hopeless the situation was. At one point, when they ran out of grenades, Howard encouraged the Marines to throw rocks at the enemy, exhibiting imagination and resourcefulness in their defense.  

At another point, the fragments of an exploding enemy grenade lodge into Howard’s back, wounding him severely and keeping him from moving his legs. However, he refused to be given morphine, historians said, because he knew its effects would make him drowsy and therefore ineffective.  

Instead, Howard dragged himself along the defensive perimeter to distribute his ammunition to the rest of his men, all while maintaining radio contact to direct air strikes on the enemy with uncanny accuracy. 

By the time dawn came around, five Marines had died and everyone else was wounded — but Howard’s platoon still held Hill 488.  

When evacuation helicopters made it to the area, Howard initially warned them away. He wanted to make the landing zone as secure as possible, so he first called for more air strikes, which he directed along with his platoon’s own fire onto enemy positions. Only afterward did they finally evacuate.  

Howard’s leadership and bravery were key to preventing his entire platoon from being killed. Despite the casualties they did suffer, his men still managed to eliminate about 200 combatants during the 12-hour fight.  

 

Howard was transferred back to the U.S. and assigned to a training unit in San Diego. On Aug. 21, 1967, shortly after being promoted to gunnery sergeant, he received the Medal of Honor from President Lyndon B. Johnson during a ceremony at the White House. His wife and six children were able to attend, as were his mother and stepfather.  

Howard remained in the Marine Corps for another decade before retiring in 1977. He and his family decided to remain in San Diego, where he went to work as a civilian for the Department of Veterans Affairs. He also volunteered to coach various youth sports in the community, including as an assistant coach for the Point Loma High School football team.  

Howard died in his home on Nov. 12, 1993. He is buried in Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego.  

In his honor, the Arleigh-Burke class destroyer USS Howard was commissioned in October 2001. The ship currently serves in the U.S. 7th Fleet in the Indo-Pacific region. 


This article is part of a weekly series called “Medal of Honor Monday,” in which we highlight one of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.

Source: Department of Defense

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Katie Lange

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