Daily Flight Stories
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Published on January 11, 2013
“Col. Howard, with his group, at once engaged the enemy and himself destroyed a German ME. 110. As a result of this attack Col. 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 airplanes and that no other friendly fighters were at hand. While Col. 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 30 German airplanes. With utter disregard for his own safety he immediately pressed home determined attacks for some 30 minutes, during which time he destroyed 3 enemy airplanes and probably destroyed and damaged others. Toward the end of this engagement 3 of his guns went out of action and his fuel supply was becoming dangerously low.”
So read the citation for an award of the Congressional Medal of Honor for Col James H. Howard, USAAF, of the 354th Fighter Group, known as the Pioneer Mustang Group, for his action today in aviation history, on January 11, 1944, near Oschersleben, Germany. Col. Howard’s feat that day was one of bravery and extreme skill — surprisingly, it was not the first time he engaged such numbers on his own….
From the Flying Tigers to Europe
Col. Howard did not start his military service in the Army Air Corps, but rather in the US Navy. He was a Naval fighter pilot, holding the rank of Ensign and flying Grumman F3F-2 off the decks of the USS Enterprise. Wanting to get into the fight against the Axis powers, he resigned to join with Claire Chennault’s American Volunteer Group — the famous Flying Tigers. It wasn’t his first time in the Far East, however, as he had spent his childhood in China while his father served on an exchange program as an eye surgeon. With the Flying Tigers, he shipped out to Burma and was soon flying a P-40 Tomahawk against the Japanese.
By the end of his time in the AVG, he had flown 56 missions and shot down six Japanese aircraft, becoming an ace. In one engagement, witnessed by another American pilot, Howard had encountered perhaps 18 to 20 Japanese planes. He had dove on them and engaged the entire force, unsupported. He twisted and turned through the mix of enemy planes, shooting when he could and keeping them from attacking others. It was an extraordinary feat — and one that would not be recognized by the US Army for its bravery because the AVG (Flying Tigers) were a hired mercenary air force, not an official military unit.
After America entered the war, the US Army disbanded the Flying Tigers. James Howard was accepted into the Air Corps, given the rank of captain and sent to the United States to help formulate a new Fighter Group as part of the 9th Air Force – - this was the 354th FG (Pioneer Mustang Group) was the first unit to be equipped with the revolutionary new airplane designed by North American, the P-51B Mustang. With such extensive combat experience, then Major Howard became squadron commander of one of the squadrons that made up the new fighter group.
The unit soon was deployed to Boxted Airfield in England from which it began a series of missions against German forces in France. With the deployment of other Fighter Groups equipped with the P-51 Mustang for bomber escort as part of the 8th Air Force, the 354th FG was placed under the authority of the 8th Air Force, even if it remained part of the 9th. Their mission involved escorting 8th AF heavy bombers on their first missions against Germany. Maj. Howard flew his P-51B Mustang (AJ-A) with his six kills marked on the side — each one a Japanese flag. He would soon add a row of kill markers for Luftwaffe aircraft. On the nose was painted a phrase he had picked up while flying with the Flying Tigers — “Ding Hao!” — fittingly, it roughly translates to the combined meaning of, “Number One”, “The Best” and “Top Good”.
The One Man Air Force
On January 11, 1944, Col. Howard lead the 354th FG on a bomber escort mission over Germany. The bombers struck Oschersleben and Halberstadt, two cities that were about 100 miles to the southwest of Berlin. The 354th FG engaged the Luftwaffe and Col. Howard downed an Me 110 twin-engine heavy fighter as it headed toward the bombers. Then, an Me 109 flew across and he damaged it before turning to see an Fw 190, which he pursued. Moments later, he was stunned to see the German pilot simply bail out of the plane — without a shot being fired.
Looking around after the combat, he found himself separated from his group — when planes fly at hundreds of miles an hour, it doesn’t take but seconds for them to fly beyond visual range. He spotted one of the bomb groups coming off the target — it had taken damage from flak and had already weathered some attacks from the Luftwaffe. It was heading home. This was the 401st Bomb Group (Heavy), flying B-17 Flying Fortresses. He joined up and flew in slowly so that they could see that his plane was an American fighter.
Shortly afterward, Col. Howard spotted approximately 30 German fighter planes forming up far ahead of the bombers — the trap was being set and there was nothing the bombers could do but fly on, waiting for the massed attack of the Luftwaffe. In similar encounters, other bomb groups had been decimated — for instance, the 100th Bomb Group had been butchered by the Luftwaffe during a recent mission to Munster, and just one plane returning home, the B-17 “Rosie’s Riveters”. As the aircraft commander, Lt. Robert “Rosie” Rosenthal later remarked, “The Luftwaffe swept through our group and shot down every plane in the group except our plane…. We had two severely wounded waist gunners, we had a rocket hole through the wing. Two engines were knocked out. And we went to the target alone and dropped our bombs…”.
A similar experience should have come to the 401st Bomb Group that day — except for Col. Howard in his lone P-51B Mustang.
A Legendary Air Battle
The bomber crews watched in amazement as Col. Howard pushed the throttle forward and, alone, sped ahead toward the enemy formation. Col. Howard’s goal was to hit the enemy hard and fast, making diving passes through their formation and breaking them up so that they could not get organized and attack the bombers. His first pass hammered an Me 110, which broke away trailing smoke. He pulled around, having shattered the German formation. Another aircraft, this time an Me 109, was coming in from behind. He flew back past the bombers and engaged. The Me 109 dove away and he cut the corner and dove down on it, hammering it with gunfire until it was trailing thick smoke. Pulling back upward, he encountered and drove off yet another Me 109 firing in a high-G turn. Then he returned to the 401st Bomb Group, where he crisscrossed the formation keeping the enemy planes away.
The next serious threat came from a Junkers Ju 88. Such airplanes were typically equipped with long range rockets that would fire into formations of bombers from outside of gun range. Col. Howard’s P-51, however, had jammed all but one of its guns in the last attack — this was a problem that the Pioneer Mustang Group’s armorers were working on, that when the plane fired while pulling tight turns, the ammunition feed chutes would jam. With but one gun and nearly no remaining ammunition, Col. Howard recognized that he wouldn’t likely shoot the bomber down — though the Luftwaffe pilot didn’t know that. Col. Howard attacked anyway, driving the Ju 88 off. Flying back, he found it returning to line up again. Thus, he again flew toward it and drove it off. This happened several times, in between passes he made from side to side to break up German attacks that were being mounted against the bombers.
Ultimately, Col. Howard’s engagement with what the bomber crews later called “the entire Luftwaffe” lasted 30 minutes. Not one of the 401st BG’s B-17s fell to fighters as a result. Single-handed, he had saved the group from what should have been catastrophic losses.
When Col. Howard returned to Boxted, his armorer, TSgt George Van Hare, jumped up on the wing and, seeing that the guns had been fired, waved to ask if he had shot any down. Col. Howard held up two fingers, then three, shaking them as if to say, “maybe two or three.” His gun camera film would be sent to the intelligence branch. The officers would officially credit him with four. When the 401st Bomb Group landed, 16 of their crews reported the story of the lone P-51 pilot who had saved the entire group. It took awhile for the 8th AF to identify the pilot as Col. Howard, who was characteristically quiet and humble about the matter.
As Jack Ilfrey, another USAAF fighter pilot (8 victories WWII) once said, “Maybe one out of ten good fighter pilots will be one of the hunters.” James Howard was one of the hunters. He was a expert pilot and a deadly tactician. As well, he was a natural leader. For his bravery that day near Oschersleben, defending the 401st Bomb Group against over 30 Luftwaffe fighter pilots, Col. Howard would be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, pinned on by Gen. Spaatz himself. The award to Col. Howard would be the only Medal of Honor given to a fighter pilot in the entire European Theater in World War II. For Col. Howard, who would later go on to lead the entire Pioneer Mustang Group, it was certainly deserved.
In the end, a well-known quote from Col. Howard sums up his life as a fighter pilot perfectly. In a moment of self-reflection, he commented, “He who rides a tiger cannot dismount.” That was Col. Howard’s chosen profession, to ride a fighter plane and fly it in combat — even if it meant taking the greatest risks.
The 354th Fighter Group is the top scoring fighter group of the ETO. Others make claim that the 56th or 4th FGs of the 8th Air Force were actually the top scoring groups — but that is not quite correct. Those two groups were the top scorers in the 8th Air Force. As for the 354th FG, being part of the 9th Air Force meant that they just didn’t have the same press coverage. What is more interesting is that the 354th FG scored so many kills in such a time frame — for most of the last years of the war, the 354th FG was assigned back to the 9th Air Force and flew ground attack missions, equipping the three squadrons with the Republic P-47D Thunderbolt, thus, they scored more kills in a shorter amount time than either the 4th or the 56th.
How many aircraft did the 4th, 56th and 354th Fighter Groups each destroy — both in the air and on the ground?