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Profiles in Aviation: James Howard Was the Only American P-51 Fighter Pilot Awarded the Medal Of Honor over Europe

This American Hero Saved His B-17 Bombers When He Took On More Than 30 German Fighters Single-Handed.

Official US Air Force Photograph

You’ve no doubt heard of many heroic American fighter pilots who flew Mustangs over Europe during World War II; men who flew Thunderbolts and Lightnings and even Spitfires too. Gabreski. Blakeslee. Godfrey. Eagleston. Schilling. Johnson. Mahurin. Olds. Anderson. Yeager…and scores of other well-known American fighter jocks who cut the Luftwaffe back to size and eventually marginalized and defeated it. But you may not recognize the name of the one and only American P-51 fighter pilot in the European Theater to be awarded the Medal of Honor. His name was James Howard. And he started out as a Naval Aviator!

Colonel James Howell Howard United States Army Air Force pictured in 1945. Official US Air Force Photo

James Howell Howard was born on April 13th 1913, in Canton, China. His father, an American ophthalmologist, was there to teach eye surgery to Chinese doctors. In 1927 Howard’s family returned to St. Louis, Missouri, where James attended and graduated from John Burroughs School. Howard then attended Pomona College in California, graduating with a BS degree in 1937. Believing at first that he would become a doctor like his father, James became enamored with the idea of becoming a Naval Aviator. He entered the United States Navy as a naval aviation cadet in early 1938 and graduated from flight training at Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola in 1939.

Grumman F3F-2 of the type flown by Ensign Howard from the carrier USS Enterprise during his Navy days.

Young Ensign Howard’s first squadron assignment was with Fighting Three (VF-3) Flying Chiefs flying Grumman F3F-2 biplane fighters from the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CV-6) based at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii beginning in late 1939. With perhaps a hint of foresight, Howard resigned his commission in the Navy to join General Claire Chenault’s American Volunteer Group (the Flying Tigers) in June of 1941. Howard flew 56 missions over Burma in Curtiss P-40 Warhawk fighters, scoring a total of six confirmed kills, two of which were achieved during air-to-air combat. When the Flying Tigers were officially disbanded in July of 1942, the tall, quiet, and quietly aggressive Howard made his way back to the States and requested and received a commission as a captain in the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF).

Flying Tigers P-40 Warhawks

Within just a few weeks Howard was flying Lockheed P-38 Lightnings at Muroc Army Airfield in California. Far from impressed with the complicated P-38, Howard was later assigned to fly Republic P-47 Thunderbolts in defense of the West Coast with the Fourth Air Force. His first squadron command was of one of the Fourth Air Force Air Defense Command squadrons. But Europe was beckoning. Howard was next promoted to Major and given command of the 356th “Red Ass” Fighter Squadron (code AJ) of the 354th Fighter Group, which was eventually based at Boxted near Colchester in Essex, East Anglia, England.

A 356th Fighter Squadron P-51B Mustang in flight

On January 11th 1944, Major Howard was flying escort for a formation of American Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bombers of the 401st Bombardment Group (Heavy) flying from Deenethorpe in Northamptonshire on a bombing mission to attack the AGO Flugzeugwerke in Oschersleben, Germany, which at the time was building as many Focke-Wulf Fw 190 Würger (Shrike) fighters as they could for the Luftwaffe. Separated from the rest of his squadron after shooting down a Messerchmitt Bf 110 Zerstörer (Destroyer), Howard’s head was on a swivel as the B-17s turned back to base, but there were some 500 Luftwaffe fighters in the air that day and they favored attacking the bombers just after delivery of their bomb loads. It was then that he sighted a swarm of some 30 German fighters attacking a formation of B-17s across the bomber stream.

Major Howard’s P-51B “Ding Hao!” Ironically the Army Air Force and not Howard insisted on displaying six Japanese victory markings for these publicity shots and not the two Howard earned during his combat in Burma.

Without hesitation Howard turned toward the enemy and pressed his attacks. For the next thirty minutes and change (an eternity in aerial combat), Howard single-handedly defended the B-17s, repeatedly and aggressively attacking the attackers and shooting down five more of the Luftwaffe fighters. Even after his four .50 caliber machine guns had run out of ammunition James continued to simulate attacks on the mixed bag of German fighters. There were no fewer than 16 accounts of Howard’s exploits that day when the bomber crews debriefed. The leader of the bomber formation under attack by the Luftwaffe, which itself earned a Distinguished Unit Citation for their attack on German aircraft production that day, reported that “for sheer determination and guts, it was the greatest exhibition I’ve ever seen. It was a case of one lone American against what seemed to be the entire Luftwaffe. He was all over the wing, across and around it. They can’t give that boy a big enough award.”

Another publicity shot of Major Howard’s P-51B Mustang. Not the addition of the Malcolm Hood. Official US Air Force photograph.

Major Howard described his January 11th mission at a press conference in London the next week. Some 100 reporters, among them CBS reporter Walter Cronkite, Stars and Stripes reporter Andy Rooney, and reporters from the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and the Associated Press were in attendance. The Saturday Evening Post, Popular Science, True magazine, and hundreds of newspapers picked up the story. Howard became an overnight sensation. Photographs of Howard and his North American P-51D Mustang named “Ding Hao!” (Chinese for “Number One”) showed up in publications all over the free world. Ironically though, Howard did not fly Ding-Hao! on his Medal of Honor Mission. His own Mustang was down for maintenance so Howard flew a spare that day instead.

The major contributing factor to the ability of American P-51s to range into Germany- the drop tank. Official US Air Force photograph.

In February of 1944 the Army Air Force promoted Major James H Howard to Lieutenant Colonel. General Carl “Tooey” Spaatz presented the Medal of Honor to Howard on June 5th 1944. Howard took command of the 354th Fighter Group in February of 1944. In early 1945 he was promoted to bird Colonel and rotated home to become base commander at Pinellas Army Airfield (now St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport) in Florida. Colonel Howard was transferred to the United States Air Force when it became a separate service in 1947. Colonel James Howard was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General in the U.S. Air Force Reserve. General Howard’s last command was the 96th Bombardment Group, United States Air Force Reserve.

Boeing B-47E Stratojet similar to the type flown by the 96th Bombardment Group USAFR. Official US Air Force Photograph.

Howard became Director of Aeronautics for the City of St. Louis, Missouri. He juggled managing Lambert Field in St. Louis and maintaining his military status as a brigadier general in the United States Air Force Reserve until retirement from the Reserve in 1966. Howard later founded Howard Research, a systems engineering business, which he eventually sold to Control Data Corporation. When he retired in 1977 he moved to Florida and penned an autobiography, Roar of the Tiger. James Howard was honored on the on January 11, 1994, the 50th anniversary of the Oschlersleben mission, by Pinellas County when that day was proclaimed “General Howard Day” and he was presented with a plaque. Permanent exhibits honoring General Howard have been erected in the terminal building at the airport he once commanded in Florida and at his alma mater in St. Louis. Howard’s last public appearance was as guest of honor at a Boy Scouts of America banquet in Florida on January 27th 1995. General Howard passed away six weeks later on March 18th 1995 at the age of 81.

James H Howard’s Medal of Honor Citation

Citation: For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty in action with the enemy near Oschersleben, Germany on 11 January 1944. On that day Colonel Howard was the leader of a group of P-51 aircraft providing support for a heavy bomber formation on a long range mission deep in enemy territory. As Colonel Howard’s group met the bombers in the target area the bomber force was attacked by numerous enemy fighters. Colonel Howard, with his group, and at once engaged the enemy and himself destroyed a German ME-110. As a result of this attack Colonel Howard lost contact with his group and at once returned to the level of the bomber formation. He then saw that the bombers were being heavily attacked by enemy planes and that no other friendly fighters were at hand. While Colonel Howard could have waited to attempt to assemble his group before engaging the enemy, he chose instead to attack single-handed a formation of more than thirty German airplanes. With utter disregard for his own safety he immediately pressed home determined attacks for some thirty minutes, during which time he destroyed three enemy airplanes and probably destroyed and damaged others. Toward the end of this engagement three of his guns went out of action and his fuel supply was becoming dangerously low. Despite these handicaps and the almost insuperable odds against him, Colonel Howard continued his aggressive action in an attempt to protect the bombers from the numerous fighters. His skill, courage, and intrepidity on this occasion set an example of heroism which will be an inspiration to the Armed Forces of the United States.

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Written by Bill Walton

Bill Walton

Bill Walton is a life-long aviation enthusiast and expert in aircraft recognition. As a teenager Bill helped his engineer father build an award-winning T-18 homebuilt airplane in their Wisconsin basement. Bill is a freelance writer, an avid sailor, engineer, announcer, husband, father, uncle, mentor, coach, and Navy veteran. Bill lives north of Houston TX with his wife and son under the approach path to KDWH runway 17R, which means they get to look up at a lot of airplanes. A very good thing.

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