Howie - A Hero
Thomas Dry Howie: A Hero Who Exemplifies Excellence
(Address given by Major General John S. Grinalds, President of The Citadel, at the induction of Major Thomas Dry Howie into the South Carolina Hall of Fame, February 10, 2003)
Ladies and Gentlemen…
It is indeed a pleasure to be here today to address this distinguished audience and to talk about a native son and alumnus of The Citadel whose life, courage and devotion to duty meet the exemplary standards that qualify him for induction into the South Carolina Hall of Fame. I am speaking, of course, about Thomas Dry Howie, a native of Abbeville, South Carolina; a graduate of The Citadel; a teacher and coach at Staunton Military Academy in Virginia; a major in the United States Army; a husband to Elizabeth Payne Howie; a father to Sally Elizabeth Howie McDevitt; and a faithful man with a good and generous heart who was guided by the Word of God.
There are many things I could say about Thomas Dry Howie. He is a legend in military circles….known as the Major of Saint Lo as many of you are well aware. A man of many talents, he befriended everyone …qualities that caused his Citadel classmates to elect him president of their senior class and name him "most versatile, most popular and best all-around" in the Class of 1929. He was an athlete, playing football and baseball and also a member of the boxing team.
His leadership became apparent while he was at The Citadel. According to our alumni archives, Howie took to the strong discipline of The Citadel and always put forth his best effort, expecting others to do likewise whether or not they were Citadel cadets.
One of his English professors, Colonel J.G. Harrison, recounted an occasion when Thomas Howie stood by his principles and led the Corps of Cadets on a hunger strike in 1928 to oppose poor mess hall conditions which resulted in cadets being served stale bread for toast and pitchers of syrup with floating lumps that turned out to be dead flies. It goes without saying that organizing cadets to strike at The Citadel is not something one does without serious consideration. But Thomas Howie, being the natural leader that he was, pulled off the strike in a style of peaceful disobedience that broke no laws and eventually forced the administration to take care of problems with the mess hall.
There's another Citadel story about Thomas Howie I must share.
In November of 1928, The Citadel was playing Clemson in its homecoming game. Even at that time, The Citadel was the underdog - a position the Bulldogs usually relish. The prospects of victory were further dimmed by the fact that the Bulldog's star halfback, Tom Howie, was in Columbia the morning of the game, being considered for a Rhodes scholarship.
The interview was supposed to start at 9 o'clock but was delayed for two hours, thereby obliterating any reasonable chance that Howie would be able to get back in time to play. But miraculously, he did it. His 1928 Studebaker arrived in a cloud of dust just as players were lining up.
Howie jumped out, already in uniform, and ran onto the field. He carried the ball in the first running play of the game, speeding directly into and over a Clemson All-American center, and making a first down. His last-minute arrival and unexpected first run so energized the Bulldogs that they became a team of Davids conquering Goliaths, and handing Clemson a stunning upset by winning 12 to 7.
From The Citadel, Thomas Howie went to Staunton Military Academy in Virginia to teach English and coach football. There, he met the woman he would later marry. Thomas Howie and Elizabeth Payne became husband and wife in 1932. Their daughter, Sally, was born in 1938.
Tom Howie was recognized as a brilliant teacher and victorious coach during the eight years he taught at Staunton. He also followed another calling….the calling of service to one's country…when he joined the Virginia National Guard.
He was a second lieutenant in the 116th Infantry of the guard when his unit was called for intensive training in 1941. War was on the horizon.
Then began the next chapter - a final chapter - in Thomas Howie's life.
Saint Lo, a small farming town west of Paris, was a vital transportation hub for the Germans - so important that Hitler had ordered the town to be held at all costs. Major Thomas Howie led the Third Battalion, 116th Infantry, 29th Division during the Normandy Campaign.
For 41 days, these brave soldiers slogged across the terrain, measuring their gains foot by foot, fighting hedgerow by hedgerow, field by field and ditch by ditch, often firing at the enemy at pointblank range to claim precious ground. The cost in human lives was staggering in one of the bloodiest campaigns of World War II.
Howie believed his men had earned the right to be the first in Saint Lo but that wish seemed to be thwarted when, on July 17, 1944, Major Howie received orders to relieve the Second Battalion, which had been cut-off at La Madeleine.
It was a tough assignment. His unit had to drive through the infamous Martinville line - overriding German forces that had held for days. But with astonishing skill and speed, Major Howie led his men to accomplish this feat in less than two hours, placing the battalion a mile from the town.
The Germans began a heavy counterattack and rounds of artillery shook the ground as the Americans took cover in foxholes. The young major urged his men to keep down, telling them, "We WILL get to Saint Lo." Major Howie took the battle phone and gave an account of his position to Major General Charles Gerhardt, the commanding general.
According to accounts of that conversation, Howie yelled into the phone over the droning sounds of battle. "The Second can't make it…They're exhausted. They're too cut up."
Then he was heard to say, "Yes…. We can do it. Yes…if we jump off right now. Okay. See you in Saint Lo."
Howie called for his map and gave orders for the attack on Saint Lo. Then came a sudden German mortar barrage. That moment was frozen in the memory of Major Howie's executive officer, Captain William Putenny. Before Thomas Howie took cover, he turned to take one last look around, wanting to be certain that all of his men had their heads down. Suddenly, a mortar shell exploded a few yards away. A fragment struck Major Howie in the back, apparently piercing his lung.
"My God, I'm hit," Howie was heard to say. Then he collapsed, falling into the arms of Captain Putenny. That was on July 17, 1944.
News of his death spread like wildfire among the men who were bolstered in their determination to seize Saint Lo. General Gerhardt remembered Thomas Howie's last statement, "See you in Saint Lo" and ordered his body - still dressed in combat gear - to be placed in an ambulance to ride into Saint Lo.
The fierce battle raged and, when the ambulance was needed for the wounded, Thomas Howie's body was placed on a stretcher and transferred to the hood of the leading jeep. As the Third Battalion entered the burning city, his men lifted Major Howie's body from the jeep, and ran through enemy sniping to a nearby church. They placed his body, draped with an American flag, on the rubble of the church wall, and returned to the battle.
These men had claimed for Howie in death what he was denied in life… He was the first into Saint Lo.
In a broadcast on an anniversary of V-E Day, CBS News European Correspondent Andy Rooney said in a report on the Battle of Saint Lo:
More American soldiers were killed taking Saint Lo than were killed on the beaches. A major named Tom Howie was the leader of the battalion that actually captured Saint Lo. At least he was the leader of it until he was killed just outside town. After he died, his men picked him up, carried him into town and placed him on a pile of stones that used to be the wall of a church. I guess there never was an American soldier more honored by what the people who loved him did for him after he died. There can be no doubt that Thomas Howie was a charismatic leader, a courageous soldier and a man of outstanding character.
Those traits were evident when, eight months before he was killed, Thomas Howie wrote the following letter to his daughter, Sally:
Four days ago, I was placed in command of some 850-odd officers and men, a war-strength battalion, with all its weapons, vehicles and equipment; and the responsibility of some day committing them to battle perhaps from which a number may not return is a fearful thought. If that day should ever arrive, I hope I shall be as proud of them as I've always been of you. And I hope they will be well led.
I cannot honestly say that I hope I shall never have that privilege and responsibility. It's something like football: somebody has to play the game; somebody has to beat the enemy. And all my life, I've tried to make the first team in everything. Sitting on the bench when game time comes is no consolation for weeks of bruising drudgery. I know. I did some bench-sitting initially in everything I set my heart on.
And I've been sitting on the bench and training hard for almost three years now.
Remember what I told you: sit up straight, look people in the eye, and tell the truth.
With all my heart, Your Daddy.
Thomas Howie's memory lives on today.
In The Citadel's Daniel Library, there is a large mural of "The Major of Saint Lo" painted by David Humphreys Miller. The Thomas Dry Howie Carillon Tower at The Citadel, erected in 1954 through gifts from Robert Hugh Daniel and Charles E. Daniel, contains one of the largest Dutch bell installations in the Western Hemisphere.
The Major Thomas D. Howie Memorial Monument stands in the town of Saint Lo, France.
And in his hometown of Abbeville, directly opposite a statue of John C. Calhoun, is a monument to Thomas Dry Howie with the inscription…"Dead in France; Deathless in Fame."
Thomas Dry Howie was a great South Carolinian who has shown by his example the true meaning of courage, of leadership and of duty. He is a most worthy addition to the South Carolina Hall of Fame.