Yesterday, November 11, the nation observed Veterans Day. Some people got a day off. Others shopped for bargains. But many Americans gave thanks to those who serve and formerly did. I got an early start by being videoed for a documentary about the death of one particularly heroic soldier.
1LT Howie Schnabolk, my fraternity brother, was a helicopter pilot with the 498th Medical Company (Air Ambulance). Howie saved many lives but, it appears, has not gotten the recognition he deserves.
I’d heard that on 3 August 1967, Howie’s UH-1D helicopter was shot down with eight people on board. He landed it on its left side—his—to save lives. He and two men were killed. The Army, I recently learned, never awarded Howie a purple heart. The Army’s after-action report—much material redacted—states that the chopper, improperly maintained, went down due to engine failure.
Howie’s great-nephew, Dan Colella, contests this. A graduate film student at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, Dan is shooting a documentary investigating what actually happened.
Last Sunday, Dan interviewed me in my living room. Classmate Red Jitar and friend Devon Donis crewed a three-camera set-up. I provided background regarding Howie’s character and my communications with him before he was killed.
Howie and I exchanged letters while I was in Army training then stationed at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. He was going to room with me when he returned and before my tour in Vietnam. I was never deployed.
Howie wrote about receiving a new bullet-proof flight helmet. An enemy round went through it. He commented on the esteemed 101st Airborne Division “getting the shit kicked out of them.” Eight thousand miles from home, all our troops could do is fight for each other.
I told Dan that in school—Alfred University in western New York—Howie was the most responsible guy I knew. An Eagle Scout. President of our fraternity, Tau Delta Phi. Always quiet and low key. But courage doesn’t involve screaming and chest thumping. An officer who’d flown with Howie called him “the bravest man I knew.”
Still, the Army concluded that Howie’s chopper suffered an engine failure after he picked up a soldier who’d broken his leg operating a forklift at Ammo Base Phutom on Highway 1. The forklift operator later received a purple heart. Why not Howie?
Another pilot saw a photo of the engine’s combustion section with bullet damage. Two or three survivors reported hearing a “ping” typical of small arms fire.
Dan wonders if anti-Semitism played a role in Howie’s being denied a purple heart. In my post “Honoring the Medal of Honor” (3-21-14), I wrote how Korean War vet Michael Libman investigated awarding the Medal of Honor and concluded that many senior commanders hesitated to recommend Jews and other minorities. Days before, PFC Lenny Kravitz, the singer’s uncle, was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously by President Barack Obama. Three living heroes—two Latinos and an African American—also received long-delayed medals.
Dan will complete a 15-minute film for his second-year project. He’ll expand it to 35-45 minutes and contact film festivals. He has much support from Jewish veterans groups.
I’m proud to play a small role in this documentary. The memory of Howie’s courage and integrity plays a big role in my life.
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