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DROP IN ANYTIME…. Part One

William Howey. Submitted

I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Lieutenant Colonel William Howey (Ret) speak to a group of Rotarians on Marco Island. It is an honor for anyone to hear him speak. Lieutenant Colonel Howey readily garners the attention of every member of his audience with his thrilling, and often edge-of-your-seat scary, life experiences. Speaking with him candidly during this interview was even more enjoyable…

“In the first game of my junior football season I had my arm broken badly; there were actually thirty-four breaks and chips! It was so bad I spent nine weeks lying in a hospital bed with a pin through the elbow and weights to attempt to get the bone back in place. Then there were six weeks in a cast, and seventeen more in a sling. I told my dad I wanted to quit school and come back next year so I could play football and basketball for two more years. He agreed if I promised to go back to school, which I did.”

Bill explained how he entered into service: “My father, who was in the Navy in World War II in the South Pacific, said, ‘Billy, what are you going to do when you graduate from high school?’ We came from a very poor family–very poor. The only jobs in town were in the coal mines, and I wasn’t going there.”

“So I said, ‘Dad, I am going to go into the military.’ He said, “Okay” and then went into a twenty-minute dissertation about the Navy and how there was a warm bed to sleep in every night… three hot meals every day and…no boom boom’s all night very often. My brother, who served in the Marines in the Korean War, was sitting there eating and waited until my father was finished. Then he looked at me and said, ‘If you want to be a man, join the Marines.’ Then he went right back to eating. The next day, at age seventeen, I went down and joined the Marine Corps Reserve.”

“I graduated high school on the 8th of June, 1955 and on June 9th, I was on a train to Parris Island, South Carolina. I didn’t want to be a financial burden on my family. I had already been promoted to the rank of Private First Class (PFC) while I was in the Reserves. I did all the things that Marines do at the wonderful place called Parris Island, and I think every young man in America should be sent through there! I think we’d have far less trouble in our country.”

Lieutenant Colonel William Howey. Submitted

“During my early years in the Corps, I was a very lucky person. Higher ranking people around me thought I had potential and they began looking out for me. I was picked to be an armed courier for a female 1st Lieutenant Top Secret courier. We would go to the Pentagon once a week. Here I was a young PFC, toting a loaded weapon and making the trip from Quantico, Virginia to Washington, D.C. to pick up the latest top secret material. While I was doing my job in Quantico, a Master Sergeant had been watching me for almost two years and thought I had a lot of potential. He got me assigned to the Marine Security Guard School in Washington, DC. That opened the door for me to go to India as a Security Guard at the American Embassy for two years. Here I was, in New Delhi at nineteen years old. That was unbelievable! I got to see a lot of the world out there, and it really opened my eyes. When I came back, others saw potential in me, too. I kept getting promoted ahead of my peers. Then Vietnam came along.”

“My first tour in Vietnam was in the MeKong Delta working for the U.S. Army 704th Counterintelligence Detachment. During my second 13-month tour in Vietnam, I had attained the rank of Staff Sergeant. Again, someone saw potential and they promoted me to Second Lieutenant. I never looked back. The promotion caused me to realize that, if I wanted to be a real officer, I needed an education. So after returning from Vietnam, upon completing my third tour I went to night school for three years and picked up my Bachelors Degree, then I went another year and picked up my Master’s Degree in Human Resources Management.”

“My years in the Marine Corps were loaded with experiences. I worked for the CIA, the State Department, the U.S. Treasury Department and the Secret Service. While with the Secret Service I was on two Presidential (Johnson and Nixon) details with them. All this while I was still an active duty Marine officer.”

“While in Vietnam I worked for the CIA predominantly. I participated in the Chieu Hoi program which was working with Viet Cong who had defected to the South, and we tried to turn them against their old buddies. It was my job, at an isolated base in the northern part of South Vietnam, to take these Chieu Hois across the river at night, and they would go off and do their assigned missions. At a pre-arranged time they would signal and I would go back across the river and escort them back into our camp. I spoke Vietnamese, so I could de-brief them. Anything they told me of intelligence value I would inform the company commander and we would board amphibious tractors and cross the river to neutralize what they supposedly found for us. Most forays were a complete waste of time, while other missions were very productive.”

Bill Howey’s book is available at Amazon.com

“I also worked for the CIA’s notorious PHOENIX program in Hoi An city during my final year in Nam. I told this story in my book, Hard Knocks and Straight Talk, where this lady wanted to have her husband rescued. He was a Viet Cong village chief and she was sure he was going to be killed. I made specific arrangements with her and she went back to discuss his surrender. He agreed to the terms and she came back to me in Hoi An. We flew to Hill 110, southwest of Danang, where she and I went down the mountain. I waited while she went into the village and out she came with, not only her husband, but two other Viet Cong who wanted out of the war. They weren’t carrying their weapons the way they were instructed, so I yelled at them in Vietnamese and they did exactly what I wanted. The VC were carrying big boxes on their heads which later turned out to be the Goi Noi Island intelligence files on every person living in that area – a real intelligence find. My helicopter had not returned and we were sitting on a bunker. I pointed to the valley where we could see a Marine company walking up the valley. I said, ‘Tuie Quan Luc Chien (soldiers of the sea).’ He pointed and said, ‘VC!’ I turned to his wife and asked her what he was saying. She said, “He’s telling you the VC are waiting in ambush.” An Army helicopter was flying over the mountain and we radioed for him to come down, which he did. At first he refused to fly me into the valley but I convinced him to do so. [Editor’s note: We can imagine how he convinced him.] He wouldn’t land and I had to jump the final ten feet. The Marine commander came up to me and said, ‘What’s going on?’ I showed him the ambush location and explained the situation. My helicopter had arrived and I had to get back to the top of the mountain. The pilot came down and picked me up. Then we took my VC back to Hoi An for interrogation and a review of the intelligence they had given me. The Marines killed ten and captured eleven and there were no Marine casualties which was wonderful! My VC was quite a turncoat. Not only did he give us intelligence on the entire area, but he also gave up the VC whom he had ordered to be in that ambush position. Obviously, we never really put full trust and confidence in any captured VC.”

“When I got back to my headquarters in Danang, my Counter-Intelligence Team Commander said to me, ‘Hey, the 7th Marines just sent a message to you through the commanding general.’ The message was: ‘YOU CAN DROP IN ON US ANYTIME!’”

“My hair turned white when I was about thirty years old. Being an officer, having been an enlisted man, I didn’t want my men to do anything they hadn’t seen me do first. We were taking a lot of casualties in our small counter-intelligence teams. One of our duties was to search the tunnels we found. The VC had begun working those tunnels as far back as World War II so they had twenty years to dig and shore up. Some of the tunnels were small–only going a few yards, others were five stories or more deep and fifteen miles long. They had hospitals, rest areas, food chambers, headquarters and everything else they needed to survive, including lighting and air ducts. The tunnels I went into were confined one–about 200-300 feet at most. There were hidden walls. If you jumped into the wrong tunnel they would stab you with a spear, usually aiming for the spine. The VC planted mines in some tunnels which they didn’t use, but knew if we found them, we’d investigate. Just kneel down and you could blow yourself up. They also tied small poisonous snakes, called a Krite, into small openings near the roof of the tunnel. We generally had to remove our helmet and flak jacket and sometimes you’d have to strip down to your pants or shorts just to get into the tunnel. While crawling along and looking ahead, the snakes would strike and it would be over in seconds. Some tunnels just came to an end and you’d look up and there would be a trap door. These were the worst situations. You’d open the trap door by pushing up and they’d be standing there to shoot you in the face.”

“I loved the Secret Service guys out of the Los Angeles office. One time they were coming to our base in Santa Ana, California. They would call and say, ‘Bill, we’re short-handed, how many of your men can we have?’ I’d say, ‘All fourteen of us!’ We’d be the only ones on the base allowed to carry loaded weapons, other than the Secret Service. President Johnson was going to be in a hangar giving a speech to a departing battalion. The agent in charge asked if I wanted to be in the Presidential Detail next to him. I said, ‘No!’ I wouldn’t walk across the street to see him! I hated Lyndon Johnson. In fact, one night I was in a bombardment, I was lying on top of the ground, and the only thought in my mind was how I wished Johnson was there too, just to face what we had to.”

“The Secret Service and I had a wonderful relationship. Remember, the anti-war movement was going on at that time. They were always trying to do something on our base to sabotage or embarrass the military. We’d beat them every time and the Secret Service would just eat it up! They loved what we were doing because it was helping them out at the same time.”

“What do I think of Vietnam now? I supported it then because I was in it and it was the decision our Commander-in-Chief had made. After all, we were saving the world from the Communist domino-theory. After getting an education, I believe we should never have been in that war; our government made a mistake. General Eisenhower was right. It was un-winnable – politically! While the press tries to make it out that we lost the war militarily, they are wrong. We had the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong beaten, but our politicians and press cost us the victory, wasting more than 58,000 American lives and millions of Vietnamese. Kennedy and Johnson disregarded reality because, I believe, they wanted to win a war for their presidential record. They thought it would be an easy one and we paid the price.”

“I was very proud of everyone who served, except for the druggers. We didn’t have as many of those as the press reported, but we had some. I am proud of everyone who served, except those people.’

“We went out one night and set up an ambush. We knew there was a North Vietnamese company operating in the area and we wanted to engage it. We were about to set up an ambush about five miles from our base in Danang, and a Lieutenant told his radio operator to make a final call into the base before going radio silent. The operator reported to the Lieutenant that someone was on our frequency, reading John Lennon’s book. When the operator tried to get the guy on drugs off the radio by explaining the ambush situation, I can’t tell you the language the drugger used to the Marine. The guy said he didn’t care if we all got killed and he went right back to reading the book. We have two frequencies assigned to each radio, so the operator tried switching, and damned if the same thing wasn’t happening on that frequency. It was not the book, but drug talk between guys who used all kinds of weird nicknames for themselves. They said they weren’t getting off for some blankety-blank Marine: “They can go to hell.” Being without a radio is the worst thing in an ambush position. We couldn’t stay there so we started back to base. Here we were moving around in the dark with no radio contact to tell anybody we were coming back in! Worried about starting a firefight with our own Marines, one young Marine was brave enough to get close enough to yell the password. We were instructed to come on in, but we had to go one at a time. The company commander, a Captain, and I were the last in. I hated those druggers. They were lucky we didn’t catch them, if we had they would not have come home alive.”


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