Tag Archive | "Medal of Honor"

In Memoriam: Robert Lewis Howard

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To the average American, the passing of Robert L. Howard went unnoticed but for the family and friends who survived him.  Yet, one of the most decorated soldiers of the Vietnam War compelled the news media to devote a brief commentary to him.  So, who was this man?

Born on July 11, 1939, at the age of 17, the Opelika, Alabama native enlisted in the U.S. Army, in Montgomery, Alabama.  The year was 1956.  By the time Howard had arrived in Vietnam, he had risen through the ranks, attaining status as a Staff Sergeant assigned to the highly classified Military Assistance Command-Studies and Observation Group.

During his brief tour of duty spanning 13 months between 1967 and 1968, he was nominated for the Medal of Honor on no less than three separate occasions.  The first two nominations had to be downgraded to the Distinguished Service Cross, due to the covert nature of the operations in which he was engaged.

On December 30, 1968 in Cambodia, Howard, who by then had become a Sergeant First Class, was second in command of a platoon-sized force.  While searching through the steaming jungle for a missing American soldier named Robert Scherdin, Howard put his life on the line. Outnumbered and wounded so badly by grenade blasts that was unable to walk, he crawled tenaciously through a hail of fire to drag his wounded platoon leader to safety.  Compounding this act of supreme bravery, he insisted upon being the last man to board the helicopter, which evacuated them to a medical facility.  For this action, he was awarded the Medal of Honor.

During those thirteen months in Vietnam, Howard was wounded no less than fourteen times.  Eight Purple Hearts as well as numerous other honors, including the Silver Star and other medals bearing Oak Leaf Clusters, distinguished his uncommon valor.

In 1971, in a private ceremony that took place in The White House, President Richard M. Nixon bestowed the Medal of Honor upon Lieutenant Howard and six other recipients.  Nixon’s motivation for the privacy was his wish that his policies concerning the Vietnam War not be misinterpreted as an attempt to garner sympathy among the general public for the conflict.  Indeed, it was Nixon who ultimately put an end to this very long and bloody battle.

Colonel Robert L. Howard retired after a 36-year career with the Army career.  Upon his retirement, he chose to continue to serve his country by working for The Department of Veteran Affairs. A constant supporter of veterans’ needs who always put his words into action, Howard made several tours of Iraq, to provide his insight on warfare to the men in the field.

On December 23, 2009, America lost another brave son.  Robert L. Howard is survived and remembered by his three children and four grandchildren.  While in Basic Training at Fort Benning, Georgia, his son Robert Junior proclaimed, “I admire [my father] greatly for everything he has done.  My dad is a hero.”  Another family member allowed, “He was a soldier’s soldier, always looking out for his men.”

Colonel Robert L. Howard rests in Arlington National Cemetery, along with the many war heroes who preceded him. 

John Basilone: A Soldier Until the End

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As we search desperately for leadership in this rapidly changing, rather daunting world, what kind of a person must we seek?   What job description must we write for such a position?   As one who loves his country fiercely, I believe that most of us would consider a true patriot a leader.  The term “patriot” conveys not only a genuine love of country and the willingness to protect it no matter the cost, but a strong sense of integrity as well.  For without integrity, power, after all, is often perverted.

This, then, is the story about a true patriot and leader.  His name was John Basilone. Although he is a fallen hero, the world will soon be privy to his astounding bravery and patriotism via a ten-part series to bow under the auspices of HBO Films.

Born to Italian parents as one of ten children, John entered the world in Buffalo, New York on November 4, 1916.  He grew up in Raritan, New Jersey and attended St. Bernard Parochial School.  At the age of 18, in 1934, he enlisted in the United States Army and served in the Philippine Islands.  During his three-year enlistment, he not only functioned as a soldier but gained expertise as a boxer, winning championships within the military.  When his tour of duty ended, he returned home and secured humble but industrious employment as a truck driver in Reisterstown, Maryland.

But John’s heart belonged to his country, not to the road.  In July of 1940, the 24-year-old John enlisted in the United States Marine Corp in Baltimore, Maryland.  He trained at the Marine Corp base in Quantico as well as the Marine Corp Recruit Depot at Parris Island and Camp Lejeune, which was then known as New River.

Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone saw service at Guantanamo Bay before being sent to the Solomon Islands, where his mates nicknamed him “Manila John.”  For the bravery he demonstrated unflaggingly with the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division at the Battle of Guadalcanal, he was awarded the Medal of Honor.  Presented by Congress in toto and by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in person, the accolade that he received along with the medal tells the tale of John’s profound bravery:

For extraordinary heroism and conspicuous gallantry in action against enemy Japanese forces, above and beyond the call of duty, while serving with the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division in the Lunga Area, Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands on the 24 and 25 October 1942. While the enemy was hammering away at the Marine defensive positions, Sgt. Basilone, in charge of two sections of heavy machine guns, fought valiantly to check the savage and determined assault.  In the fierce frontal attack with Japanese blasting his guns with grenade and mortar fire, one of Sgt. Basilone’s sections, with its gun crews, was put out of action, leaving only two men to carry on.  Moving an extra gun into position, he placed it in action, then under continual fire, repaired another and personally manned it, gallantly holding his line until replacements arrived. A little later, with ammunition critically low and the supply lines cut off, Sgt. Basilone, at great risk to his life and in the face of continued enemy attack, battled his way though hostile lines with urgently needed shells for his gunners, thereby contributing in large measure to the virtual annihilation of a Japanese regiment.  His great personal valor and courageous initiative were in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.

As Medal of Honor recipients are generally not allowed to return to combat, John was then assigned to War Bond tours.  After the tour, he was stationed at Camp Pendleton, where he met and married Sgt. Lena Mae Riggi.  Lena, also of Italian descent, was part of the Marine Corp Women’s Reserve.  In Oceanside, on July 10, 1944, John and Lena were happily wed in at St. Mary’s Church.  A joyous reception followed at the Carlsbad Hotel, and the couple journeyed to Portland, to honeymoon quietly at her parents’ farm.

But John’s military days were not over.  At his request, he returned to the Pacific Theater with the 27th Marine Regiment, 5th Marine Division, to assist in a key battle: the invasion of Iwo Jima.  On Red Beach II, John and his platoon were pinned down by enemy gunfire. With the same fire in his belly and love of his country that had earned him the Medal of Honor, he then singlehandedly destroyed an enemy blockhouse, a coup that allowed his unit to capture a strategic airfield.  Minutes later, America lost another brave son when an enemy shell claimed John’s life.

For his actions at Iwo Jima, the President of the United States awarded the Navy Cross to John posthumously. Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery.  Because of his unwavering devotion to duty and his love for his country, John became the sole Marine who served in World War II to be awarded all three of our nation’s highest military honors: the Medal of Honor, the Navy Cross, and the Purple Heart.

In 2007, it was announced that Basilone’s deeds, together with Robert Leckie’s memoirs, Helmet for my Pillow and Eugene B. Sledge’s book, With the Old Breed, would serve as the basis for the successor to HBO’s Band of Brothers.  This ten-part series, whose trailers promise a moving and accurate account of the war, will be called The Pacific.  Hopefully, we will take the time to witness this series.  As America seeks the leadership our country now needs, men like John Basilone have already set the standard.

Uncommon Valor

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Ed Freeman with George W. Bush

Recently, I had received e-mail about the passing of an American hero.  As I had never heard his name before, and as his story was so remarkable, I decided to conduct a little research as to the story’s veracity.  In so doing, I discovered an unsung hero whose gallant exploits simply must be shared.


I’ll begin by relaying the e-mail:


Freeman is Coming!


You’re a 19-year-old kid, and critically wounded in the jungles of Ia Drang Valley at Landing Zone X-ray on November 14, 1965,Vietnam.


Your infantry battalion is outnumbered 8 to 1, and the enemy fire is so intense, your company Commander has ordered the Medi-Vac helicopters to stop coming in.  You’re listening to enemy gunfire and you know you’re not getting out.


You’re family is halfway around the world, 12000 miles away and you’ll never see them again.  As you fade in and out, you know this is the day.


Then, over the sound of gunfire, you hear the sound of a helicopter. You look up and see approaching an unarmed Huey, with no Medi-Vac markings on it.


It’s Ed Freeman and he’s coming to pick you up.  He’s not a Medi-Vac and it’s not his job, but he’s coming anyway.


As he lands amidst the murderous gunfire, they load you and 3 other guys [onto the chopper], and then he flies you up and away through enemy fire to the doctors and nurses. He returns 14 more times to evacuate 30 more men who would have never made it out that day.



When I read this story, I could not help but choke up and say a prayer for this man.  Ed Freeman, whose nickname was “Too Tall” served his country in three wars:  World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.


Born in Neely, Perry County, Mississippi, Ed was the sixth of nine children, and actually grew up in the nearby town of McLain.  He was a graduate of that burg’s Washington High School.  During World War II, Ed served in the U.S. Army, progressing through the ranks via his courage and leadership.  By the time for him to serve in the Korean War, he had achieved the rank of Master Sergeant.  Although he was assigned to the Army Corp of Engineers, he fought as infantry and received a battlefield commission at the battle of Pork Chop Hill.


This commission made him eligible to become a pilot, thereby fulfilling a small part of his childhood dream; Ed had always wanted to fly.  Because he was 6’4″, the military had to disqualify him from flying.  Ed traded a potential pilot’s license for his nickname, which stuck with him throughout the rest of his life.  In 1955, the Army eased the height restrictions for pilots, enabling Ed to attend Flight School.  With the training that he mastered there, he became a top-notch pilot of airplanes and helicopters.


In 1965, Ed Freeman, then a Captain, drew an assignment as second-in-command of a sixteen-craft unit: Company A 229th Assault Helicopter Battalion, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile).  On November 14th of that same year, Freeman and his unit transported a battalion of American soldiers into the Ia Drang Valley in Vietnam. Arriving back at their base, they learned that the troops they’d transported were under attack and taking heavy casualties. At this point, Ed and his commander, Major Bruce Crandall, volunteered to fly unarmed light helicopters to rescue the wounded and carry water and ammunition to the beleaguered troops.  Those who watched Ed’s chopper brave enemy fire for their benefit, before the copter landed and as it took off, must have thought they were seeing a mirage that day; that is how bleak their situation was. Perhaps when they were aboard, they dreamed that an angel had rescued them.  But it was only Ed, aided by his commander, putting his life on the line for his fellow soldiers.


In 1966, Freeman was sent home; a year later, he retired from the military.  With his wife Barbara, he settled in Treasure Valley, Idaho.  Ed continued to fly, as he loved to, and in another capacity, he continued to serve the U.S. government.  He used his skills to track and conduct aerial censuses of wild horses for the U.S. Department of the Interior.  He retired in 1991.


Ed Freeman


For his actions in Vietnam, Captain Freeman’s commanding officer nominated him for the Medal of Honor.  As a result of a deadline then in place for this particular tribute, he was awarded The Distinguished Flying Cross instead. His nomination for Medal of Honor languished until 1995, when the deadline was eliminated.  Nearly six years later, President George W. Bush presented the Medal of Honor to him on July 16, 2001. After Ed’s death, in March of 2009, the Post Office in his hometown McLain, Mississippi was renamed in his honor, The Major Ed Freeman Post Office.


The media is chock-a-block with tales of violence and hatred perpetrated by twisted individuals and so-called religious zealots.  I feel it’s only right to give equal time to “the good ones” among us — the ones who take risks, the ones who demonstrate genuine compassion for others, the ones who put their money where their mouths are.  Ed Freeman surely fits that bill.

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