Descretion is said to be the better part of valor, sometimes you just face odds that you have no hope of beating and you bug out.  Then there are the situations when your back is to the wall and you have no choice but to fight against hopeless odds. When Lt. Col. James H. Howard found himself alone amidst more than 30 German fighters one fateful day in January 1944, he had no escape. Caiught in a trap, he savagely tore into the German fighters, taking down four or maybe five fighters, in an action that earned James Howard the Medal of Honor.

From Med School To Navy

James Howard was born in Guangzhou, China, on April 8, 1913, where his parents temporarily lived because his dad, an ophthalmologist, was there to teach eye surgery. When he turned 14, he returned to his family in St. Louis, Missouri, where he continued his studies in John Burroughs School. Wanting to follow his father’s footsteps in medicine, he earned his bachelor of arts degree from Pomona College in Claremont, California. That plan quickly changed as he decided that being a Naval Aviator was more fun and appealing than spending six years for medical school and internship, so that’s what he did. He entered the United States Navy instead and became a naval aviation cadet.

Craving The Warzone

Howard’s career began when he was assigned as a US Navy pilot aboard carrier USS Enterprise (CV-6) based in Pearl Harbor in Hawaii after he earned his wings. Just after two years, he left the Navy. He became a P-40 fighter pilot among along with other American aviators in who volunteered for a secret government program to provide planes and experienced pilots to China, the American Volunteer Group (AVG), popularly known as the Flying Tigers.  There, he flew 56 combat missions where he became a squadron commander after being credited with taking down six Japanese aircraft.

Col. James H. Howard
Lt. Col. James H. Howard, upon being appointed commander of Pinellas Army Airfield in Pinellas County, Florida (now St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport) (USAAF, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

When the Flying Tigers disbanded in 1942, its pilots were returned to the U.S. Many stepped back into the military at their prior rank and resumed flying, some returned to civilian life, which bored Howard very quickly. He wanted to get back in the war zone, so he joined the United States Army Air Corps, where he entered as a Captain. There’s where his real adventure began.

The One-Man Show

It wasn’t long when Howard was promoted to Major and given command of the 356th Fighter Squadron in the 354th Fighter Group in the United Kingdom. His P-51b Mustang would have his six rising suns painted on it to signify his exploits in the Pacific. To the young pilots in his squadron, he would be considered an “Old Sport” a veteran and an ace to boot.

It was on January 11, 1944, when Howard would fly his remarkable flight. He was the flight lead for the 354th, where he was leading three squadrons, one of which was his. Their mission was to protect bombers striking aircraft factories located at Oschersleben and Halberstadt.

The plan: Howard’s P-51 would pick up the Eighth Air Force’s bombers,  525 B-17s and 138 B-24s, after the original escort of P-47s and P-38s had to turn back. Then, they would cover the bombers over the target and hand over the escort to the short-range fighters group while the P-51s returned to base.

They had completed their bombing run when some 500 German fighters swarmed around them. Howard’s fighters were attacked, and they engaged— driving off and shooting down the Germans in a vast melee in the skies. When the battle seemed to have settled, Howard found himself alone as his wingman had drifted back to their assigned position at the rear of the vast bomber formation.  Howard was planning to do the same but noticed one of the B-17 Bomber Groups(the 401st) seemed to not have any fighter cover and was getting swarmed by German fighters so he decided to dive in alone and see if he could drive them off.

Within minutes he saw a German ME-110 pass right in front of him setting up to hose the bombers with his cannons, Howard closed on him and blasted him out of the sky, then he peppered an Me-109 trying the same thing. He then gave chase to an FW-190 whose pilot bailed out while Howard chased him. rejoining the bombers, Howard shot down another Me-109 and chased off several more.  All the Gs he had been pulling had caused all but one of his six guns to jam so Howard was reduced to making mock runs on German fighters to keep them off the bombers.  To the crews of these bombers, Howard seemed to be everywhere at once, diving, zooming, turning and chasing off German fighters over and over again.  In the After Action reports filed by the crews of the bombers, no less than sixteen of them included glowing praise for the lone P-51 that fought a 30 minute battle against a swarm of German fighters

As Maj. Allison Brooks, group leader of the 401st that day, said, “For sheer determination and guts, it was the greatest exhibition I’d ever seen.”

Gen. Carl Spaatz, United States Army and Air Force General, awarding the Congressional Medal of Honor to Lt. Col. James H. Howard (right) in London, England. (US Army Air Force, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Gun camera footage from Howard’s plane showed he had shot down four German fighters for certain and damagedThe month after, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel, and in June 1944, he was presented the Medal of Honor by General Carl Spaatz. Upon receiving the blue ribbon, he wrote, “The young men who fought in the air and performed nobly despite great odds but never made it back should have received the same recognition I did. I felt that in some sense, I was a symbol for all those whose actions were overlooked and unrecognized, even though they may have given their lives.”