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John A. Howard: 'God was looking out for me that day'

Wednesday, November 11, 2009  
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By Geri Nikolai
Posted Nov 11, 2009 @ 06:00 AM

When John A. Howard talks about his 11 months in combat during World War II, he doesn’t dwell on the blood and brutality of soldiering.

Howard, 88, a philosopher, educator, writer, gentleman and man who appreciates the arts, instead picks out the moments of beauty and humanity he encountered while guiding a tank across Europe and fighting Germans all the way.

On Christmas Day 1944, Howard’s tank battalion was in Belgium, engaged in the Battle of the Bulge. That five-week affair was the largest and bloodiest battle of the war for Americans, but here is what Howard mentions first: “Up in the turret of our tank, the gunner and I were trying to see through the fog when the gunner jabbed me in the ribs with his elbow and said, ’Look at that,’ ” Howard says.

They saw a girl, 9 or 10 years old, walking toward them. She spoke in French, a language Howard understood. She said everyone in her town had left but she stayed behind with her ailing grandfather and they had run out of food.

“We immediately gave her all the rations we had,” Howard recalls. “She made sort of a basket out of her apron to put them in. She looked up at us, turned to leave and said, ‘It’s a wonderful Christmas after all.’

“The marvelous thing is that all of us in the tank agreed with her,” Howard says.

Howard’s tank unit was to take part in the D-Day invasion of Europe, but because of, he says, the grace of God, there was a delay in getting the equipment they needed. His group arrived four days later and soon caught up with the fighting. Howard was in charge of a three-tank, 15-man unit and earned two silver stars for bravery in combat.

In one case, the tanks were defending the Remagen bridge over the Rhine and heading up a bluff when Germans swarmed down toward them. They were close, so close that the howitzers on the tank would have shot over their heads if fired in the usual way. Howard took a chance, instructing his men to remove four of the five “powder bags” from the shells. They’d been trained that doing so might result in the gunpowder blowing up in the gun. But, Howard says, “it was either that or be overwhelmed by the enemy.”

The gamble paid off. The shells hit the mark and the Germans who survived, retreated.

Howard earned his second Silver Star when he was leading his unit through a wooded area.

Unexpectedly, they came upon a clearing. They would be easy targets if they crossed it.

Instead, Howard led them down at the edge, walking alone in front of the tanks to get a better view of things.

It was, he says, “foolhardly” but at least it was a plan.

“My thought was to shock them,“ he says. He did. Several hundred Germans came out of the woods with hands raised. Other U.S. troops soon arrived to help process the surrendering Nazis.

“God was looking out for me that day, as he was when we missed the initial invasion on D-Day,” Howard says.

Music provided relief from the war more than once for Howard. Once, he was sent to a home just across the Rhine River that Americans were using as temporary headquarters.

“It was just a beautiful home,” he says. While waiting for a meeting, he spotted a piano and sat down to play. A woman soon appeared on the stairway and announced, “Madame doesn’t allow Americans to play her piano.“

He ignored her and continued what he says was a mediocre rendition of a Chopin waltz. Very soon, he says, “a stunning woman walked down the stairs and said, ‘I must apologize. Music is the universal language and that is one of my favorite pieces. Please continue.’ ”

Howard persuaded her to play instead. He later learned she was a famed opera singer.

Near Nuremberg, Germany, the Americans came upon some distinguished-looking men who turned out to be members of the symphony orchestra. A commander asked them for a concert.

They refused, until a junior officer told them they could play pieces by the great composer, Felix Mendelssohn.

Then, Howard says, “they played their hearts out.“ The musicians had not been allowed to play Mendelssohn for years because the composer was born Jewish.

After the war, Howard resumed his education, which had begun at Princeton, at Northwestern University. Over the years, he earned a bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate from Northwestern.

He spent eight years at Palos Verdes College in Southern California, starting as an instructor and ending as president.

In 1955, Howard oversaw President Eisenhower’s Committee on Government Contracts, a job that often involved meetings with then Vice President Richard Nixon.

Howard became a friend and the two exchanged letters until Nixon’s death in 1994. To this day, Howard wonders if Nixon had some kind of “cerebral accident” before his disastrous second term as President.

“The Richard Nixon I knew was a shy, brilliant man who always did his homework, He adored his wife, he did not swear, he was nothing like the man vilified by the press or in the movie,” Howard says.

In 1960, Howard became president of Rockford College. He oversaw the move of the campus from downtown to East State Street and made the college a center of discussion during his 17 years there, often bringing in internationally-known speakers. Among them was Ronald Reagan, who also became a friend. Howard has years of correspondence from Nixon and Reagan. The originals are stored for his children, copies will be given to Northern Illinois University.

In 1976, Howard started the Rockford College Institute, which became the Rockford Institute and is now the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society, a think tank that staunchly promotes traditional family structure. The work brings him downtown six days a week to his North Main Street office, where he continues to write. He has written two books, been a contributing author to volumes on the family, education, culture and churches, and has penned dozens of essays about contemporary issues.

Howard is an exceptional writer. In this excerpt from one of his essays, “World War II: A Half Century and a Whole Civilization Ago,” he describes war for those who have never been there: “It is difficult for a person who hasn’t experienced it to imagine what combat is like or to conceive of the emotional stress that accumulates.

“It is a shock to fire weapons at other human beings, and kill them; to adjust to a continuing series of deaths of people you have worked closely with and liked and counted on; to come to terms with the fear for your own life; to bear responsibility for life and death decisions, some of which turn out badly for your comrades; to carry on through prolonged periods with next to no sleep; to spend day after day never knowing what will happen the next minute.

“After combat, the soldier is different than he was before, emotionally scarred and, to some extent, estranged from family and friends. There is an intense and chaotic chapter of life that simply can’t be shared.

“It is private and unspeakable.”

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