05/24/2003 12:00AM

Talking Seabiscuit on the front lines


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - During the latter part of March and well into April, Mike Howard, his fellow Marines, and a whole bunch of highly motivated U.S. Navy Seabees worked their way northward from Kuwait through an eastern Iraq corridor quaintly nicknamed "Ambush Alley" in order to lay all manner of instant bridges across the Tigris River to facilitate the attack on Baghdad.

For their trouble they were greeted by steady fire from AK-47 assault rifles, rocket propelled grenades, and even a memorable Seersucker cruise missile with a 1,500-pound warhead. Men died and men were wounded. The river was crossed.

In his job as a Marine Corps colonel, Howard is commanding officer of the 4th Combat Engineer Battalion of the 4th Marine Division out of Baltimore. More recently, Howard was doing business with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force Engineer Group as operations officer in places with names like Nasiriyah, Al Hillah, the Numeniyah Bridge, and Diyala, better known as the gates of Baghdad.

Howard is also a husband and father of five children, as well as a devoted historian and keeper of a family legacy that has suddenly become very much part of the public domain, since he happens to be the great-grandson of Charles S. Howard, the man who owned Seabiscuit.

Sometime in July, if the Marine Corps deems it prudent, Howard hopes to make the surreal transition from deep in a theater of war to a front-row seat at the glitzy opening of "Seabiscuit," the movie based on Laura Hillenbrand's telling of the Seabiscuit story. The author gives Mike Howard ample credit for sharing Howard family scrapbooks and memories to bring the tale to life.

If he attends the premiere, Howard will be easy to spot. He will be the guy in the Marine Corps dress blues, the same snappy uniform he has worn to recent Racing Hall of Fame ceremonies in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. In 2000, he read a message from Hillenbrand praising the Hall of Fame induction of Tom Smith, Seabiscuit's trainer. Last summer, Howard was on hand once again to accept the Hall of Fame plaque for Noor, his great-grandfather's handicap champion of 1950.

This week, however, Howard was still in the USMC Combat Operations Center in the town of Al Hillah, the site of ancient Babylon. And just for the record, the Marine COC was not set up in some liberated palace once occupied by Saddam Hussein. Howard was answering his e-mail while sitting in a tent, at least for the moment protected from the sandstorms and the heat.

"I hope you enjoyed the photos," Howard wrote. "That first one [a horse-drawn cart on a city street] I call 'The Fastest Horse in Iraq.' All the horses I saw were being used to pull carts. This was the healthiest horse I saw. I did see photos and a statue of Saddam mounted on a white Arab. But he had the reins in his right hand and looked pretty stiff. The horse looked nervous, too."

Howard was asked about early Seabiscuit recollections, since he grew up surrounded by all things Seabiscuit.

"There were Seabiscuit paintings, photos, trophies, bowls, glasses, plates, horseshoe ashtrays, Christmas cards, posters, wallets, ties, and statues everywhere," he wrote. "Every time I visited another Howard relative, there was more of the same."

Seabiscuit died in 1947 and C.S. Howard died in 1950. Mike Howard did not come along until 1954, but he became close to his great-grandmother, Marcela Howard.

"She was very special," Howard wrote. "She knew I loved history. That is how I eventually got all the cherished scrapbooks (25 in all) to loan to Laura for her research." Howard later donated the scrapbooks to the National Museum of Racing in Saratoga Springs.

As for the movie, Howard noted that his great-grandfather's all-time favorite was "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," with John Wayne. In a perfect world, Howard would have cast Wayne in the role of C.S. Howard, but he has no doubt that Jeff Bridges has done justice to his famous ancestor. The actor's name alone strikes a perfect note to a Marine Corps engineer.

"When Jeff visited Laura, he asked if he could carry something that belonged to my grandfather while he portrayed him in the film," Howard wrote.

"I had earlier given Laura a small, silver nameplate in a leather case that the California Highway Patrol had given him back in the early 1930's. I can even remember the unique inscription: 'The CHP acknowledges and extends special courtesies to CSH.' What a hoot! Laura loaned this to Jeff, and I hope it was a great motivation in his pocket as he acted."

What would a Marine know about motivation? In signing off, Howard had a request that had nothing to do with horse racing or Hollywood movies, and everything to do with the reality of the moment, and the reason it is called Memorial Day.

"Please remember USMC Gunnery Sergeant Joseph Menusa," he wrote, "a fellow 1st Combat Engineer Battalion vet, who was bravely killed in action leading our Marines before one of the crucial bridges. Though he was foreign born, he was a real American patriot and proud of the fact that 'USA' was in his name. He leaves behind a wife and two small kids. Freedom is not free."