America’s Last Swashbuckler

Published June 2011
Southwinds Magazine

What does it take to lay claim to an extraordinary life?

We all have our moments, but most of us go about our day to day lives quietly heroic for children and loved ones. There are massive trials like Hurricane Katrina which bring to the forefront everyone’s core whether good or evil. But for some, the stars are aligned and there is no escaping a constantly heroic life.

At age 17, Captain Mike Howell left the quiet New Orleans’ neighborhood of Lake Vista and shipped off to Vietnam. Two years later on April 13, 1967 working as a door gunner on a helicopter gunship during combat operations against an oversized battalion of North Vietnamese Regulars near the Vietnamese border with Cambodia, he was horribly wounded. With his left arm rigorously shattered, a bullet through his leg and multiple serious lacerations from shrapnel, he was rapidly bleeding to death.

With the helicopter’s Crew Chief pinching off the artery in his arm, the severely damaged helicopter was able to make it to a Division sized medical unit 15 minutes later and he was rushed into a triage unit. Through his own descriptions of the event, Howell explained that he was conscious although unable to speak or move. In this triage unit he heard the medical staff rapidly agreeing to not waste precious blood and I.V. fluids on him and were going to declare him dead. He described how while this was happening that he was screaming in his head, “Waste the blood! Waste the blood!” but was completely unable to communicate. The last thing he remembered was a female nurse screaming “Bullshit!”

Awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, two Purple Hearts, the Vietnam Cross of Gallantry and several others, Howell returned home to New Orleans having lost an arm and about to undergo another year of recovery and the inevitable nightmares in his mother’s home in New Orleans. For most this would have been enough heroics for a lifetime – he was only 20.

Several years later and with no boating experience whatsoever, Howell purchased a run-down 1947 55’ workboat/trawler named Mañana, moved aboard and rebuilt the engines and equipment. He taught himself everything there was to know about boats and achieved a Captain’s license from the U.S. Coast Guard.

He placed himself into an incredibly strenuous lifestyle and career that would try even the most athletic amongst us and rapidly became a fixture out at West End and the marinas of the Gulf of Mexico logging thousands of miles across open waters as a working Captain. He joined the Coast Guard Auxiliary and would eventually assist in over 100 maritime rescues.

In 1980, moved by the plight of 125,000 people trying to flee Cuba during the Mariel Boat Lift, he acted under his own orders and sailed Mañana across the Gulf of Mexico to Cuba and rescued 75 individuals fleeing Fidel Castro’s Cuba, mostly women and children. One 16 year old girl onboard, Mirta Ojito, would eventually become a Pulitzer Prize winning author and who would subsequently write a memoir of the boat lift and titled it after Howell’s boat, Finding Mañana. Captain Mike believing in the honorable adages of our country stated not long ago while reminiscing, “You know all that stuff about give us your tired, your poor… Well that really means something to me.”

A year later, he was approached by a band of mercenaries who were preparing to ship out of New Orleans and conduct a coup d’etat on the small Caribbean island of Dominica. Their goal was to turn the island into an armed camp and major waypoint for funneling drugs into the United States. Captain Mike agreed to transit them to the island, but covertly contacted the FBI and the CIA and became integral in foiling the coup. As Mañana headed out of the waters of southeast Louisiana loaded for war with explosives, weapons, ammunition and dangerous men and with their informant at the helm, the authorities swooped in and put an end to Operation Red Dog. This story was dubbed the “Bayou of Pigs” by the newspapers and a book chronicling it would later be released under the same name. Captain Mike received a personal commendation letter from the Director of the FBI for his actions.

During Hurricane Katrina, he rode out the storm onboard Mañana in New Orleans’ Municipal Harbor on the Lakefront – alone. For 12 hours his steel hulled boat was lashed by the storm and pounded by errant boats loosed from their moorings and turned into missiles by the weather. Monday morning as the storm subsided, he powered her up and plowed through debris and boats and past the massive burning hulk of Southern Yacht Club to get to the Coast Guard Station in Bucktown and became one of the first individuals to learn of the levee failure on the 17th Street Canal. As he motored past the mouth of the drainage canal, he later dryly recalled how he knew something was wrong when his 55 ton vessel was rapidly getting sucked up into the canal, “That was not normal.” He tied up next to the station and his boat became the de facto Coast Guard operating base as Mañana was able to generate power for the station’s communications equipment – rescue operations commenced on the lakefront and saved thousands of lives.

In 2010 after months of waiting and chomping at the bit to assist, Mañana and Captain Mike were finally contracted by BP to work clean-up efforts on the oil spill and once again he was in the thick of it.

For almost 40 years this man lived on the waters of New Orleans’ West End, he taught sailing and boating safety to kids and adults and would dutifully travel and chaperone the junior sailing team from the New Orleans Yacht Club to regattas all across the Gulf Coast. He became a huge proponent of the rebuilding of West End after the storm and never missed a public and much to the chagrin of officials, many private meetings. This man who could never turn away a stray dog, befriended all who knew him and would joke that he would always be willing to lend a hand – and was true to his word.

Captain Mike Howell passed away on March 26th after complications that arose from surgery. A fleet of 20 sailboats and race committee boats packed with friends and family were escorted by two Coast Guard vessels out to one of the racing marks on Lake Pontchartrain. Minutes before his ashes were returned to the water, two Army helicopters flew over the fleet in formation.

New Orleans and the Gulf Coast were better for having known him as one of her sons – for he led, by definition, an extraordinary life.