James Howard was the only fighter pilot awarded the Medal of Honor in Europe during World War II. Born in China in 1913, he planned to follow his father’s footsteps as a physician; however, he changed his goal and entered naval aviation training in 1937. After flying fighters from the USS Enterprise for 2 years, he responded to a recruiter for the American Volunteer Group (AVG), resigned from the Navy 6 months before Pearl Harbor, and returned to China to fly combat with Claire Chennault’s famed Flying Tigers. In 7 months of flying P-40s against the Japanese, Howard achieved 6 1/3 victories and was once shot down himself by ground fire.
He returned to the States when the AVG merged with the USAAF in July 1942, and later that year accepted his third commission–this time as a captain in the Army Air Force. By the fall of 1943, he was a squadron commander in England with the 354th Fighter Group, the first American unit to receive P-51 Mustangs. While escorting a bomber force near Berlin on 11 January 1944, Major Howard put on what witnesses called “the greatest display of combat flying” ever seen. Soon after he led his 50 fighters into the attack, he shot down an Me-110, but subsequently became separated from his group.
Now alone, Howard was confronted by some 30 Luftwaffe fighters whose attacks were centered on the Flying Fortresses of the 401st Bombardment Group. Rather than waiting for help, he single-handedly took on the enemy force in a violent, exhausting, up and down battle that lasted for 30 minutes–he was credited with downing four enemy fighters, scoring one probable and damaging another. When his ammunition ran out, he continued to dive in feints at incoming fighters to break up their attacks, only turning for home when his fuel ran dangerously low.
None of the B-17s were lost, and his own aircraft received only one hit during this epic battle, which won him the Medal of Honor. James Howard left the active Air Force after the war to form his own systems engineering company. Retired from the Air Force Reserve in 1966 as a brigadier general.