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Lieutenant Colonel Jakie M. Howard

Air Controller, Aide to General William Westmoreland

Military Assistance Command Vietnam, Staff of General William Westmoreland

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     Jakie M. Howard was born in the winter of 1927 to Noah and Eva Howard in Bell County, Kentucky, a southeastern county bordering Tennessee. Howard grew up in the small one-hundred-family mining community of Cary. The commune sat two and a half miles from nearby Pineville with most of the men working at the Cary-Glendon Coal Company, for which the area was named. The Howard family was one of the first to settle there but by the time of Jakie’s birth, his father had moved from the mines to help run the nearby general store. His mother also worked, serving as the postmistress for the local U.S. Post Office.

     It was in this environment that Howard grew up. He was attending Pineville High School while his nation fought World War II, but all throughout he desperately wanted to do his part. Enlisting as soon as he could, before his eighteenth birthday, he was unable to formally enter the military before the German surrender in Europe. It wasn’t until June of 1945 that he shipped off for basic training at Camp Claiborne, Louisiana and, afterward, traveled to Germany in February 1946 for a year of service in Frankfurt as a member of the American army of occupation. Despite missing the action, Howard made the most of his tour by traveling across several European countries and reaching the rank of Sergeant.


     Howard returned home and in the fall of 1947 and began attending school at the University of Kentucky under the G.I. Bill. This was the start of a slightly rocky educational journey, in which he traveled across nearly a new school each semester. Among his attended institutions were the Marion MIlitary Institute, the University of Louisville, Lincoln Memorial University, and a final stint with the University of Kentucky as a member of its ROTC program. Graduating from UK with his bachelors in 1951, he attended a summer-long ROTC course at Fort Campbell to complete his officer’s training, receiving his commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the fall of 1951. He returned home and joined his local national guard unit, L Company, 397th Infantry Regiment, 100th Infantry Division, and in 1952 married his lifelong bride, Emily Fuson, who was a teacher within the Bell County school system.

     With Korea heating up, Howard felt another call to travel overseas on active duty. Tragically, he once again arrived in 1953 after most of the hostilities had ended. Not one to let the opportunity pass by, he made the most of his tour. Assigned to the USAF’s 6147th Tactical Control Group as an army-attached aerial spotter, Howard helped to develop tactics and strategies for the very first iteration of forward air controllers. Learning the ins and outs of close air support for ground operations, he discovere a love for aviation that would last the rest of his military career. The tour ended in 1954 and he settled back with his family at Fort Knox.


     From 1955 to 1957 Howard traveled around stateside positions at Knox, Camp Rucker, and Fort Benning. With a continued desire for the sky, he finally applied and was accepted for training as a helicopter pilot in 1957. In 1958, a newly christened aviator, Howard returned to Germany for pilot duty out of Kitzen. He was promoted to captain while on this tour and came home an experienced and capable pilot. Through the turn of the decade Howard kept up his infantry capabilities, becoming Airborne qualified through sixteen parachute jumps and finishing advanced infantry school at Fort Benning. Not satisfied, he applied for and completed Ranger School in 1962 at Fort Benning, developing advanced mountaineering, jungle warfare, special operations, and survival skills. Returning home to Kentucky, he spent his next few years as the commanding officer of HQ Company, 54th Infantry Regiment at Fort Knox watching as the army slowly inched its way towards total war in Southeast Asia. 

     By 1964 the conflict in Vietnam had reached unprecedented levels. With the Gulf of Tonkin incident stirring up political and military support for expanding operations, nearly 16,500 American troops were on the ground by the end of the year with many more slated to arrive in a focused effort against the Viet Cong guerillas. Howard finally had his chance to serve in a combat capacity, and he did not hesitate. With over 1,500 flying hours under his belt and experience in a variety of military roles, he volunteered for overseas duty and happily accepted. In January of 1965, he was off for Vietnam. 


     Upon his arrival in Saigon, now Major Howard received his assignment as an aide on the personal staff of Major General William Westmoreland, commander of Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) and all U.S. forces in the country. With his helicopter experience and prior work with the Air Force developing forward air control tactics, Howard was the natural choice as air controller of American air mobile forces in theater. In this role, he headed the U.S. Army Helicopter Center in Saigon as a trailblazer for what he dubbed the new “helicopter war.” 

     Howard’s daily job was to reallocate helicopters across the country to ensure all air mobile operations had sufficient helicopter support. To do this job, he had to know the location of all aircraft at all times, their make and weaponry, and to which units they were assigned. When emergencies or engagements arose, Howard was called upon to determine which Corps and units could afford temporarily losing their aircraft to maintain support for those under attack. He also oversaw armed helicopter support for occupied hamlets across Vietnam. Whenever his designated hamlets came under attack, Howard would send out armed UH-1 “Huey” helicopters, or other support craft, to give American and South Vietnamese troops the advantage. At some points, Howard’s efforts were to support Saigon itself, attacking enemy forces as close as one mile from the capital city. 


     Throughout his first tour Howard helped to expand the American military presence in Vietnam and its combat capabilities. As more Army forces and Marines landed, the Americans initiated greater offensive actions. In his role, Howard played an important part in organizing the aerial support for many of the armed force's early operations, such as Operation STARLITE, the Battle of Ia Drang, and Operation HARVEST MOON. All extremely tough engagements, they were only possible through continuous and organized air support. 

     While in Vietnam, Howard developed a keen sense of the tactical situation on the ground. He personally attested to the tremendous power of the Huey to provide transportation and mobile firepower for American troops, detailing in a post-tour article how their critical effectiveness made it necessary to expand units operating the aircraft in-country. He also advocated heavily for the bombing of North Vietnam as critical in stopping enemy supply routes and troops. He did acknowledge, however, that the tactics used were not perfect, resulting in some civilian casualties as did every bombing campaign. 


     In describing the fighting itself, Howard felt that “there [were] no front lines in Viet Nam,” that you “never know who your enemy is.” He told a local newspaper that “[l]ife doesn’t mean anything to the Viet Cong,” and that even with intensified bombing, he could see the war going on for at least another seven years. It was a new type of war and not easily won. Howard believed that peace negotiations were worthwhile, but that no matter what “[the United States] can’t pull out now.”

     Upon the completion of his tour, Howard returned home to Kentucky where he spent a thirty-day furlough in Middlesboro. He soon discovered the breadth of anti-war protests and sentiment at home. “It is keenly disappointing when we hear of home folks who are demonstrating against the war in Vietnam,” he related, “[w]e can’t pull out now. Too many of our men have been killed. Red China would take all Southeast Asia and keep on pushing." Howard was proud of what he had accomplished so far and hopeful as to the future of the conflict. 


     After his brief rest at home, he returned to Vietnam in February 1966 to begin a second tour. Working in largely the same capacity, his second stint of service on Westmoreland’s staff found Howard organizing greater and larger military operations. With nearly 385,300 troops now deployed, major offensives took the fight to the enemy. Air support expanded drastically with thousands of helicopters ensuring all allied forces could keep up the fight, with Howard behind the scenes making sure that it was done as smoothly as possible. His final tour concluded in January 1967, returning home to his wife and three children as a newly-christened Lieutenant Colonel. By the end of his service in Vietnam, Howard had managed thousands of military aircraft, maintained the support for hundreds of operations, and been awarded the Bronze Star, four Air Medals, the Joint Service Commendation Medal, and four campaign stars on his Vietnam Service Medal. 

     Back in Kentucky, Howard was assigned to the 101st Aviation Battalion of the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, preparing the unit for deployment to Vietnam. In August 1967 he traveled to the Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth before a multi-year assignment as an instructor in the Department of Advanced Flight Training at the U.S. Army Aviation School at Fort Rucker, Alabama. He used his deep and intimate knowledge of helicopters to train new pilots and air crews until July 1971 when he moved to Alexandria, Virginia and joined the U.S. Army Combat Developments Experimentation Command. 


     With thirty-one years of military service under his belt, Lieutenant Colonel Howard retired in January of 1976 to take on a position with the Kentucky Regional Office of the Veterans Administration in Louisville, where he lived with his wife for many years. Later he moved back to his ancestral family property in Cary to maintain it while his children remained in Louisville. Always proud of his long and decorated time in the Army, he enjoyed his retirement years, joining local veteran’s organizations, participating in memorial events, and traveling around the country with his wife until he eventually passed in 2019.

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