Daily Flight Stories
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Published on January 11, 2013
By Thomas Van Hare
“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 the Grumman F3F-2 biplane off the decks of the aircraft carrier, USS Enterprise. With Japan’s invasion of China, Howard wanted to get into the fight against the Axis powers. Thus, he resigned from the US Navy to join with Claire Chennault’s American Volunteer Group (AVG) — known famously as the “Flying Tigers”.
This wasn’t his first time in the Far East, however. In fact, James Howard was a fluent speaker of Chinese. He had spent his childhood in China while his father served on an exchange program as an eye surgeon. Having joined the Flying Tigers, he shipped out to Burma. It wasn’t long before he was flying the P-40 Tomahawk in combat against the Japanese.
By the end of his time in the AVG, he flew 56 missions and served as the squadron commander of the “Panda Bears” — the AVG’s 2nd Pursuit Squadron. He shot down six Japanese aircraft and thus became an ace. In one engagement, witnessed by another American pilot, Howard had encountered perhaps 18 to 20 Japanese fighter planes. He had dove on them and engaged the entire force alone — unsupported. The other American pilot witnessing the engagement could not engage and was heading home — looking back, he didn’t expect Howard to survive. Instead, Howard twisted and turned through the gaggle of enemy planes, shooting when he could. It was an extraordinary feat — and one that could not be officially recognized by the US Army because the AVG (Flying Tigers) were a hired mercenary air force, not an official military unit. At the time, months before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, America was still a neutral country.
After America entered the war, the US Army stepped in and disbanded the Flying Tigers. The pilots were given an ultimatum — they could either join the US Army and fly or they could be tried for fighting abroad as mercenaries. James Howard accepted “the offer” and was assigned into the US Army Air Corps and given the rank of captain. He was returned to the United States to help form a new Fighter Group.
His assignment was to be a part of the 9th Air Force, and to help form the 354th Fighter Group (known as the Pioneer Mustang Group). The 354th FG was the first unit to be equipped with the revolutionary new airplane that was designed by North American Aviation on contract with the US Government. The plane was the P-51B Mustang. Thus, the 354th FG took its name from the type of plane that it would first take into combat.
With such extensive combat experience, Captain Howard was soon promoted to the rank of Major. He became the new squadron commander of one of the squadrons that made up the new fighter group — the 356th Fighter Squadron of the 354th Fighter Group.
With training finished, the unit was shipped overseas to base out of Boxted Airfield in England. From there, it began flying missions against German forces occupying 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. The mission of the 8th Air Force involved escorting heavy bombers on missions over occupied Europe.
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 as “Top Good” or “The Best”.
The One Man Air Force
January 11, 1944, was a fateful day in Col. Howard’s career in combat. That morning, he took off from Boxted to lead the 354th FG on a bomber escort mission over Germany. The bombers struck Oschersleben and Halberstadt, two cities that were about 100 miles southwest of Berlin. On the way to the target, the pilots of 354th FG engaged the Luftwaffe and in the fray, Col. Howard downed an Me 110 twin-engine heavy fighter as it headed toward the bombers. Then, an Me 109 flew across his nose and he damaged it before turning to see another German fighter, 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. He broke off and climbed for altitude.
Looking around, he suddenly found himself alone in the sky. He was separated far from his group and had lost his wingman in the fight. When planes fly at hundreds of miles an hour, it doesn’t take but seconds for them to fly beyond visual range from one another. As he took a course deeper in Germany toward the target area, he spotted one of the bomb groups coming off the target. This was the 401st Bomb Group (Heavy), flying B-17 Flying Fortresses. Howard could see that it had taken damage from flak over the target. As well, it had weathered attacks from Luftwaffe fighter planes on the way in. Now, having dropped its bombs, the 401st BG was heading home — and, as was expected on all such missions at the time, they knew that they would have to run the gauntlet of more Luftwaffe fighter attacks as they flew back toward England.
Howard joined up with the bombers, flying in slowly so that they could see that his plane was an American fighter. Experience had taught him that if you closed fast, the gunners that were in the B-17s might open fire, not taking time to recognize the closing plane as an American coming to help.
Shortly afterward joining with the bomb group, Howard spotted approximately 30 German fighter planes ahead. They were orbiting forming up far ahead of the bombers. Clearly, the trap was being set. There was nothing the bombers could do in such a large and slow formation but fly on directly toward the Luftwaffe planes as they formed up for a coordinated, devastating attack.
In similar encounters in the recent past, other American bomb groups had been decimated. One example was the 100th Bomb Group, which had been butchered by the Luftwaffe during its mission to Munster. On that day, just one bomber returned 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 that Col. Howard was there, flying alone in his P-51B Mustang “Ding Hao!”
A Legendary Air Battle
The bomber crews watched in amazement as Col. Howard pushed the throttle forward and sped ahead alone toward the enemy formation. They thought that it a hopeless gesture — one against perhaps 40, but one that they recognized for its bravery.
Col. Howard, however, didn’t see it as a lost cause. Like many fighter pilots of his generation, he didn’t shy away from combat. He knew too that the Germans would be so numerous that anything he saw in the sky would be a target. For the Germans, however, he was a lone plane, one that could easily become lost in the confusing mix of planes as they swirled around in the sky. Where he could shoot at everyone, they would have to be sure that the plane they had in their gunsights wasn’t one of their own.
Howard’s goal was to hit the enemy hard and fast. He planed on making diving passes through their formation to break them up into a disorganized gaggle. It wouldn’t be about shooting down as many as he could, but rather causing them to focus on him instead of the bombers. If he did it right, the Luftwaffe fighters could not get themselves organized and into a proper formation to attack the bombers en masse.
In his first pass, he blazed through the German formation and hammered an Me 110 with his guns. The plane broke away, damaged and trailing smoke. Then he pulled around to pick another target for a second pass. As he craned his head around to see the Germany formation, he could see that they were scattered, each plane having turned away in different directions from his attack. Some of the Germans, however, weren’t focused on reforming their force to target the bombers — they knew that if they did just that, he would simply come through them a second time and scatter them once again. A few were already hot on his trail.
An Messerschmitt Bf 109 was coming in on Howard from behind. Making a wide turn, he flew back past the bombers and engaged the 109 directly. It dove away in a turn and he cut the corner. He dove down on it, hammering it with gunfire until it too was trailing thick smoke.
Pulling back upward in a zoom climb from the speed of his dive, he encountered and drove off yet another Me 109. This time he was firing his guns while in a tight, high-G turn. It turned away and fled. Rather than give chase, Howard kept his mission goals in mind. Instead he returned to the 401st Bomb Group, where he crisscrossed over the formation, breaking off whenever enemy planes were forming up to attack. Each time, he drove them away as they scattered in the face of his attack.
The next serious threat he faced came from a Junkers Ju 88. Such airplanes were typically equipped with long range rockets. These were fired into formations of bombers from well outside of gun range. It would take a lot to shoot down a Ju 88.
Col. Howard’s P-51, however, even if undamaged, suffered problems. All but one of his own machine guns had jammed in the last attack when he had fired from a tight, high-G turn. This was a problem that the Pioneer Mustang Group ha seen before. The Group’s armorers were working hard on a solution back at Boxted, but had yet to complete their work. Essentially, the guns would jam when the plane fired from pulling tight turns because the ammunition in the feed chutes would lock up at the point that the feed chute curved into the side of the gun.
With but one gun remaining of the eight on his plane, and with little ammunition left in any case, Col. Howard recognized that he couldn’t probably shoot the bomber down. However, he also knew that the Luftwaffe pilot didn’t know that. Thus, Col. Howard attacked anyway. He set upon the Ju 88 as if it was his first target of the day. The German pilot turned away and Howard curved back to fly again over the top of the bomb group.
He watched as the Ju 88 pilot curved back around and began to line up again to fire its rockets. Again, Howard turned toward it for another attack. Once again, he drove it off, only to find it circling carefully back at extreme range. This happened several times and in between passes, Howard would fly back and forth over the bombers and break up German formations that were assembling to the sides and ahead as the Luftwaffe again and again, prepared its attack against the bombers.
Ultimately, Col. Howard’s engagement with the Luftwaffe that day lasted 30 minutes. The bomber crews of the 401st BG later said that he had fought off “the entire Luftwaffe” single handed. Not one of the 401st BG’s B-17s fell that day to German fighters because of Col. Howard’s heroic action. He had saved countless lives.
When Col. Howard returned to Boxted, one of the armorers in the fighter group, TSgt George Van Hare, jumped up on his wing. Seeing that the guns had been fired, he 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 based on the films. 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.
A Special Kind of Fighter Pilot
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 for 30 minutes alone, Col. Howard would be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. The medal, the highest award in the US Military, was pinned on by Gen. Spaatz himself. The award of the MoH to Col. Howard was the only such medal 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.
A well-known quote from Col. Howard perfectly sums up his life as a fighter pilot. 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 some of its last year in the war, the 354th FG was assigned back into the 9th Air Force and strictly flew ground attack missions. For a time, they were equipped 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?