James Howell Howard the greatest fighter pilot story of WWII” held off 30 German fighters from attacking a squadron of B-17 bombers for over half an hour
James Howell Howard was a general in the United States Air Force and the only fighter pilot in the European Theater of Operations in World War II to receive the Medal of Honor — the United States military’s highest decoration.CBS commentator Andy Rooney, then a wartime reporter for Stars and Stripes, called Howard’s exploits “the greatest fighter pilot story of World War II”. In later life, Howard was a successful businessman, author, and airport director.
Howard initially was a U.S. Navy pilot aboard the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CV-6), based at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, beginning in 1939. In June 1941, he left the Navy to become a P-40 fighter pilot with the American Volunteer Group (AVG), the famous Flying Tigers in Burma. He flew 56 missions and was credited with shooting down six Japanese airplanes. Following the disbandment of the Flying Tigers on July 4, 1942, Howard returned to the U.S. and was commissioned acaptain in the Army Air Force. In 1943, he was promoted to the rank of major and given command of the 356th Fighter Squadron in the 354th Fighter Group, based in the United Kingdom.
On January 11, 1944, Howard single-handedly flew his P-51 into some thirty Luftwaffe fighters that were attacking a formation of American B-17 Flying Fortress bombers over Oschersleben, Germany. For more than a half-hour, Howard defended the heavy bombers of the 401st Bomb Group against the swarm of Luftwaffe fighters, repeatedly attacking the enemy airplanes and shooting down as many as six. The leader of the bomber formation later reported that, “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.”
In early 1945, Howard was promoted to full Colonel and assigned as base commander of Pinellas Army Airfield (now St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport) in Florida. With the establishment of the United States Air Force as a separate service in 1947, then-Colonel Howard was transferred to the Air Force. In 1948, he was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General in the U.S. Air Force Reserve, commanding the Air Force Reserve’s 96th Bombardment Group.
The citation accompanying the Medal of Honor awarded to Lieutenant Colonel James H. Howard on 5 June 1944, by Lieutenant General Carl Spaatz reads:
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.
As a civilian after the war, Howard was Director of Aeronautics for St. Louis, Missouri, managing Lambert Field while maintaining his military status as a Brigadier General in the United States Air Force Reserve. He later founded Howard Research, a systems engineering business, which he eventually sold to Control Data Corporation. He married Mary Balles in 1948 in a military wedding ceremony. In later years, they were divorced and Howard then married Florence Buteau.
In the 1970s, Howard retired to Belleair Bluffs in Pinellas County, Florida. In 1991, he wrote an autobiography, Roar of the Tiger, chiefly devoted to his wartime experiences. On January 11, 1994, the 50th anniversary of the Oschlersleben attack, the Board of County Commissioners in Pinellas County proclaimed “General Howard Day” and presented him with a plaque. A permanent exhibit honoring General Howard was also unveiled in the terminal building of the county’s St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport. Another exhibit paying tribute to Howard was subsequently dedicated at his alma mater, the John Burroughs School in St. Louis.
On January 27, 1995, Howard made his last public appearance when he was guest of honor at the annual banquet of the West Central Florida Councilof the Boy Scouts of America, in Clearwater, Florida. He died six weeks later at the nearby Bay Pines Veterans Hospital and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery, survived by two sisters.