W. Nathaniel Howell, the Charlottesville resident and U.S. Ambassador to Kuwait whose defiance of Saddam Hussein’s order to close the embassy after Iraq’s 1990 invasion led to the first Gulf War, was laid to rest in Albemarle County on Wednesday.
Howell, 81, died on Dec. 17.
He grew up in Portsmouth, received a doctorate in government and foreign affairs from the University of Virginia in 1965 and joined the U.S. Foreign Service. He served in several locations, including Washington, D.C., Belgium, Egypt, Beirut and Algiers prior to being named ambassador to Kuwait by President Ronald Reagan.
Howell and his wife Margie served in foreign service posts through three conflicts, including the Six-Day War between Egypt and Israel in 1967 and the Lebanese civil war in 1975.
It was at the end of his term as ambassador to Kuwait that Howell led an estimated 100 Americans and others who holed up in the embassy after Iraq’s August 1990 invasion. They stayed despite Saddam Hussein ordering water and electricity to the compound be shut off.
From Aug. 2 to Dec. 11 of that year, he and his staff kept the embassy open despite being surrounded by Iraqi soldiers who attempted to force them to leave. Iraqis used Americans and other foreigners as human shields, keeping them at locations that might have been military targets.
Under Howell’s watch, the embassy’s swimming pool became a water source and later a well was dug when the pool became undrinkable. They survived 110 days at the embassy, eating stores of canned tuna, creating a variety of dishes, including tuna lasagna.
Howell and four others staying until their free passage was negotiated in December 1990.
“From the start of the five-month siege, he traded his suit for t-shirt and shorts, leading by example, and doing anything required,” said Mark Herzberg, currently the deputy executive officer for the U.S. Agency for International Development in the West Bank.
Herzberg served as the embassy’s general services director during the embassy’s siege.
“Ambassador Howell protected embassy staff and American citizens on the compound, surrounded by Iraqi soldiers, with no end in sight,” Herzberg wrote in an email. “He kept the flag flying, directed several evacuation flights, and gave hope to Americans in hiding and the people of Kuwait.”
Howell kept in touch with many of those with whom he served and sponsored a backyard barbecue in June 1991 for 40 of those who endured the embassy siege.
“While we were in the compound we talked a lot about our families, people important to us, and we sort of got to feel like we know those people,” he told the Daily Progress at the 1991 picnic. “We developed into a family, ourselves.”
Isidrio Galguera, who served with Howell as a U.S. Marine Corps Embassy guard both in Algiers and in Kuwait, also expressed sadness at Howell’s death.
“He was a very humble person that respected everyone and loved his Marines. He came to the Marine House parties and was just like one of the boys, always supporting us,” Galguera posted on the U.S. Marine Embassy Guard Association Facebook page.
Galguera said Howell’s dedication to his people and the Marines during the Kuwait crisis earned his respect.
“He remained there with the Marines and a few State Department diplomats. He remained in contact with several of us Jarheads for the last two or three decades, via email or phone calls,” he wrote. “This is one of the persons that I most respect in this world. Rest in peace and Semper Fidelis.”
Howell is survived by his wife, Margie, son Chip and his wife Diane, and granddaughters Paula and Anna. He was preceded in death by his son, Edward, who died in 1996.