On Dec. 30, 1968, Robert Howard was the platoon sergeant for a joint unit of U.S. Army Special Forces and South Vietnamese forces. Their mission was to rescue soldiers who were missing in action behind enemy lines. As they moved out onto their objective, they were attacked by what had to be two companies of enemy troops. 1st. Lt. Howard was wounded by an enemy grenade almost immediately. He lost his weapon to the explosion, and his platoon leader was down.
His luck only got worse from there.
This is how Robert Howard earned his Medal of Honor. It was one of three for which he was nominated. The men who fought with him fervently believed he deserved all three. The battle for which he received the nation’s highest military honor was one hell of a slugfest.
At Kon Tum, South Vietnam, that day in 1968, things went awry from the get-go.
“We took casualties on the insert,” Howard said. “I finally got with the platoon leader and said we need to secure this LZ… I got three men behind me, I remember being fired at and I fell backward and they killed three men behind me.”
One of the helicopters had even been shot down with troops still aboard it. The platoon began taking fire from the flanks, and Howard knew he had to tell his lieutenant the landing zone was hotter than they thought. Just as he got close to his officer, however, the unit was ambushed.
“When I come to, I was blown up in a crump on the ground,” Howard recalled. “My weapon was blown out of may hand, I remember seeing red, and saying a prayer hoping I wasn’t blind. I couldn’t see and I was in a lot of pain.”
When he got his vision back, he realized he was seeing blood. All he could see was flames, and all he could hear was people screaming. He realized the enemy was burning his friends with a flamethrower. His lieutenant was down. For reasons unknown, the flamethrower didn’t burn Howard or his platoon leader, he just walked away.
His hands hurting and bleeding, Howard moved to help get his leader out of there. As he drug his platoon leader out, a round struck his ammo pouch, detonating it. He was hit 15-20 times as he worked to get his lieutenant out. He fought off charging Vietnamese soldiers, dodging bullets and bayonets while protecting his leader.
His platoon was in complete disarray, and he knew he had to get everyone back in order, lest they be overrun and killed.
He dragged his officer out of the area, and once under cover, reorganized the whole unit. Once a firing line was set up, he bounded from position to position, aiding the wounded and directing their fire. For four hours, his effort kept them from being surrounded and killed.
Soon, friendly aircraft were able to join the fight and rescue the wounded. Then the Americans were hit with another wave of attackers. Robert Howard had to direct the U.S. Air Force to strike his own position. As the Air Force hit his position, Howard watched as the aircraft rounds hit the area around him. Thankfully, the attack craft eventually faded into rescue helicopters.
Lieutenant Howard personally kept overwatch until everyone else was aboard. Out of 37 friendly troops, only six survived unharmed.
In all, Robert Howard fought in Vietnam for 54 months, where he was wounded 14 times. For eight of those wounds, he received a Purple Heart. He also earned the Distinguished Service Cross, a Silver Star, and four Bronze Stars. When he retired, he was the most decorated soldier in the Army and was the most decorated of the entire Vietnam War. He remains the only soldier to be nominated for the Medal of Honor three times for three separate actions, all in a 13-month span.
The only thing that could kill Robert Howard was pancreatic cancer, to which he succumbed in 2009, one of the lesser-known heroes of the war in Vietnam.