No one shows greater love than when he lays down his life for his friends.” – John 15:13 (ISV)
When it comes to camaraderie and an unbreakable fraternal bond, one would be hard-pressed to find a greater kinship than among those who have seen combat together.
From infantry shivering in a hole as they hold the line against an enemy assault to an aircrew packed into a vulnerable aluminum container that defies gravity itself, there is something to be said for those who willingly forego a comfortable and safe life to fight -and possibly die- alongside others in combat.
To quote a famous line from a renowned film about pilots in the Korean War, “Where do we get such men?”
Much like the Korean War itself, many acts of love and valor in lesser-known conflicts often go overlooked, frequently falling between the cracks adjoining larger and more memorable conflict.
Regrettably, such was the case during the 1983 US invasion of Grenada, better known as Operation Urgent Fury, when Marine aviators supporting their brothers on the ground got an up close and personal look about the meaning of sacrifice and love for one’s brother.
Almost exactly ten years before the “Black Hawk Down” incident in Mogadishu, on October 25, two USMC AH-1T Sea Cobras of the Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 261 flew low and fast over the southern end of the Carribean island, closing in on Fort Frederick, a position overlooking the heavily-populated city of St. George’s where US Marines and Army Rangers were in desperate need of Close Air Support.
The Rangers and Marines had been ordered to secure both a fort and a university campus, where American citizens were holed up in the aftermath of an armed attack by the Cuban-backed Marxist People’s Revolutionary Army. Ambushed during their advance, time was slowly beginning to switch sides when the familiar sound of two-bladed attack helicopters began filling the tinnitus-deafened ears of the grunts who summoned them.
Of all aviators in the US Military, Marines are a particularly special lot, who have to train as infantrymen before becoming pilots. By first learning to endure slogging through mud and confronting ambushes, Marine pilots develop a particular kinship and sense of empathy with their infantry counterparts that is hard to find anywhere else. As every Marine is a rifleman, so is every Marine aviator a ground-pounder at heart.
On this occasion, four such Marines were en-route to assist their beleaguered foes- two Sea Cobras, armed to the teeth and ready to do whatever it took to lighten the rifleman’s burden. In one helicopter, Captain Howard and his co-pilot/gunner Captain Jeb Seagle. In the other, Major John “Pat” Guigerre, and First Lieutenant Jeff Sharver.
Skillfully moving into position, the Sea Cobras began raking the enemy with fire, providing the much-needed assistance that the men on the ground had asked for. After four full passes, Howard and Seagle’s Cobra had run dry of ammo and headed back to re-arm.
As they came back for their fifth attack run, Howard put the Sea Cobra into a hover so that Seagle could fire off a TOW wire-guided missile at a target, two hunters in the sky taking steady aim at their prey.
Without warning, the cockpit and airframe began ripping apart as explosive shells from a ZU-23 23-mm anti-aircraft gun ripped through the Sea Cobra, nearly severing Howard’s right arm, breaking his legs and knocking Seagle unconscious.
Using what few limbs were available to him and pushing through excruciating pain, Howard managed to crash land the helicopter without rolling it over. Upon impact, the canopy release system activated, snapping Seagle back into consciousness.
Without a second thought, Seagle grabbed his partner and summoned every ounce of strength to pull him from the burning wreckage at speed, eventually using his helmet communication cord as a tourniquet to prevent Howard from bleeding out.
“I unstrapped and fell out,” Howard recalled. “Then Seagle grabbed my collar and pulled while I pushed until we got away from that bird. I would have died without Jeb,”
Crippled and feeling as if death would take him at any moment, Howard told Seagle to leave him and save himself as enemy troops advanced on the crash site, heavily armed and thirsty for vengeance.
For Seagle, such an order was unthinkable and simply would not do.
Taking Howard’s sidearm, Seagle called for help and moved away from his brother’s position, drawing Grenadian/Cuban forces away in hopes that Howard would go undiscovered until rescue could arrive.
With the world around him seemingly slipping away, Howard utilized the only weapon he had- the defiance of a United States Marine in the face of the enemy.
“They were shooting at me for sport. That made me mad, because sooner or later they would have to hit me,” he said some years later. “So I waved my middle at them in my last hope of defiance.”
Above him, Guigerre and Sharver were giving everything they had to cover their downed brethren, unleashing and taking fire as they attempted to coordinate a rescue effort with an incoming CH-46 Sea Knight.
As the Sea Knight Closed in the remaining Sea Cobra crew continued to fly their shot-up helicopter across the confined battlespace, drawing fire and unleashing as much punishment upon the enemy as their stricken bird would allow.
With over an hour having passed since Howard and Seagle went down, Major Melvin Demars skillfully flew his Sea Knight into position near Howard, taking fire as the large twin-rotor helicopter settled onto the ground with a “thump.” His gunner -Vietnam veteran Gunnery Sergeant Kelly Neideigh- leapt from the helicopter and ran straight into enemy fire to drag Howard to safety.
Little did Howard, know, however, that his co-pilot would later be found executed on a nearby beach- having accomplished his final -and most important- mission, at the cost of his own life.
As Howard was dragged aboard and the Sea Knight lifted off, Sea Cobra crewmembers Giguere and Sharver purposely stayed behind, absorbing as much enemy fire as their little helicopter could handle while the rescue team escaped.
As fate would have it, their heroic act would prove their last as their battered Sea Cobra went down, limping away from the mainland before crashing into the ocean.
For saving his partner and drawing away enemy troops at the cost of his life, Seagle would be posthumously awarded the Navy Cross, the second-highest decoration awarded for valor in combat. Giguere and Sharver w\posthumously received Silver Stars for their courageous and final act of covering the rescue helicopter.
The sole surviving Snake Driver of the ordeal, Captain Timothy Howard, was awarded a Silver Star, along with Sea Knight crewmembers Demars and Neidigh.
Told he would never walk again and with a near-useless arm, Howard was laid up in the hospital when he was visited by then-Secretary of the Navy John Lehman and asked what he wanted to do.
“I want to continue being a Marine,” Howard replied, the memories of his fallen brothers singed into the back of his mind.
Despite the preposterousness of the idea at the time, Lehman gave him permission to remain in the Corps.
Spending years in rehabilitation, Howard would endure great hardship as he blazed a trail for future wounded warriors.
“I worked out two hours in the morning and another two in the evening, sometimes with tears running down my face,” said Howard.
To everyone’s surprise, Howard never scored lower than a first-class PFT score after his first physical fitness test following his recovery. Given three command over the rest of his career, he would retire in 2003 as Colonel Tim Howard, Marine Forces Pacific Assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence.
For Howard, much like his former co-pilot- giving up on his fellow Marines simply wasn’t an option.
“The reason I stayed in so long was because I never had a bad command or a bad duty station,” said Howard. “The Marines always came through.”
Around the world, the men and women of the US Marine Corps navigate the globe, tiny amphibious armies ready to strike anywhere within a moment’s notice.
Be support fixed-wing or rotary as they come barreling in by land or sea, every Marine who calls for help knows that the sea-grey aircraft they requested will do whatever it takes to help them, even if it means never coming home. They know this because the pilots are Marines, just like them- and Marines never let a fellow Marine down.
After all, that’s what being a Marine is all about.
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