On this day in 1944, an American fighter pilot singlehandedly takes on 30 German fighter planes. “For sheer determination and guts, it was the greatest exhibition I’ve ever seen,” one witness concluded. “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.”
Maybe not, but Major James H. Howard would receive the Medal of Honor for his daring feat anyway.
When Howard first joined the U.S. Army Air Forces, he was flying P-47s and P-38s, both of which lacked the range to provide effective assistance to American bombers. How exciting to arrive in England and discover that he’d be among the first to fly the P-51B Mustang, an aircraft that could provide longer-range support!
He would soon put those capabilities to good use.
On January 11, Howard was leading a group of fighter pilots near Oschersleben, Germany. They were to provide support to American bombers deep into enemy territory. Unfortunately, they were soon under attack. “On the first encounter, which turned into a melee, my flight lost me,” Howard later said.
Well, that was a pretty humble way to describe what had happened. In fact, Howard had engaged with a German fighter, chased it down, and destroyed it. “As a result of this attack,” his Medal citation notes, “Col. Howard lost contact with his group . . . .”
“When I regained bomber altitude,” Howard noted, “I discovered that I was alone and in the vicinity of the forward boxes of bombers.” His wingman had gone to the rear of the formation. No one would have blamed Howard if he’d worked to reassemble other fighters before taking on the German planes. But the bombers were in danger and there was no one else to help. Howard plunged right in, singlehandedly taking on the Germans.
He chased them. He attacked them. Even when he ran out of ammunition, he simply began diving at German planes. This continued for a full thirty minutes.
“An attack by a single fighter on four or five times his own number wasn’t uncommon,” wrote a fellow fighter pilot, “but a deliberate attack by a single fighter against thirty plus enemy fighters without tactical advantage of height or surprise is rare almost to the point of extinction.”
Later, when the bomb group finally landed, a “high-pitched excitement filled the briefing room,” recalled their commander. Which Mustang pilot had saved them? Howard was eventually identified as the hero.
The bombers who’d witnessed Howard’s bravery credited him with 6 kills, although Howard had credited himself with less. His Medal citation gives him credit for 3 kills but notes that he “probably destroyed and damaged others.”
“Good news stories of the air war were few and far between,” the Air Force Magazine would later recount, “and the tale of the ‘lone wolf’ was genuine gold. Howard soon found himself in front of 100 war correspondents, recounting the mission. They were awed—he was not. One reporter asked why he’d risked his neck. ‘I fixed my eyes on the simpleminded questioner and replied facetiously, “I seen my duty and I done it.”’ Of course, this was the headline.”
Howard might not have thought too much of his own actions, but others did. He would become the only fighter pilot awarded the Medal of Honor in World War II’s European Theater.
Primary Sources & Further Reading:
Andrew A. Rooney, Bombers Hail One-Man Air Force (Stars and Stripes; January 19, 1944) (reprinted HERE)
James H. Howard, Roar of the Tiger: From Flying Tigers to Mustangs, A Fighter Ace’s Memoir (1991)
Medal of Honor citation (James H. Howard; WWII)
Rebecca Grant, One-Man Air Force (Air Force Magazine; Nov. 2010)
Robert Dorr, Mission to Berlin: The American Airmen Who Struck the Heart of Hitler’s Reich (2011)
VIII Fighter Command FO 216: 11 January 1944 (American Air Museum in Britain)