Man & Machine Combine For The Greatest Fighter Pilot Story Of World War II!

The incredible story captures the essence of leadership and sacrifice. James Howard displayed amazing nobility, valor, initiative and tenacity thoughout his service, and to an almost astronomical degree on January 11, 1944.

By JF Murphy

January 9, 2018

By late 1943 the Allied bombing campaign was ramping up over Germany. The British and Americans hoped to destroy the Nazis’ war machine by decimating their factories deep within the Reich.

The bombers did tremendous damage but they were also insanely vulnerable to German fighters. They were completely unprotected during the hazardous final leg of their journey as Allied fighter planes flying before 1944 did not have the range that the bombers did.


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B-17 bombers over Germany, under fierce flak attack. (above).


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A damaged B-17 falls from the sky (above).

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B-17's over Germany. One plane plunges out of formation (above).

The Man: James Howard

James Howard was born in 1913 in Guangzhou, China. He moved back to St Louis with his family in 1927 and, after attending the John Burroughs School, graduated from Pomona College in California.

Howard considered becoming a doctor, like his father, but he was enthralled by airplanes and flight and he became a Naval Aviator instead, earning his wings in 1939.

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James Howard as an aviator.


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American Volunteer Group (AVG) "Flying Tigers" in 1941. (Above)


In June 1941, Howard answered the call for volunteers to help fight the Japanese in China, joining the American Volunteer Group (AVG) – the famous “Flying Tigers”. He flew 56 missions in a P-40, shooting down two Japanese fighters and destroying four more planes on the ground.

After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Howard returned to the United States and joined the Army Air Force (AAF). He was promoted to Major and given command of the 354th Fighter Group.


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A P-40 Warhawk, which the Flying Tigers used against the Japanese (above).

The Machine: The P-51 Mustang

The 354th was the first unit to fly a new Allied aircraft – the P-51 Mustang, a high performance plane that was superior to anything else then in the air.

Mustangs had powerful Rolls Royce engines that let them climb quickly, and the planes had large external fuel tanks so they could accompany the four-engine B-17’s and B-24’s bombers into the heart of the Reich. The sight of a Mustang gave hope and comfort to the bomber crews.

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A P-51 Mustang in the attack.


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P-51 Mustang side view (above).

The Day Of Destiny: January 11, 1944

The 354th Fighter Group made an immediate impact on the bombing campaign, providing daily protection. But the most astonishing account of air battle against the Germans came on January 11, 1944.

On that day, the 401st Bomb Group and other units were flying to Oschersleben, a few hours south of Berlin and deep into the Reich. Over 760 bombers were on their way to destroy German aircraft factories. Howard was leading the 354th into combat.

Howard was separated from the rest of his squadron during an initial German attack. He found himself flying along with only the B-17’s in sight and headed for home when the formation was suddenly swarmed by over 30 Nazi planes.

Without hesitating, Howard plunged into the thick sheet of Messerschmitt’s, scattering them and shooting down several fighters. For more than thirty minutes, he zoomed in and around the enemy, continuing his aggressive flying even after he ran out of ammunition and when he was low on fuel.

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James Howard defending the B-17's (above).

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

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Howard's plane, the "Ding Hao", which is the Chinese for "Number One" (above).

Overall, Howard shot down at least six Nazis and disrupted the German attack. The 401st Bomb Group crews were incredulous, witnesses to an amazing spectacle. After they landed, they demanded to know who had been their solo protector.

The Army-Air Force command demanded to know, as well. They also wanted the bomber crews to know that their P-51 escorts would stick by them, so they identified Howard and called a press conference.

Many reporters were at the conference, including Andy Rooney, a young reporter for Stars & Stripes. Rooney, who would later become a national journalist, who wrote that Howard’s exploits were "the greatest fighter pilot story of World War II”.

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James Howard and his plane, as a crewmen adds insignia for each enemy fighter has downed (above).

Howard, himself, was far more humble, saying, “I seen my duty and I done it.”

The President of the United States disagreed, however. In June, 1944, Howard received the Medal of Honor, pinned onto his breast by General Carl Spaatz, the leader of the 8th Air Force.

In later years, Howard served as an aircraft company executive and rose to the rank of Brigadier General in the Air Force Reserve. He wrote a memoir about his World War II experiences in 1991, Roar of the Tiger.

His Medal Of Honor is on display at the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport and his high school, the John Burroughs School in St. Louis, has a memorial to him as well.

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Medal of Honor 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 Col. 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 Col. Howard's group met the bombers in the target area the bomber force was attacked by numerous enemy fighters. 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. Despite these handicaps and the almost insuperable odds against him, Col. 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 U.S. Armed Forces.