Howard Lee, Medal of Honor recipient who led long-odds defense, dies at 85

Howard V. Lee died at the age of 85.


By HARRISON SMITH | The Washington Post | Published: March 31, 2019

Hurtling toward his fate, flying in a piston-engined helicopter above the jungles of central Vietnam, the 33-year-old Marine captain bowed his head in prayer. "If it's your will, I die tonight, fine," Howard Lee later recalled saying. "But if not, then just give me the courage to do what I have to do."

As the commander of a Marine company based at Dong Ha, a U.S. military base near the Vietnamese demilitarized zone, Lee had volunteered to rescue a beleaguered platoon that had embarked on a reconnaissance mission earlier that day, Aug. 8, 1966.

Pushing through fields of tall elephant grass, the platoon had come under heavy fire and was forced to hunker down in foxholes on the top of a small hill, where it found itself surrounded and far outnumbered by North Vietnamese troops.

Half of the unit was evacuated by helicopter. But the remaining dozen or so Marines were stranded after a second helicopter was hit by enemy fire and crashed en route to the knoll. When Lee radioed to check on their status, he heard only chaos the din of gunfire and the frantic shouts of a young Marine.

As he later put it, Lee did "what any good company commander would have done": dodged machine-gun fire to reinforce the platoon, ran from hole to hole to lift his Marines' spirits and led a six-hour defense in the dark of night, saving his men from being captured or wiped out.

Lee continued fighting despite being wounded by a grenade that left 15 pieces of shrapnel in his body and partly blinded him in one eye. He was later awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military decoration, and after retiring from the Marine Corps with the rank of lieutenant colonel he traded swords for plowshares, embarking on a horticultural career in which he rose to oversee landscaping for the city of Virginia Beach.

He was 85 when he died at his home there on March 23. His son Edward Lee confirmed the death but did not give a cause.

Lee rarely gave interviews and "never talked about" or "promoted" the story of what happened that long night in Vietnam, his son said.

But in an oral history for the Veterans History Project, Lee recalled that his involvement in the hill episode began with hesitant approval from his battalion commander, who allowed Lee and two Marines to scope out the engagement by helicopter. Hovering above the scene, they spotted what appeared to be a reinforced rifle company of North Vietnamese closing in on the Marines.

Let us down, Lee said. "That's crazy," the pilot replied. "This is a hot zone."

A compromise was struck the helicopter would descend near the hill but not fully land - and Lee said he was "nicked in the ear" by a bullet just after he jumped out, 5 feet above the ground. He soon learned that the platoon commander had been killed and that the platoon sergeant was seriously wounded. And a second helicopter that was supposed to drop additional reinforcements never landed, apparently fearing that it would be shot down.

Nonetheless, Lee "fearlessly moved from position to position, directing and encouraging the overtaxed troops," according to the Medal of Honor citation. With help from Huey gunships that swept in from above, he marshaled a defense that repelled waves of North Vietnamese attacks, even after he was wounded in a grenade blast.

Lee later recalled being "kind of fascinated" by the grenade's design in the moment before it exploded, he said it reminded him of an old German grenade known as the "potato masher" - and was initially unfazed by the blast, which struck the right side of his body and left him temporarily blinded in his right eye.

As his body stiffened, an immobilized Lee shifted his focus to tactics and strategy, directing helicopters to drop much-needed ammunition. But he recalled that "they would make a pass, kick the ammunition out the door and it would invariably miss and go rolling down the hill."

After he requested a helicopter land on the hill itself, he watched in horror as a rocket-propelled grenade destroyed the helicopter's tail section soon after it touched down. Miraculously, no one was hurt, and the helicopter's machine guns were repurposed for the battle.

Lee said he "passed out from loss of blood" during the night, and awoke in the morning to the sound of helicopter rotors. The North Vietnamese had retreated, leaving 37 enemy bodies, and he and his men were finally evacuated. He was still recuperating in the United States when President Lyndon Johnson awarded him the Medal of Honor in a White House ceremony on Oct. 25, 1967.

"Maj. Lee's actions saved his men from capture, minimized the loss of lives, and dealt the enemy a severe defeat," his Medal of Honor citation concluded, using his rank at the time. "His indomitable fighting spirit, superb leadership, and great personal valor in the face of tremendous odds, reflect great credit upon himself and are in keeping with the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the U.S. Naval Service."

Howard Vincent Lee was born in New York on Aug. 1, 1933. His mother was a homemaker, and his father served in the mounted unit of the New York police.

Soon after graduating from Pace College (now University) in Manhattan in 1955, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps Reserve. His plan, he said in the oral history, was to "go in and do my duty and then get out and be a famous accountant."

Gradually, however, he fell in love with the Marine Corps and its traditions, and in 1958 transferred to active duty. Col. Lee, as he became known, was stationed in the Dominican Republic during that country's 1965 civil war, and arrived in Vietnam early the following year, part of the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, in the reinforced 3rd Marine Division.

He returned to Vietnam for a second tour in 1970. After retiring from the Marines in 1975 he set about launching a new career, selling cars and working in manufacturing, among other jobs. Nothing stuck.

At one point, he hired a friend to landscape his yard. "We notoriously had the worst yard on the street," his son Michael Lee said by phone. "That contract just so happened to coincide with when my dad was unemployed, so he asked to work with him."

Lee liked the work of planting, weeding and mowing so much he went on to receive an associate degree in horticulture from Tidewater Community College. He began his landscaping career volunteering for the city, his son recalled: "He was mowing median strips on ground crews, and was the happiest he had been in years working outside, not having the weight of the world on his shoulders."

Michael Lee added that he knew firsthand the difficulty veterans face in building a new career after the military. Inspired by his father's example, he had joined the Marines out of college and recently retired with the rank of colonel.

Howard Lee retired from his horticultural work about 1995, a piece of shrapnel still lodged near his right lung. His wife of 50 years, the former Jean Daniels, died in 2006. Survivors include four children, Edward Lee of Norfolk, Virginia, Linda Dowty of Navarre Beach, Florida, Michael Lee of San Diego and Laura Willey of Virginia Beach; a sister; nine grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

In a video interview released online as a supplement to the book "Medal of Honor," released through the Medal of Honor Foundation, Lee emphasized that the Medal of Honor was as much a memorial to the fallen as it was a personal honor.

"If you talk to recipients, most will say that they wear the medal not just for themselves but for all their people who were with them when the incident happened," he said. "The real heroes of any war are the people who don't make it, the people who make the ultimate sacrifice. And we kind of wear it for them."