Photo: The USS Howard was named for Jimmie E. Howard
The upcoming Veteran's Day is a good time to remember one of my favorite stories in my career. I wrote it on U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Jimmie E. Howard in 1992 for the San Diego Union-Tribune. The chance to be in the presence of a Medal of Honor recipient with his medal was inspiring. In 1998, the Navy named a destroyer for him, the USS Howard. A little more than a year after my story, he died in 1993 at age 64. His son called me with the news and gave me perhaps the highest compliment I've received in my writing career. He told me how much the family enjoyed the story and that they considered it the most accurate portrayal of him that had been written.
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Point Loma High math teacher Dave Aros begins each school year the same way. He tells his students a war story.
It's not a tale about the Pointers' football team, which he serves as an assistant coach, or the basketball team, for which he is the head coach. This is a real war story, with the hero to be found daily on Point Loma's campus. He's Jim Howard, United States Marine Corps, retired.
Howard is a volunteer on the Pointers football staff, performing any menial task -- he calls himself a "gofer" -- that allows the coaches to concentrate on coaching.
But on June 16, 1966 in Vietnam, Staff Sgt. Jimmie E. Howard was in command of an 18-man platoon that survived a firefight. Howard was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor -- the highest decoration for bravery in the military. Howard was recognized for "dynamic leadership and courageous fighting spirit" in a citation from President Lyndon Johnson.
"I like to tell my students about it because a lot of people don't have respect for school volunteers," said Aros. "Our (football players) know him and respect him, but a lot of people don't."
Howard's platoon was pinned down atop Hill 488 by a battalion of 450 North Vietnamese. The battle lasted 10 hours until the platoon was rescued by a helicopter-staged counterattack that was directed by Howard through radio contact. Five of Howard's men were killed and all but one wounded. Thirteen of Howard's men earned the Silver Star and four others the Navy Cross, making his platoon one of the most decorated in U.S. military history.
"It was the best bunch of men who ever served in the Marine Corps," Howard says. "If it weren't for those men, I wouldn't have the medal."
Howard, 63, can be found lining the field with chalk before games and helping with equipment. During games he's barking at players, with his best drill-sergeant voice, telling them to stay in the coaches' box. Unauthorized people on the sidelines are quickly shooed into the stands.
He might also be found cooling down players with a water bottle one moment and playfully spraying cheerleaders the next. No frolic in life is too frivolous to enjoy when you've lived more lives than a cat.
Howard was 37 when his platoon went on a reconnaissance mission 25 miles northeast of Da Nang. When the platoon was discovered by the North Vietnamese battalion, it was quickly encircled atop the hill.
"Several times I thought we were dead," Howard said. "I was thinking of my wife and my kids."
A rock the size of a Volkswagen bug provided some cover from the rear, but the platoon had to fight off several waves of charges up the hill. Each time an attack failed, the North Vietnamese would regroup.
"They would yell at us, `Marines, you die in one hour,' " Howard said.
A .50-caliber machine gun positioned 120 yards away eventually wounded Howard in his buttocks, immobilizing his legs. The Marines fought from their bellies because to lift yourself up was to present the enemy a target.
With a desperate fight ahead of the platoon, saving ammunition was critical. Howard instructed his men to put their rifles on single shot. "I didn't want anyone cranking off too many rounds," he said.
But Howard's best trick was having his men throw rocks and dirt clods to imitate grenades. He was known as "The Rock Thrower" from the trick he learned in Korea, where he had earned two Purple Hearts.
"When the rock would hit the ground, it would make the same `plop' sound as a grenade," Howard said. "The enemy would lift their head or move and we'd pick them off."
When the helicopters finally arrived at dawn, Howard and his men were down to eight rounds of ammunition. He would live to see his wife and children again.
Two of Howard's sons, Jimmie and Joe, played football for Point Loma coach Bennie Edens, and his five daughters graduated from the school as well. Howard's wife, Theresa, is also a Point Loma grad. They met after he was sent to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot (MCRD) in 1949.
"This is my way of paying back the school," Howard said. "I like being around kids. Those men in battle with me were just 19- and 20-year-old kids."
For today's high school students, Vietnam is a history lesson. Point Loma's star running back, senior Shaunta Baker, was once the victim of a gunshot wound to the leg when he was an innocent bystander during a dispute between two men in Southeast San Diego.
"It was scary enough being around one gun," said Baker. "It's amazing to hear what he (Howard) went through."
Although Howard doesn't coach, he knows the game. He went to the University of Iowa on a football scholarship as an all-state tight end from Burlington, Iowa. But he stayed in school only one year before enlisting.
Howard played for the MCRD football team, which in those days regularly played San Diego State at Balboa Stadium. One of Howard's rivals from the Camp Pendleton Marine team was a defensive lineman named John Glover, whom Howard would meet again. Glover's grandson, La'Roi Glover, was a prep All-America at Point Loma and is now a freshman nose guard at San Diego State.
Edens first asked Howard to work with the football team in 1987 as an assistant coach, a role in which he served three years until he stepped on a sprinkler head as the Pointers warmed up for a game.
The doctors told Howard his ankle bone was so deteriorated -- he is a diabetic -- that there was no way to put his ankle back in the socket. He must strap on a walking cast each day to give his leg enough support to walk.
Three Purple Hearts, a Silver Star, Medal of Honor, a hellish night atop Hill 488, and the thing that finally slows down Jim Howard is a sprinkler head.
--- Tom Shanahan has featured Army, Navy and Air Force athletes for nearly 30 years in the San Diego Union-Tribune, Voice of San Diego, Rivals.com and the Raleigh News and Observer. He attended his first Army-Navy Game after John Feinstein wrote in his book on the rivalry, “A Civil War,” that everyone should attend the Army-Navy Game at least once.