As Major James Howard climbed into the cockpit of his fighter on January 11, 1944, he was already an ace. He was about to become one all over again.
Howard “grew up” as a pilot in the fledgling carrier wings of the U.S. Navy. In the late 1930’s, he was aboard the USS Enterprise. But when Claire Chennault put together his all-volunteer force in Burma in mid-1941, Howard couldn’t resist the lure of immediate action, possible glory, and flying the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, at that time the best fighter available in the U.S. inventory. So he left the Navy and joined what became known as the Flying Tigers. In 50+ missions, Howard was credited with six-and-a-half kills, one (and a half) more than the 5 required to be an ace.
In mid-1942, the Flying Tigers were assimilated into the Army Air Force, and Howard was commissioned as a captain, and promoted in 1943 to major. It would be as a squadron commander in the 354th Fighter Group that he would become, for a while, a household name. Which brings us back to January 11th…
Flying escort for a bombing package of B-17 Flying Fortresses, their formation was jumped by a gaggle of German Me-109’s and 110’s. And while the gunners in the belly of the bombers had their hands full, they were also treated to an aerial spectacle as Howard repeatedly pressed attacks against the enemy. Even when separated from the rest of his squadron and flying alone, he remained the aggressor. James Howard was credited with 3 definite kills and 3 probables.
When Frederick Graham published the story a week later in the New York Times, he reported how bomber crews returned to base just gushing about this one guy who, for a short time, was a “one-man air force”. The leader of the bomber force later said, “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.” And it would be their eyewitness accounts that not only verified his actions, but upped Howard’s conservative “2 kills and 2 probables” to “3+3”.
The leader of the bomber force was right. Five months later, Howard was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his exploits (shown above with Howard on the right).
And James Howard’s airplane? Well, his P-51B Mustang landed safely (unlike our comrade Alexander Gorovets) with just one bullet hole. A pretty awesome result for a modest, tall, skinny kid.
But now intrepid readers will likely recall that, when we last visited the P-51 Mustang (in 1940), she was flying for the first time. Characterized as a very solid medium-altitude fighter, what was it doing in 1944 as a high-altitude bomber escort, shooting down enemy planes with reckless abandon? Ah, that is the question…and we’ll answer it in a couple months.
Recommended Reading: The Mustang Story