Jim Howard: One-Man Air Force

Maj. James H. Howard learned the hard way:

Flight Journal - - CONTENTS - By Bar­rett Till­man

It re­ally was pos­si­ble to be lonely in a crowd. His was the only Mus­tang in a crowd of Messer­schmitts and Focke-Wulfs. Min­utes pre­vi­ously, he had had been lead­ing the 356th Fighter Squadron; now he was the lone de­fender of a box of heavy bombers deep in Ger­man airspace.

On Jan­uary 11, 1944, the Eighth Air Force sent 650 “heavies” to the Brunswick area; the First Air Di­vi­sion was to bomb the Osch­er­sleben FW 190 fac­tory, 140 miles west-south­west of Berlin. Many groups aborted be­cause of weather, but the Osch­er­sleben re­gion was clear un­der an over­cast. Forty-nine P-51Bs from all three squadrons of the 354th Fighter Group pro­vided tar­get sup­port for the 174 Boe­ing B-17s at­tack­ing Osch­er­sleben.

It had hap­pened so fast. Some­body—the pilot did not give his call sign—had spot­ted ban­dits climb­ing to in­ter­cept the Fortresses. Prag­ma­tism ruled in the 354th Group: Who­ever made the first sight­ing took the lead. Col. Ken­neth R. Martin, the 27-year-old com­man­der of the “Pioneer Mustangs,” in­sisted on tac­tics over pro­to­col.

Howard’s squadron was cruising just below the over­cast at 17,000 feet. The anony­mous young pilot who had seen the Staffeln of 109s and 110s claw­ing for po­si­tion to at­tack the bombers called, “Go down and get the bas­tards!”

Re­called Lt. Col. Richard E. Turner, then a 356th flight leader, “The voice sounded enough like Ma­jor Howard’s to sat­isfy us.” As the CO nosed down, he was over­taken by a squadron of young­sters ea­ger to ex­ploit their alti­tude ad­van­tage.

Air dis­ci­pline va­por­ized. With­out await­ing proper pro­ce­dure, the en­tire 354th Group shoved over. Howard pulled up to avoid a col­li­sion. He was largely on his own.

Be­cause all three squadrons had jumped on the vul­ner­a­ble Messer­schmitts, Howard re­al­ized that the “big friends” were un­pro­tected. There­fore, he led his four-plane flight back to the bombers’ level, pro­vid­ing minia­ture es­cort to dozens of B-17s. In the next few min­utes, he was go­ing to have more shoot­ing than he wanted.

China Days

James How­ell Howard had al­ready lived a fighter pilot’s fan­tasy: pre­war car­rier avi­a­tor, Fly­ing Tiger mer­ce­nary, and one of the orig­i­nal Mer­lin Mus­tang squadron com­man­ders. He fought both ma­jor Axis pow­ers, scor­ing against each in a com­bat ca­reer span­ning two and a half years.

Born in China in 1913, “Jimmy” was the son of Har­vey Howard of St. Louis, an eye sur­geon work­ing for the Rock­e­feller Foun­da­tion. The young­ster spent his first 14 years in Asia be­fore the fam­ily re­turned to Mis­souri. He at­tended board­ing school in Penn­syl­va­nia and high school in St. Louis. He grad­u­ated from Pomona Col­lege in Cal­i­for­nia in 1937.

Like so many World War II fliers, Howard be­came en­am­ored of avi­a­tion early on. A lanky six-foot-two, he feared he might be too tall for his dream of fighters, but he be­came a naval avi­a­tor in Jan­uary 1939 and flew the de­light­ful Grum­man F2F and F3F bi­planes from USS Lex­ing­ton (CV-2) and USS En­ter­prise (CV-6). Re­call­ing the F2F-1, Howard wrote, “The stubby lit­tle fighter’s huge thou­sand-horse­power Wright Cy­clone spun its three-bladed pro­pel­ler with a deaf­en­ing roar that could shat­ter the quiet of a peace­ful af­ter­noon. It had all the ad­vanced equip­ment—re­tractable land­ing gear that was cranked up and down man­u­ally, a com­plete in­stru­ment panel with the lat­est aids…a hom­ing loop, oxy­gen, and a con­stant-speed pro­pel­ler.” A bonus of duty in Fight­ing Squadron Six was fly­ing for the Robert Tay­lor movie Flight Com­mand.

De­spite his easy­go­ing per­son­al­ity, Howard was fear­some in the air. Squadron mates learned to re­spect En­sign Howard in “IBP” (in­di­vid­ual bat­tle prac­tice). He knew he had a fu­ture in the Navy when of­fered a reg­u­lar com­mis­sion, but he de­clined, fear­ing it would af­fect his true love— fly­ing. Thus, he filled out pa­pers ap­ply­ing for the Cen­tral Air­craft Man­u­fac­tur­ing Com­pany (CAMCO) in China, a cover for the nascent Amer­i­can Vol­un­teer Group (AVG).

While aboard USS Saratoga (CV-3) in June 1941, Howard learned that he had been ac­cepted by CAMCO. In­trigued with the op­por­tu­nity, he re­al­ized that his de­cline of a reg­u­lar com­mis­sion paved the way to China. With few ex­cep­tions, only re­servists were el­i­gi­ble for the AVG. Fur­ther­more, he had com­pany: more than half of the Fly­ing Tiger pi­lots were navy trained.

Howard wanted to see China again, partly for his re­gard for the peo­ple. “But my over­rid­ing rea­son was my yearn­ing for ad­ven­ture and ac­tion.” Be­yond that, he be­lieved “my role was that of a warrior…If there was to be a war, I wanted to be in it.”

In ad­di­tion to 377 hours in flight train­ing, Howard had two-anda-half years in the fleet. His ex­pe­ri­ence com­mended him to the AVG, which en­rolled him as a flight leader in the 2nd Pur­suit Squadron, the Panda Bears, then el­e­vated to vice squadron leader.

Dur­ing the AVG’s for­ma­tion pe­riod at Kun­ming, China, Howard got the essence of the head Tiger, Claire Chen­nault. The navy pilot said, “I knew in­stinc­tively that here was a man who was go­ing to make a go of our or­ga­ni­za­tion. With his mil­i­tary bear­ing he ra­di­ated a feel­ing of con­fi­dence that ev­ery­thing was go­ing to be all right now that he was there and in charge. Here was a man who said what he be­lieved and did not mince words. He of­fered no apolo­gies or ex­cuses. He touched all of us with his sin­cer­ity and sin­gle­ness of pur­pose. He was a man we could fol­low.”

The AVG flew Cur­tiss P-40B/C Tom­a­hawks di­verted from a Bri­tish ship­ment. They were a new con­cept to Howard, who had grown up in Grum­man bi­planes and only briefly had sam­pled the new F4F-3 Wild­cat.

Howard found soul­mates in the Panda Bears. The stand­out per­son­al­ity was an­other naval avi­a­tor, David Lee Hill, who had been born in Korea two years af­ter Howard. Like Dr. Howard, “Tex” Hill’s fa­ther was a mis­sion­ary but with a dif­fer­ence—he be­came chap­lain of the Texas Rangers.

Con­trary to pub­lic opin­ion, the Tigers did not en­gage in com­bat be­fore Pearl Har­bor. Their first bat­tle came three weeks later, but Howard had to wait a while longer.

On Jan­uary 3, 1942, Howard teamed with the

squadron com­man­der, Jack Newkirk, and Tex Hill for a dawn straf­ing mis­sion against Tak Air­field near Ra­hang, Burma. “Scars­dale Jack” was an­other navy-trained fighter pilot, mak­ing the mis­sion a golden-wing trio. Howard re­called, “I had my eyes glued on a row of air­planes neatly parked along the far strip. I saw they were Amer­i­can-built Brew­sters and knew that they were ships which had fallen into Jap hands. [Note: The Royal Air Force had four squadrons of Brew­ster Buf­fa­los in Southeast Asia.] I de­ter­mined they’d never get to use those air­craft against us. I darted over there and let the trac­ers flow. In­cen­di­aries blew up tanks and set them all on fire, but I wasn’t sat­is­fied. I ran back and forth over those ships, toss­ing rid­dling steel into them.

“I was so busy do­ing that I didn’t see a fast Jap fighter who was so close to my tail he was prac­ti­cally get­ting into the act. But Tex Hill shot him down. As we flew home he told me about it. I didn’t be­lieve him. But when I put my hands on those bul­let holes, Tex said re­prov­ingly, ‘Those didn’t come from moths, you know.’”

Howard found more ac­tion that month. On the 19th, he earned a one-third share in an “Army 98 re­con” at Me­soht Air­drome—prob­a­bly a Ki-51 “So­nia.” He fol­lowed up with a Ki-27 “Nate” fighter at Ran­goon on the 24th.

Jack Newkirk was killed straf­ing a Thai air­field in late March, and Tex Hill be­came skip­per. Howard suc­ceeded him just be­fore the AVG dis­banded in July.

AVG at­tri­tion was not lim­ited to com­bat. In mid-May, Howard was prac­tic­ing dive-bomb­ing in new P-40Es with his friend Tom Jones, who had flown Northrop BT-1s from USS York­town. Jones went straight in, rea­son un­known, although he had con­fided hav­ing had se­vere headaches to a few friends.

On July 4, fly­ing a Kit­ty­hawk, Howard gunned an “I-97 fighter” (an­other Nate) at Hengyang, one of four kills cred­ited on the Tigers’ last day.

From Jan­uary to July 1942, Howard flew 56 mis­sions, claim­ing 2.33 aerial vic­to­ries and four planes on the ground. He re­ceived the $500 bonus for 6.33 cred­its—se­ri­ous money at the time. When the Tigers were ab­sorbed into the Army Air Force (AAF), he elected to go along and re­ceived a cap­tain’s com­mis­sion in Jan­uary 1943.

“My role was that of a warrior…If there was to be a war, I wanted to be in it.”

Against the Re­ich

Howard went through tran­si­tion train­ing with the 329th Fighter Group at Glendale, Cal­i­for­nia, and in May 1943, he joined the 354th at Santa Rosa, Cal­i­for­nia, then fly­ing Bell P-39s. Upon sail­ing to Eng­land that fall, how­ever, the 354th be­came the first unit fly­ing new Rolls-Royce Mer­lin-pow­ered P-51Bs—thus, the name: Pioneer Mustangs.

Col. Martin’s group en­tered com­bat from Boxted, Es­sex, Eng­land, in Novem­ber 1943. Although as­signed to the 9th Air Force—the tac­ti­cal or­ga­ni­za­tion in­tended to sup­port ground forces in Oc­cu­pied Europe—the Mus­tang’s range and per­for­mance com­mended it to the “Mighty Eighth.” There­fore, the Pioneer Mustangs flew long-range bomber es­corts for heavy bombers. The P-51s ar­rived none too soon. Dur­ing the sum­mer and fall of 1943, Ger­man fighters and flak took a fear­some toll of U.S. bombers, to the point that deep-pen­e­tra­tion mis­sions into Re­ich skies be­came prob­lem­at­i­cal. At one point, it had been sta­tis­ti­cally im­pos­si­ble for a bomber crew to sur­vive a 25-mis­sion tour.

Howard’s at­ti­tude to­ward the Mer­lin Mus­tang was typ­i­cal. “This ship has no bugs,” he said. “All the pi­lots have gone over­board for it. They wouldn’t want to have to se­lect any other plane to fight in. And we’d all like to race the Mos­quito, the Typhoon, the Spit­fire, P-38, P-47, or the Ger­man Focke-Wulf or Messer­schmitt 109.”

Thus did Jim Howard en­ter his sec­ond theater of war. At age 30, he was per­son­ally and tac­ti­cally ma­ture, a com­bat-ex­pe­ri­enced fighter pilot con­fi­dent in him­self, his air­craft, and his col­leagues. On an es­cort to Bre­men/ Wil­helmshaven, Howard bagged a Bf 109 on De­cem­ber 20, his fourth kill of the war.

“The One-Man Air Force”

On Jan­uary 11, north­west of Hal­ber­stadt in only his sec­ond Euro­pean com­bat, Howard had a sky full of black-crossed fighters to him­self.

Howard cut off a 110 track­ing the bombers and shot it down, but lost his wing­men in the process. Then a squadron of 109s drove in for an at­tack. Howard, the con­sum­mate pro­fes­sional, headed the­moff.He­feintedand­dodged,tak­ing­shotswhen

he could, but mainly spoil­ing the Ger­mans’ fir­ing runs even when down to one of his .50 cal­ibers func­tion­ing. In­cred­u­lous bomber crews watched Howard ride a wild Mus­tang across the sky in a high-noon shootout. For 25 min­utes, he jousted with as many as 30 op­po­nents from three fighter wings: Bf 109s of II Gruppe JG-11, Bf 110s of I Gruppe ZG-26, and FW 190s of II Gruppe JG-1. Un­de­terred by the odds, he spoiled re­peated at­tacks on the bombers, whose crews counted six planes de­stroyed or driven down.

Back at base, the Pioneer Mustangs claimed 15 kills with no losses. When Howard landed and de­briefed, his share of the to­tal was two 110s and a 190 de­stroyed, plus a prob­a­ble 109 and one dam­aged. With­out the P-51s, the toll in bombers would have been ap­palling. As it was, 34 of the 174 at­tack­ing Osch­er­sleben went down, or nearly 20 per­cent.

Howard won praise from Col. Harold Bow­man’s 401st Bomb Group, which was sub­jected to gun and rocket at­tacks. The B-17 crews in­sisted that the pilot of the lone P-51 be dec­o­rated with nothing less than the Medal of Honor. When Maj. Gen. Jimmy Doolit­tle saw the let­ters at Eighth Air Force head­quar­ters, he ini­ti­ated ac­tion for “a suit­able award.”

One bomber pilot wrote to Howard, “It was

In­cred­u­lous bomber crews watched Howard ride a wild Mus­tang across the sky in a high-noon shootout. For 25 min­utes, he jousted with as many as 30 op­po­nents.

a case of one lone Amer­i­can tak­ing on the en­tire Luft­waffe. I per­son­ally feel that your ex­ploits that day ev­i­denced the spirit of team­work, which is the sine qua non of suc­cess­ful mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions. Let me as­sure you that should you ever have oc­ca­sion to visit this sta­tion, your wel­come will be a warm one. There is not a man in our group who hasn’t sung your praises.”

That sen­ti­ment ap­peared to be uni­ver­sal. B-17 crew­men who wit­nessed the com­bat in­sisted that the pilot of AJ-X de­served what­ever medals were be­ing handed out.

And thereby lies a con­tro­versy. As squadron com­man­der, Howard’s as­signed air­craft was AJ-A, named for the Chi­nese phrase Ding Hao. Ac­cord­ing to var­i­ous sources, it meant “Num­ber one,” “Very good,” or “The best.” Ap­par­ently his first Mus­tang was AAF se­rial num­ber 43-6375, while Ding Hao was 43-6315. Be­cause the mis­sion re­ports did not spec­ify air­craft se­rial num­ber, Howard’s air­craft on Jan­uary 11 re­mains spec­u­la­tive.

In­ter­viewed shortly af­ter the ac­tion, Howard im­pressed re­porters with his mod­est de­meanor. He was quoted as say­ing, “I seen my duty and I done it,” but that was not Howard’s way of speak­ing. If he said it, he was be­ing face­tious.

In any case, Howard felt that he had done no more than “my duty” and was un­de­serv­ing of spe­cial praise.

Howard con­tin­ued fly­ing com­bat. He added an­other 110 near Brunswick, Ger­many, on Jan­uary 30 and got a piece of a 410 on March 16. When “Sleeper” Martin was shot down and cap­tured in Fe­bru­ary, Howard suc­ceeded him as group com­man­der.

The for­mer Tiger closed his vic­tory log with a FW 190, again near Brunswick on April 8.

A re­porter who in­ter­viewed Howard de­scribed him as “a dou­ble header ace, an am­bidex­trous big lea­guer of the skies.”

Com­par­ing the two Axis pow­ers, Howard told Chris­tian Gil­bert of True mag­a­zine, “The Ger­mans are good fighters. You re­ally have to rid­dle them to bring them down, whereas a few hits on a Jap plane can fin­ish it. The Japs aren’t very good shots, but they are more alert than the Ger­man pi­lots. The Japs flew dif­fer­ent planes and the for­ma­tions were dif­fer­ent, so it is hard to com­pare the fight here with the fight­ing out in the Pa­cific. This is the big­gest air of­fen­sive cen­ter in the world here, and it was on a small scale, re­mem­ber, when we were fight­ing with Chen­nault.

“You have a bet­ter feel­ing fly­ing over France and Ger­many in a sin­gle-en­gine plane than you have fly­ing in Burma. You have the feel­ing you’ll get bet­ter treat­ment here if you go down. Over there, once you are shot down you are ei­ther lost or you fall into the hands of the Ja­panese. I have a per­sonal ha­tred for every Jap that I don’t feel for the Ger­mans.”

Friends and sub­or­di­nates said that Howard had a sweet tooth, was not su­per­sti­tious, and en­joyed go­ing to the movies. His lead­er­ship style was low-

key, often to the point of gen­eros­ity. He would de­tach a sec­tion or flight to at­tack Luft­waffe air­craft that he might have taken him­self. Pi­lots in the 356th Squadron de­scribed him as sin­cere and sym­pa­thetic but not very com­mu­nica­tive. Some friends at­trib­uted that trait to his up­bring­ing in China. What­ever the rea­son, it pro­duced re­sults in com­bat.

If not for the glow­ing re­ports of the bomber crews, Howard’s Osch­er­sleben ac­tion prob­a­bly would have been passed over. It was ser­vice pol­i­tics: the AAF lived and died by the self­de­fend­ing bomber, and Medals of Honor to “lit­tle friends” might draw at­ten­tion away from the “big friends.” But the B-17 crews were so en­thused that Eighth Air Force or­tho­doxy was re­versed for once. Lt. Gen. Carl Spaatz, com­man­der of U.S. strate­gic air forces, pre­sented now-Colonel Howard with the Medal of Honor in Bri­tain on June 27. It re­mained the only “Con­gres­sional” awarded a fighter pilot in the Euro­pean Theater of Op­er­a­tions and one of merely two for a “pur­suiter” fly­ing against Ger­many. (In contrast, the Fifth Air Force in the Pa­cific awarded the Medal of Honor to four fighter aces.)

A re­porter vis­it­ing Boxted got to know Howard rea­son­ably well. The writer ob­served, “When he puts on wings, he takes off his cloak of re­straint.” That was not un­usual. Jim Howard was fairly rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the breed. There are not many chest-thumpers among the aces. Gabby Gabreski was gre­gar­i­ous with­out be­ing ego­tis­ti­cal. Mar­ion Carl and Bob Galer were quiet al­most to the point of shy­ness—not what peo­ple ex­pect of Ma­rine gen­eral aces. Alexander Vraciu had a

quiet, al­most sub­tle sense of hu­mor. Some men’s brain chem­istry changes when they strap into a fighter and take off with loaded guns.

Post­war Years

Af­ter serv­ing with the Ninth Fighter Com­mand, Howard’s fi­nal wartime po­si­tion was com­mand­ing Pinellas Army Air­field, an op­er­a­tional train­ing base near St. Peters­burg, Florida. By then, he had logged nearly 1,800 hours and 8.33 aerial vic­to­ries.

The for­mer Navy en­sign was pro­moted to per­ma­nent colonel in Novem­ber 1945, on in­ac­tive sta­tus. He re­turned to ac­tive duty, re­ceiv­ing his bri­gadier gen­eral’s star in March 1948, com­mand­ing the 419th Troop Car­rier Wing from June 1949 to Jan­uary 1950. He re­tired from the Air Force Re­serve in 1966.

Be­sides the Medal of Honor, Howard re­ceived the Bronze Star, two Dis­tin­guished Fly­ing Crosses, and 10 Air Medals plus a Chi­nese White Cloud Ban­ner.

Though quiet and soft-spo­ken, Howard en­joyed at­tend­ing AVG and 354th re­unions plus gath­er­ings of aces. At a St. Louis event in 1970, he ex­changed ex­pe­ri­ences with the Luft­waffe top gun, Col. Erich Hart­mann. Howard said that, in fight­ing 109s, he pre­ferred to turn away from the torque side, pos­si­bly catch­ing his op­po­nent by sur­prise. When Hart­mann joked that maybe they should fly to­gether, Howard quipped, “OK, I’ll fly your wing!”

Howard re­mained ac­tive in busi­ness with his Wash­ing­ton, D.C., en­gi­neer­ing com­pany un­til re­tir­ing in 1977. Mar­ried twice—the first time as a bri­gadier—he had one step­daugh­ter.

Howard pub­lished his mem­oir, Roar of the Tiger, in 1991. He died March 18, 1995, at the Veter­ans Ad­min­is­tra­tion Med­i­cal Cen­ter in Bay Pines, Florida, not quite 82. He is buried in Ar­ling­ton Na­tional Ceme­tery.

Jim Howard’s legacy was de­scribed by his friend and fel­low Mus­tang ace Dick Turner: “The dra­matic proof of his com­bat wis­dom and his un­canny abil­ity to im­part it to oth­ers was demon­strated… by the tem­per­ing of our squadron in the cru­cible of 16 months of con­tin­u­ous com­bat [with] an en­vi­able record of 298 aerial vic­to­ries with but 22 pi­lots lost from all causes. It was small won­der that with such an out­stand­ing leader the squadron and the en­tire 354th Group…be­came one of the sharpest thorns in the side of the Luft­waffe.”

Lt. Col. Jim Howard boards a 353rd Fighter Squadron P-51B prior to the Ninth Air Force Group’s mis­sion from Boxted, Eng­land, on Jan­uary 20, 1944. This Mus­tang was soon lost to air ac­tion over Ger­many on April 8. (Photo cour­tesy of Stan Piet)

Above left: Pre­war, Howard was a qual­i­fied U.S. Navy fighter pilot, seen here with an F3F. (Photo cour­tesy of Wikimedia Com­mons)

Above right: Howard re­signed his com­mis­sion in 1941 and flew with the Fly­ing Tigers. His air-to-air com­bat ex­pe­ri­ence paid off in the skies over Europe. (Photo cour­tesy of Wikimedia Com­mons)

Though it never dis­played the name, “Old Ex­ter­mi­na­tor” was Col. Robert L. Scott’s P-40E as CO of the 23rd Fighter Group, which ab­sorbed some Fly­ing Tiger per­son­nel when Jim Howard re­turned to the United States. (Photo cour­tesy of Stan Piet)

“Berlin Ex­press,” which sports a Mal­colm hood, rather than the “bird­cage” canopy of Howard’s Ding Hao, flew with the 357th Fighter Group. The 357th was the sec­ond AAF P-51 unit in the Euro­pean Theater and en­tered com­bat one month af­ter Jim Howard’s Medal of Honor mis­sion. The rein­car­nated “Berlin Ex­press” is a re­build by Pa­cific Fighters from a to­tal wreck. (Photo by Scott Slocum)

Below: Ding Hao was a car­ry­over from Howard’s days as a Fly­ing Tiger. It’s a Chi­nese term that roughly trans­lates as “Num­ber one” or “Very good.” (Photo cour­tesy of Wikimedia Com­mons) A still from Jim Howard’s gun cam­era film of Jan­uary 11, 1944, shows an Me 110 erupt­ing in flames. (Photo cour­tesy of Jack Cook)

Left and below: Newly pro­moted Lt. Col. Jim

Howard, CO of the 356th Fighter Squadron, sits in his new P-51B at Lashen­den, Eng­land, shortly af­ter his Medal of Honor mis­sion. The six Ja­panese vic­tory flags were painted on for pub­lic­ity pur­poses (over Howard’s ob­jec­tion). He scored 2.33 air vic­to­ries with the Amer­i­can Vol­un­teer Group but re­ceived six bonus cred­its. (Photo left cour­tesy of Jack Cook; photo below cour­tesy of Wikimedia Com­mons)

An orig­i­nal mem­ber of the 354th Fighter Group, the “Pioneer Mustangs,” Howard was among the first to take Mer­lin-pow­ered P-51B/Cs into com­bat. (Il­lus­tra­tion by Tom Tullis)

Howard poses with sev­eral of his Pioneer Mus­tang group pi­lots prior to a mis­sion on Jan­uary 20, 1944. (Photo cour­tesy of Stan Piet)

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