Fifty Years Later, Marine Still Remembered for His Courage

Gunnery Sergeant Jimmie E. Howard (Marine Corps photo by Ssgt. Wilson)
Gunnery Sergeant Jimmie E. Howard (Marine Corps photo by Ssgt. Wilson)

It's been 50 years since Burlington native and late Marine Corps Sgt. Jimmie Howard held back 200 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army soldiers with a 17-man platoon.

A year after his heroic deeds, Howard, a former Burlington High School football star, received America's highest military honor for "conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his own life."

It was one of the first Congressional Medal of Honors granted in the Vietnam War.

"As you look at his role as a Burlington citizen, he really demonstrates what Burlington has stood for over the years," said Des Moines County Historical Society director Austin Schwartz. "He's one of the few medal of honor winners from a small city."

Though the younger population may not be familiar with Jimmie Howard, his legacy lives on through an entry in the Burlington High School Hall of Honor, several historical photographs, and an edition of the Hawk Eye newspaper that lauded his bravery — artifacts owned by the DMCHS. The Arleigh Burke class guided missile destroyer, the USS Howard, was named in honor of Howard, and was christened about six years after his death.

Howard, a veteran of both the Korean and Vietnam wars, also received a Silver Star and three Purple Hearts during his 27 years of marine service.

"You see so many Burlington residents who are willing to give everything for a cause they believe in," Schwartz said.

The battle that Earned Howard a Medal

On the evening of June 13, 1966, Sgt. Howard and a platoon of 15 Marines and two Navy corpsmen were dropped behind enemy lines atop Hill 488 near Chu Lai, Vietnam. The recon unit's mission was to observe enemy troop movements in the valley and call in air and artillery strikes.

Things didn't go as planned. A battalion of 300 Viet Cong descended on Howard and his men in force a couple of days later, determined to take out the observation post. Howard was 36-years-old with six children at the time, and had already earned a Silver Star for bravery in Korea.

That bravery resulted in three prior war injuries for Howard, but that did little to deter his thirst for service. As his men put it, Howard was a cigar-smoking, tough talking, crusty old guy -- a textbook example of what every Marine aspires to be.

The Marines had tried to give Howard an easy duty, guarding the First Medical Battalion in Chu Lai. But Howard pulled some strings and got himself and a buddy into recon.

The battle of Hill 488 started shortly after 10 p.m. on June 15, and raged until dawn the next day. Later on, Howard was quoted as saying that he didn't think they were going to make it -- despite the assistance of Huey helicopters and air support that lit up the hill. As their grenade supply dwindled, Howard encouraged his men to throw rocks, just to make the Viet Cong retreat. The enemy never knew if the next grenade toss would be the real thing.

"You know that movie 'The Longest Day?' Well, compared to our night on the hill, 'The Longest Day' was just a twinkle in the eye," Howard said.

After the Hueys were called off, Howard was hit in the rear end by a ricocheting bullet. He no could longer use his legs, so he crawled between his men, encouraging them while directing their fire.

Shortly before dawn, the fighting slowed. As light broke, the North Vietnamese began sliding back into their holes and tunnels, unwilling to take a risk against the airships and sharpshooters.

As the first helicopter dropped near the hilltop, ready to mark the site for medical pickup helicopters, the gunfire began again. Howard waved the chopper off, but too late. The Huey crashed and the pilot was killed.

This infuriated the other flyers. Jets and helicopters began a new attack on the valley and slopes.

Another chopper crashed, its crew killed. The fighting continued.

It was as though the North Vietnamese had been ordered to kill the Marines at any cost, an officer at the base later said.

On the south slope of the mountain, helicopters had dropped Charlie 1/5, a recon company from the 5th Marines. They fought to Howard's group, wiping out the enemy's lethal mortar.

When they reached the men, the first words they heard were, "There are snipers right in front of us."

The second were, "Hey, you got any cigarettes?"

During the 12 hours of the attack, 200 enemy troops were killed and six Americans lost their lives. Ten of the 12 surviving platoon members watched President Lyndon Johnson hang that medal around Howard's neck in a White House ceremony, where Johnson said he still planned to keep the conflict in Vietnam "limited." With Howard was his wife and six children.

Jimmie, being Jimmie, gave the credit for Howard's Hill to his men.

Life after Vietnam

Howard was assigned duty in San Diego, Calif., after returning to the states, and didn't retire from the Marines until 1977. He continued to live in San Diego and worked for the local Veterans Affair Office while coaching and volunteering for Point Loma High School. He even guided the team to a couple of championships.

Howard died at his home in San Diego on Nov. 12, 1993.

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