As a senior in college in 1955, Howard Lee joined the Marine Reserves and, after completing the required Officer Candidate program, became an officer. Finding that he liked the military, he transferred to the regular Marines. When he was given command of his first infantry platoon, he decided to make the Corps a career.
He was sent to Vietnam in the spring of 1966 as a captain in charge of a company in the 4th Marines. On August 8, his company was providing security for the American base at Dong Ha when one of his platoons on a reconnaissance mission near the village of Cam Lo was surrounded by a large North Vietnamese force. The first helicopter sent to extract the trapped Marine platoon picked up about half of them. A second helicopter was hit by enemy fire and crashed. Listening to the operation unfold back at Dong Ha, Lee convinced his battalion commander to let him go forward to provide leadership for the sixteen men left on the ground.
Captain Lee had an aerial view of the Marines' precarious position at the top of a hill as he arrived by helicopter. They were surrounded by what turned out to be North Vietnamese regular forces. On the ground, he and the two men with him were moving up the hill in the middle of heavy fire when the sergeant of the battered platoon, who had been wounded in the head and was bleeding profusely, came running down. Lee thought that the sergeant was intending to report to him, but the soldier ran right by without a word and managed to jump into the departing helicopter as it lifted off.
Once at the American position, Lee went from one foxhole to another to reassure the men. But the U.S. troops were going through ammunition at a rapid rate in their effort to keep the enemy at bay; Lee called for resupply and fire support. One of the helicopter pilots who responded was over the American position when an enemy rocket tore off the tail of the craft and it crashed. Fortunately, the three-man crew survived and, with the helicopter's machine guns, augmented Lee's beleaguered force.
At dusk, the NVA staged an attack that lasted through the night. Although Lee was hit with shrapnel several times in the face and his right side—doctors would later extract fifteen pieces, ranging in size from an aspirin to a quarter—he continued to direct the defense, calling in artillery and concentrating the Marines' firepower. The enemy came so close that he could hear them talking. But they never penetrated the Marines' perimeter, and at daybreak they retreated. That morning Lee collapsed due to blood loss from his many wounds and had to relinquish command. His actions saved his men from capture, minimized the loss of life of his fellow Marines, and dealt the enemy a severe defeat.
Captain Lee spent three weeks on a hospital ship in Da Nang bay and was then sent home. On October 25, 1967, he was at the White House to receive the Medal of Honor. While President Lyndon Johnson was reading the citation, Lee's three-year-old son, Michael, was on the floor squirming. Frustrated, Lee reached down and picked the child up by the collar. That scene became the photo that made the newspapers the next day.