Remembering James Howell Howard: Only P-51 Mustang pilot awarded Medal of Honor
World War II was a special time for combat aviation, a pivotal point in history when pilots and aircraft technology were forced into incredible transformations in order to keep up with the rapidly changing times.
During this time, new plane designs made their way into the history books under the control of skilled men, who often pushed their valor, bodies, and aircraft to the absolute limit in order to win the day.
While the P-51 Mustang is still widely regarded as the “best” American fighter of World War II, the aircraft has only one registered Medal of Honor recipient in the European Theater- and to make things interesting, it’s worth noting that the recipient of that award was 1) born in China, and 2) learned to fly in the Navy.
Born in Canton, China on April 13, 1913, James Howell Howard was the son of an American ophthalmologist who had been tasked to teach eye surgery in China. Staying there until he was about 14, his family returned to Missouri in 1927, where Howard graduated from high school.
Heading off to college in California and earning his degree by 1937, Howard abandoned the prospects of following in his father’s medical footsteps and set out to become a Naval Aviator, Entering the US Navy as a naval aviation cadet in 1938, he was sent to Pensacola, Florida, where he graduated from flight training in 1939.
Now an Ensign, Howard flew biplanes from aircraft carriers until 1939, when he decided to resign his commission and return to Asia with the American Volunteer Group, better known as the Flying Tigers.
No stranger to the region, Howard found success in Burma, enjoying the upgrade from a Grumman biplane to the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk. From 1941 to 1942, Howard would fly 56 missions and destroy six Japanese airplanes.
Following the 1942 Independence Day disbandment of the Flying Tigers, Howard joined the US Army Air Force, commissioning as a Captain. Within one year, he was promoted to Major and handed the keys to the 356th Fighter Squadron, a part of the 354th Fighter Group. It was here that he was introduced to the P-51B Mustang, an early model of the P-51 that would become so iconic.
With a nod to his upbringing and combat experience, Howard dubbed his Mustang “Ding-Hao,” Chinese for “very good/the best.”
In January of 1944, Howard single-handedly took on around thirty German fighters in an attempt to rescue a formation of B-17 bombers (belonging to the 401st Bomb Group) flying over Germany. For over thirty minutes, Howard kept on the Germans, shooting down six. When he ran out of ammunition, he feigned attacks to keep the enemy pilots busy.
In a subsequent, report, Howard’s courage would be lauded by the leader of the bomber formation, who was one of around 16 bomber crewmembers to recount the Mustang pilot’s heroics.
“For sheer determination and guts, it was the greatest exhibition I’ve ever seen,” the commander said. “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.”
Dubbed the “one-man air force” by the media, Howard was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel -as well as given command of the 354th Fighter Group- in February, and was presented the Medal of Honor in June.
Howard would return to Florida in 1945, following his promotion to Colonel and appointment to become base commander of Pinellas Army Airfield, which is now the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport. When the Army Air Corps became the US Air Force two years later, the Mustang ace was given a Brigadier General’s star in the Air Force Reserve.
Leaving Florida to manage Lambert Field in St. Louis, Missouri, where he would work until his retirement in the 1970s, when he decided to return to Pinellas County, Florida. Here, he would write Roar of the Tiger, a wartime-centric autobiography.
Howard was last publicly seen at a Boy Scouts of America banquet in 1995. Six weeks later, he would die at a local VA hospital at the age of 81. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Howard’s awards include the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Flying Cross with bronze oak leaf cluster, the Bronze Star Medal, Two Air Medals with one silver and three bronze oak leaf clusters, the Air Force Presidential Unit Citation, the American Defense Service Medal with bronze service star, the American Campaign Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with bronze campaign star, the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with two bronze campaign stars, the World War II Victory Medal, the National Defense Service Medal with one service star, the Air Force Longevity Service Award with four bronze oak leaf clusters, the Armed Forces Reserve Medal with silver hourglass and the Republic of China War Memorial Medal.
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