Bob Howard's First
November 1967, FOB 2, Kontum, South Vietnam…
Bob Howard had spent almost an entire year in SOG as a One-Zero, a recon team leader— a job described by the legendary Richard “Dick” Meadows as the finest job for a Special Forces soldier serving in Vietnam. It also meant volunteering for duty in MACV-SOG, the Military Assistance Command Vietnam’s Studies and Observation Group, arguably the most perilous assignment for anyone serving in Southeast Asia, and certainly the most secretive unit in the entire war. SOG reported directly to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sometimes higher. MACV-SOG’s secret cross-border war was being fought in Cambodia, Laos, the DMZ, and even North Vietnam. Its sole mission was to interdict North Vietnamese operations and logistics along the Ho Chi Minh Trail corridor in eastern Laos and Cambodia.
In November, One-Zero Johnnie Gilreath’s recon team had been snooping around in Laos for several days before uncovering a massive North Vietnamese weapons and rice cache. Realizing the job too big for his little recon team, Gilreath quietly pulled his men back into a position where they could monitor the cache while contacting FOB 2 in Kontum for further instruction. The decision was made to assemble a Hatchet Force raider company, insert near the cache, and destroy it. When Bob Howard heard of the situation, he insisted his recon team be inserted along with the Hatchet Force so they could run point and lead the raiders safely to the cache. While the Hatchet Force company went to work, both Howard’s and Gilreath’s teams would provide security and scout for any NVA massing to respond to the commotion. They were sure to come once the show started.
The dark-green jungled mountains of southeastern Laos stretched out for as far as any of them could see, interrupted only by thousands of bomb craters, most of which traced the route of Laotian Highway 110 — a major roadway used by the NVA to infiltrate into South Vietnam’s central highlands at the tri-border region. Inserting a Hatchet Force required a great deal of helicopters in comparison to inserting a recon team numbering less than ten commandos, so Bob Howard and the other Americans knew the element of surprise would expire rapidly once the insertion began. Minutes later, the helicopters were dropping into the landing zone one-by-one to offload the SOG force, and just as they feared, the entire countryside opened up on them with withering small-arms fire. Green and red tracers were lasering all across the sky as the helicopter door-gunners shot their way in and unloaded Howard’s team and the Hatchet Force. The ground fire was so intense, it crippled three helicopters, but miraculously, none were shot down, and everyone got into Laos unscathed.
Finally on the ground, among the buzzing insects, and the densely tangled underbrush, Howard and his team expertly guided the Hatchet Force raiders through impossible terrain teaming with NVA troops intent on stopping their progress and killing them all dead. And he did so without a single shot fired. Perhaps it was because the American-led commandos outnumbered the NVA in the immediate area, or perhaps the NVA were allowing them to pass unmolested, knowing they’d eventually lead them to another team. While this happened, the NVA would have time to mass around them and eventually overwhelm them all; the North Vietnamese were cunning and calculating like that. Or perhaps it was because Bob and his indigenous teammates were just that good at reconnaissance. Either way, the entire force was able to link up with Johnnie Gilreath’s recon team in short order and without incurring casualties.
While the Hatchet Force company promptly went to work destroying the enemy cache, Bob Howard’s recon team fanned out to secure the perimeter. They knew with certainty the North Vietnamese would not allow their supplies and munitions to be destroyed without a fight.
The team quietly maneuvered through dense underbrush beneath towering triple-canopy jungle. It was dark, dank and wet, and unbelievably hot as the day wore on. Suddenly, Bob himself came face-to-face with four NVA soldiers. Without a shred of hesitation, he leveled his M-16 off and opened up on them, killing them all with a single 20-round magazine just steps away. Jungle warfare was not like urban warfare; it was an incredibly difficult environment to survive in, let alone fight in. Oftentimes enemy soldiers were not spotted until they were close enough to reach out and touch, and it was common for there to be dozens more scattered beyond, hidden by thick foliage.
No sooner had Bob reloaded his M-16 and his team closed in to secure the four dead NVA, a heavily-camouflaged enemy machinegun bunker raked their position with green tracers. His teammates scrambled for cover as the streaming automatic gunfire pinned them down but he pushed forward, stopping his assault just long enough to kill an NVA sniper who nearly had him fixed. Acting completely alone, Bob Howard finalized his assault at point-blank range with his M-16 and destroyed the entire gun crew. Just as he scrambled down from the machinegun nest, a second enemy gun emplacement opened fire on him and his men, but was ultimately unable to pin them down.
While the Hatchet Force continued to destroy the rice supply and munitions, Bob consolidated with his team a safe distance away from the enemy gun emplacement and contacted a circling forward air controller for air support. In short order, hard-bombs were falling on top of the enemy’s position, but when Bob crawled forward to assess the damage, he quickly learned the ordnance had missed the emplacement all together. Howard was so close to the bunker, the enemy machinegun was just inches from his head. He snatched a grenade off his harness, pulled the pin and let the spoon ping! away, and dumped it inside the aperture.
Howard had singlehandedly destroyed yet another gun crew but the victory was short-lived as the NVA pressed in and retook the position, bringing the machinegun back up online to bear on the SOG commandos. With his patience running out, Bob Howard had finally decided enough was enough. Grabbing a LAW rocket launcher — a light antitank weapon — Howard extended the fiberglass tube and dropped the sights onto the gun emplacement, and fired while green tracers skipped all around him. The 66mm rocket scored a direct hit and blew the bunker and the enemy gun crew to pieces.
Witnessing Howard’s sole determination and fearing heavier losses, the NVA abandoned the hilltop and pulled back, allowing the Hatchet Force raiders to completely destroy the cache without further challenge. Once finished, the SOG commandos extracted back to FOB 2 in Kontum where another flight was waiting to ferry Bob Howard and Johnnie Gilreath down to SOG Headquarters in Saigon to personally brief Chief SOG Jack Singlaub and General Westmorland on the operation.
After the briefing, Bob Howard was sent back to FOB 2 with the knowledge that his actions that day had been deemed worthy of a Medal of Honor submission. Ultimately, the submission would be downgraded to a Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second highest military award for valor in combat, which Howard would receive. In all honesty, Bob Howard, with his raked smile and professional demeanor, was happy to have the citation downgraded because it meant he could continue to wage SOG’s secret war against Hanoi along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos and Cambodia. And as history would prove, it would not be the last time his actions would be worthy of consideration for the Pale Blue Ribbon.
Source — SOG: The Secret Wars of America’s Commandos in Vietnam, by John L. Plaster