I'll see you in St. Lo
The subject is heroism. [T]he four components of heroism [are]: moral greatness, ability or prowess, action in the face of opposition, and triumph in at least a spiritual, if not a physical, form. Our current subject was an American warrior who gave his life in service to his country during what is called World War Two.
Thomas Dry Howie was born in Abbeville, South Carolina in 1908. After graduating from Abbeville High School he attended The Citadel where he graduated in 1929 with distinction and as president of his class. He spent eight years teaching English and coaching football at Staunton Military Academy in Virginia. In 1932 he married Elizabeth Payne and in 1938 a daughter, Sally Elizabeth was born.
Howie joined the Virginia National Guard and in 1941, 2nd Lt. Howie was called to active duty with the 116th Infantry Regiment of the United States Army. The 116th, part of the 29th Division (the "Blue and Gray") would be a D-Day spearhead force when Operation Overlord commenced with the invasion of Europe. Howie landed on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. By July, Allied forces were marching through Northwest France. A notable objective was the French town of St. Lo, an important crossroads for supplies and communications.
[D-Day] was a staggering display of courage - young men in small boats pushing towards a beach lined with bunkers from which machine gun and mortar fire was sure to mow down a huge number of the first wave - men willing to die for a cause called freedom - to give up life itself so that others might live a certain way. --John Kerry. (May 3, 2002 in South Carolina)
The possession of St. Lo was considered pivotal in the Allied plans for the defeat of the German army.
St. Lo's military significance derived from being a hub of main arteries that lead in every direction. From the north come highways connecting it with Carentan and Isigny; eastward, roads suitable for heavy traffic lead toward Caumont and Bayeux; to the west runs a road to Periers and Lessay that constituted the principal lateral behind the German west wing; southwest is the Coutances highway. Holding St-Lo,
The enemy had good connections near his front lines for shifting forces east or west of the Vire. To deny the Germans this advantage would be one gain in capture of the city. Much more important for First Army's larger aims was the prospect of capturing the hills that commanded the Vire Valley on both sides of St-Lo. If XIX Corps could win the objective set, along the line St-Gilles-St-Lo-Berigny, Lt. Gen. Omar N. Bradley would have terrain essential to an offensive such as the Allied high command was already planning. The ground west of St-Lo could be used for jump-off on attack into country where tanks could operate and tactical maneuver would be favored. But the terrain near St-Lo on the east was also suitable for mounting an attack, and this fact would both help First Army and embarrass the German command. If XIX Corps could get astride the Vire at St-Lo, thus threatening a drive either southeast toward Vire or southwest toward Coutances, this would increase the enemy's problem in disposing limited forces to guard against a breakthrough. The importance of the St-Lo area to the Germans is shown by the desperate defense they offered in June and were to repeat in July. --St. Lo: American Forces in Action Series.
Major Howie took command of the 3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry division on July 13, 1944. On July 17th, Major Howie was killed in action on the outskirts of St. Lo. The official report:
Early on the morning of 16 July 1944, the 3rd Bn was directed to take MARTINVILLE; drive south and occupy Objective B, the highway leading into ST LO. The 3rd Bn CO, Major Thomas D. Howie, ordered his troops to attack with fixed bayonets and hand grenades to seize MARTINVILLE, reorganized and move south to Objective B. This mission was speedily and successfully accomplished. Following contact with the 2nd Bn, the 3rd Bn began to organize defensive positions and then shared rations and ammunition with the 2nd Bn...At 1015, 16 July 1944, the Commanding General, 29th Infantry Division ordered the 3rd Bn to proceed to Objective S. Immediately after a conference among the company commanders, Major Howie, CO 3rd Bn was killed by three successive mortar shells.
(116th After Action Report)
The next day St. Lo was taken from the Germans. Major Howie's flag-draped body was carried into the liberated town by his troops and placed on the steps of the St. Croix Church. (There are differing reports: Was Major Howie's body in a flag-draped coffin or was just his flag-draped body placed on the steps?) Each year, on July 18 there is a wreath-laying ceremony at the Major Howie monument in St. Lo.
In February, 2003 Howie was inducted into the South Carolina Hall of Fame. Other posthumous awards to Howie include the Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart, French Legion of Honor, French Fourragere, and Combat Infantry Badge.
There is speculation that Major Howie is the model for Capt. John Miller, the role played by Tom Hanks in Steven Spielberg's highly regarded film, Saving Private Ryan. The connection is writer Steven Ambrose who wrote the book Citizen Soldiers (published in 1997). Ambrose also served as a script consultant for the Hanks/Spielberg film. The Howie family believes the character Tom Hanks played was loosely based on Major Howie because they were both gentle, mild-mannered university [sic] English professors who died during the Normandy invasion.
(Parenthetically, there is some controversy about Mr. Ambrose and his tendency to copy, without attribution, the work of other writers. See More Controversy for Stephen Ambrose wherein it is discussed that Ambrose used another writer's work to discuss the facts of Major Howie's body being carried into St. Lo.)
In 1945, at Staunton Military Academy, the Howie Rifles was established to perpetuate the ideals, leadership, and courage exemplified by Major Howie. Cadets nominated to this special formation showcased precision drill sequences during parades at the academy. Academic and moral leadership characteristics were combined with technical expertise in the cadet who marched for the Howie Rifles.
By any and all accounts and juxtaposed against any other soul, Thomas Dry Howie was a good teacher, a good warrior, a good leader, and a good man.