Soldier. Howie was born on April 12, 1908, in Abbeville, South Carolina. He was one of seven children in the family of Torrance Howie and his wife, Cora Dry. He graduated from Abbeville High School in 1925, having excelled as both a student and an athlete.
Howie enrolled at the Citadel as an English major. While there he played football, and baseball, and he also boxed. His leadership qualities were evident by his junior year, 1928, when he led a hunger strike to bring attention to the poor quality of food in the mess hall. He was elected president of the senior class and named the “most versatile, popular and best all around” cadet.
After graduating from the Citadel with honors in 1929, Howie moved to Staunton, Virginia, where he became an English teacher, coach, and athletic director at Staunton Military Academy. His football teams won four military school state championships, and his baseball teams had a number of successful seasons. In 1932 he married Elizabeth Payne, of Staunton, and they had a daughter, Sally, who was born in 1938.
As war approached, Howie accepted a commission in the Virginia National Guard. He was assigned to the 116th Infantry Regiment of the 29th “Blue and Gray” Division. After being called to active duty in the summer of 1941, his unit underwent intensive combat training in Georgia, North Carolina, and Florida. Afterward the 116th sailed for Europe on the Queen Mary in September 1942. The 29th continued its training in England through 1944, when the unit took part in the Normandy Invasion.
On June 6, 1944, Howie, a staff officer with the 116th, landed at Omaha Beach in the third wave of assault troops. Having survived the carnage of the invasion’s bloodiest beach, he and the men of the 116th spent the remainder of June and much of July fighting through Normandy’s hedgerow country in brutal close combat.
On July 13 Major Howie was placed in command of the Third Battalion of the 116th as American forces pushed to within a mile of the town of St. Lo, a vital transportation hub near the base of the Cotentin Peninsula. Howie believed that his battalion had earned the honor of being the first unit to enter St. Lo, but on July 16 it was ordered to aid the Second Battalion of the 116th, which had been surrounded near the town of La Madeleine and was nearly out of food and ammunition. Howie’s men relieved the Second Battalion in less than two hours, and the following day he planned to lead his battalion into St. Lo, despite enemy resistance. He radioed the 29th Division Commander, Major General Charles Gerhardt to report on the situation and informed him that the battered Second Battalion could not assist with the capture of the city. He assured the general that his battalion could do the job, and he finished his transmission with the phrase “SEE YOU IN ST. LO!”
Soon after ordering his battalion to begin the assault, Howie was mortally wounded by shrapnel from an enemy mortar barrage. The following day, as the Third Battalion entered St. Lo, they placed Howie’s flag-draped body on a stretcher and put it on the hood of a jeep at the head of the column, so that he could be the first American to enter the city (an event commemorated in one of a series of murals inside Daniel Library at the Citadel). As the fighting continued in the city, Howie’s men lifted his body from the jeep and ran through enemy fire to place it in the rubble of the St. Croix Cathedral. They then filed by to salute and pay their respects, and citizens of the town came out to lay flowers next to the stretcher.
Andy Rooney, then a young Stars and Stripes reporter, witnessed these events and later spoke of them during an anniversary broadcast. In 1956 Howie’s story was told in an article entitled “The Major of St. Lo” that was written for Colliers Magazine by Cornelius Ryan, author of The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far. Later it was repeated on TV in an episode of the show Cavalcade of America, with Howie being portrayed by actor Peter Graves. The historian Steven Ambrose prominently mentioned Howie’s story in his book Citizen Soldiers, and he later indicated that Howie was the model for the character Captain John Miller, portrayed by actor Tom Hanks in the movie Saving Private Ryan.
Many tributes and memorials have been made to Howie since his death. The citizens of St. Lo erected a memorial to the liberator of their city, and it includes a copy of a bust of Howie that was displayed at Staunton Military Academy after his death. In 1954 Howie’s classmate R. Hugh Daniel and his older brother Charles donated money to erect the Howie Bell Tower on the Citadel campus, which includes a carillon with one of the largest set of bells in North America, cast at the famous Royal Bergen Foundry in the Netherlands. The U.S. Army Reserve Center in Greenville, South Carolina, is named in Howie’s honor, and a state historical marker stands at the family home and on the front lawn of the courthouse in Abbeville, South Carolina.
Howie, Thomas Dry. South Carolina Hall of Fame Files. South Carolina Department of Archives and History. Columbia, S.C.
Citadel Office of External Affairs. “Thomas Dry Howie: A Hero Who Exemplifies Excellence.” Address given at the induction of Thomas Dry Howie into the South Carolina Hall of Fame, February 10, 2003. The Citadel. Accessed June 18, 2012. http://www.citadel.edu/root/news-archives-sy02–03-howie_speech.