Valor Friday

| June 5, 2020

Then LCOL James Howell Howard, USAAF

For today’s Valor Friday, Mason once again takes us to the war torn skies of WW-II, but with a twist. Today’s honoree, BG James H. Howard, served in two service branches and in both the Pacific and the European theaters, a feat unparalleled in the conflict. Also unparalleled are his acts of aerial heroism. Simply stunning.


I’ve recently written articles about World War II flyers, specifically flyers of fighter aircraft. One thing that I noticed was that it seemed like all the Medals of Honor awarded to fighter pilots were in the Pacific Theater. It wasn’t my imagination. Of the 16 Medals of Honor awarded to fighter pilots, only one was in the European Theater. The Pacific Theater Aces who received the MoH include names any American military history buff will recognize like Pappy Boyington and Richard Bong. This ETO pilot is less well known.

James H Howard, the only fighter pilot MoH recipient for action in the European Theater during WWII, was born to American parents in China in 1913. His father an ophthalmologist, the Howard family returned to the US in 1927. Howard graduated college and had intended to follow in his father’s footsteps as an eye surgeon , but in 1937 was swayed by a recruiter and decided that the life of a Navy pilot might be more to his liking. He joined the US Navy as a naval aviation cadet. After earning his naval aviator wings he was assigned to USS Enterprise (CV-6) beginning in 1939.

In 1940, with America officially remaining neutral in the wars raging in Europe and the Far East, a clandestine unit of American servicemen was recruited to head to American ally China, then fiercely fighting the Japanese. These men would officially be American civilians enlisting with the Republic of China Air Force, but they would be flying American aircraft, serviced by Americans, and under American control. All of the equipment and personnel would be provided by the US but hidden under the guise that they were bought by the Chinese. This unit, the American Volunteer Group (AVG) became known as The Flying Tigers.

AVG, “The Flying Tigers”

Howard, perhaps because of his personal connection to China, volunteered to join the AVG in support of China in their war with Japan. After training on the Army’s P-40 Warhawk, he arrived in Burma in June 1941. The AVG first saw combat on 20 December, 1941, less than two weeks after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor bringing the US into the war.

Curtiss P-40 Warhawk

Howard flew a total of 56 combat missions with the Flying Tigers. During the course of those missions he downed six Japanese aircraft, becoming an ace at five “kills”.

Just a year after they were formed the Flying Tigers were disbanded. In July, 1942 Howard returned to the US and was commissioned a captain in the US Army Air Forces (USAAF), rejecting offers to be commissioned into the Navy. Promoted to major in 1943, he was shipping to England where he commanded the 356th Fighter Squadron, part of the 354th Fighter Group.

The 356th FS flew P-51B Mustangs, hot off the drafting table and assembly line, they were the first American fighter with the range to escort American bombers to Germany and back again. This saw the Mustang pilots engaging with large formations of enemy fighters sent up to intercept the American bombers.

North American Aviation P-51 Mustang

On multiple missions, Howard personally led all the aircraft in his group in combat against the Germans. He received a Distinguished Flying Cross on 14 January, 1944 for two of these missions. In these operations, it’s noted that due to Major Howard’s aggressiveness in the face of the enemy that the group tallied 33 aerial victories (three of those are personally attributable to Howard himself), 9 probably destroyed, and 22 enemy aircraft damaged.

Distinguished Flying Cross

Howard received a second DFC for actions on 30 January, 1944 for shooting down his fifth enemy aircraft, becoming an ace in the European Theater. He was one of a short list of American airmen who could claim aerial victories in both the European and Pacific Theaters.

January 1944 was a busy month for Howard. Before the missions for which he received these awards he had a much more eventful one.

11 January, 1944 was a typical bombing mission over Germany. Howard’s group was tasked with escorting B-17 Flying Fortress bombers. British forces bombed by night, with the concealment the dark provided, while American forces like those of the 401st Bomb Group that day conducted daylight raids. Few men and fewer airplanes would be able to cross the 25 mission threshold to be rotated back to the states. Attrition rates for unescorted bombers were as high as 10 percent on each mission.

The bombing mission that day saw 525 B-17s and 138 B-24s flying deep into German territory. They met some of the stiffest resistance from the enemy yet that day. Ultimately, 60 bombers wouldn’t return at the end of the day.

P-47 Thunderbolt fighters would escort the bombers over the Channel and back again, but didn’t have the range to cover their “big friends” over their targets. The Mustangs did. Forty-nine P-51s from the 354th Fighter Group would be the escorts over Germany.

Flying over Oscherseleben, Germany, Luftwaffe fighters scrambled up to meet the incoming heavy bombers and their escorts. Howard and the other escorting fighters swooped down on the approaching enemy planes.

Locking his sights on one enemy aircraft in particular that was targeting the lead bomber, Howard pursued the twin engine Messerschmitt Bf-110 heavy fighter. He waited until its wings filled his gun sight and pulled the trigger. The Bf-110 started smoking, dove off, and it’s wings came off. Then a Messerschmitt Bf-109 got a raking from his guns as it crossed his path. Finally, Howard honed in on a Focke-Wulf FW-190. As he pursued it he saw its pilot bail out.

Messerschmitt Bf-110

Messerschmitt Bf-109

Focke-Wulf FW-190

During the chase, Howard had become separated from the rest of his group. His prey dispatched, Major Howard flew back up to rejoin the bomber formation and find his wingmen.

Arriving at the altitude of the bombers he saw the lumbering aircraft were under attack from at least 30 German aircraft with no friendly fighters in sight. A sane man would wait for the other aircraft of his group to return, form them into an attack, and bring the fight to the enemy. Major Howard was not such a man.

Howard said the bomber formation “seemed to have more than its share of enemy fighters.” He took it upon himself “to stick around.”

With an utter disregard for his own life, he ran headlong into the enemy planes, pressing an attack single-handedly in which he was outnumbered 30-to-1. Diving into the enemy, he gave them all six of his .50-cal machine guns. Over and over again he engaged the battle hardened German pilots. He destroyed a confirmed three enemy aircraft, likely destroyed as many as six, and undoubtedly damaged many more.

Out of ammunition and getting low on fuel, Major Howard refused to leave the bomber formation to its own devices. Like a mother bird defending her nest, Howard continued to point the nose of his Mustang into the enemy. Diving on them as if he was still blasting away, he forced them to turn off their own attacks.

For more than 30 minutes Howard was the sole fighter pilot defending the 401st Bomb Group from the German defenders over their home territory.

At the completion of the mission, Colonel Harold Bowman, commander of the 401st Bomb Group asked, “Who was that Mustang pilot who took on the German Air Force single-handedly, and saved our 401st Bomb Group from disaster?”

During the debriefing of the bomber crews, the room filled with excited chatter. Sixteen men gave accounts of the unbelievable actions of the lone P-51. One flight leader said of Howard’s performance that day, “He was all over the wing, across it and around it. For sheer determination and guts, it was the greatest exhibition I’d ever seen.”

The accounts were collected and forwarded to Major General Jimmy Doolittle at Headquarters Eighth Air Force. Likewise, Major Howard filed his report on kills and probable kills. Ground crews took out the gun camera films for development. The Army Air Forces soon knew that the “lone wolf” Mustang pilot was none other than James Howard.

The bomber crews found out soon thereafter who they had to thank for his efforts that day. Over the course of the next week Howard would retell the story to several news outlets, including interviews with CBS reporter Walter Kronkite and Stars and Stripes correspondent Andy Rooney. At one media briefing a reporter asked him why he’d done it. Howard said he “fixed [his] eyes on the simpleminded questioner and replied facetiously, ‘I seen my duty and I done it.’”

Eight days after his unparalleled heroics, the New York Times would publish, “Maj. James H. Howard was identified today as the lone United States fighter pilot who for more than 30 minutes fought off about 30 German fighters trying to attack Eighth Air Force B-17 formations returning from Oschersleben and Halberstadt in Germany.”

Lieutenant Colonel Richard Turner, USAF (ret) wrote about Howard in his personal account of the war in his book Big Friend, Little Friend that, “An attack by a single fighter on four or five times his own number wasn’t uncommon, but a deliberate attack by a single fighter against thirty-plus enemy fighters without tactical advantage of height or surprise is rare almost to the point of extinction.”

For his heroics that day James Howard would receive the Medal of Honor from Lt Gen Carl Spaatz. He and Colonel Pappy Boyington (USMC) would be the only Flying Tigers to later go on to earn the MoH.

US Army Medal of Honor

Howard would later participate in helping plan close air support for the Normandy landings. He would also continue to fly combat missions. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel in February 1944. In 1945 he was promoted to colonel. After the war he’d remain in the Air Force, retiring from the Reserves in 1966 as a brigadier general.

Howard started a defense systems engineering business and worked on the Navy Polaris missile system before the company was merged with Control Data Corporation. He wrote an autobiography in 1991 titled Roar of the Tiger. He passed away in 1995 at the age of 81.

Unsure of the protocol, I’ve attached a pic the Army MOH since at the time of his award ceremony there was no US Air Force. Absolutely no slight intended if this is incorrect. For the rest, just an amazing tale, Mason. Thanks again.

Hand salute. Ready, Two!

Category: Guest Post, The Warrior Code, Valor

Comments (14)

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  1. 2banana says:

    Battle hardened.

    Brass balls.

    Highly decorated.

    Becomes an engineer after the war.

    Just saying, don’t mess with geeks.

    • 5th/77th FA says:

      ^THIS^ WOW!!! BZ Army Air Forces Major (at the time) James Howard. A testament to the P51 that could climb and fly carrying Howard and those great big brass ones. 30 to 1 odds! “I seen my duty and I done it.” Good thing for the rest of German Air Force that he had run out of ammo. And, yeah smart too even before he became an engineer. “…rejecting offers to be commissioned in the Navy.”

      Land Based Artillery Salute!

      Thanks Mason!

  2. Devtun says:

    Ed, noticed a typo. BG Howard passed away in 1995. Great read on a great man. Thx.

  3. Combat Historian says:

    Very minor point. The P-51 Mustang shown in the photo is a P-51D, the ultimate Mustang model flown during the last year of the War. MAJ Howard earned the MOH while flying the earlier P-51B model. It had pretty much the same great performance as the famous D model, but with a cockpit design and layout that made it harder to observe enemy aircraft coming from the rear. This design flaw was corrected in the penultimate P-51D model variant.

    Photo of a P-51B linked below…

    • Combat Historian says:

      A better shot of a P-51 B…

      • 26Limabeans says:

        Got to walk around a P-51D at Owl’s Head Museum
        couple a decades ago. Those props are huge.

        We then stood back about 300 ft. as she fired up,
        taxied to hold and then took off.
        My dad, a B-17 gunner was with me.
        Great read for Valor Friday.
        Thanks again Mason.

    • USAFRetired says:

      Didn’t the B model have the original Allison engine while theD model had the Rolls Royce Merlin?

      Amazing story.

      • Combat Historian says:

        No, the P-51B was the first Mustang model mass produced with the Merlin engine. The Allison engine fitted to previous British Mustangs, A models, and A-36 attack planes just did not have the performance “ooompf” above 15,000 feet. The switch to the Merlin was critical and decisive in turning the Mustang into the worldbeater it became…

  4. ninja says:

    Once again, Mason, THANK YOU for doing extensive research and sharing with us another GREAT Story about our Heroes.


  5. Mike B USAF Retired says:

    I’ve had the privilege of sitting in a Mustang……That said, where did he store his extra large brass ones? No exactly roomy in that cockpit…..

  6. Huey Jock says:

    Exactly when did they install the bubble canopy? I was looking at the 51 that the Tuskegee Airmen had (2018) with the old canopy and was told it was a D modle. Was it mid D’s?

    • Mason says:

      The D model introduced the bubble canopy.

      • Huey Jock says:

        Thanks for the info. I later realized that I could probably have Googled up that info but the old gears don’t turn as fast as they used to.