A MUSTANG BASE, Jan. 18 - A lone unidentified Mustang pilot battled 30 German fighter plane for half an hour high over central Germany last Tuesday. Fortress crewmen, who cheered as they watched the U.S. fighter send plane after plane smoking to the ground, have been trying ever since to find out the pilot's identity.
Today the fighter pilot those men watched wage the story-book battle in their defense finally was identified. He is Squadron Leader Maj. James H. Howard.
With his deed buried in an over-cautious intelligence report, Fighter Command officials had to comb the records to find the man for whom bomber crews were claiming six destroyed enemy plane and countless bombers saved. With the records, they dug up possibly the best fighter-pilot story of the war.
The six-foot two-inch former Flying Tiger's own report on the battle claimed two destroyed, two probably destroyed and one damaged, but it is one of the few cases where the official figure probably will be raised by the confirmation board. It appears certain from Maj. Howard's own report of the action, from the reports of other fighter pilots and from the statements of many bomber crewmen, that he destroyed four plane and probably five beside the planes he hit and damaged but did not destroy.
"I seen my duty and I done it," Maj. Howard said. "I never saw 30 fighter all at once the way the bomber people tell it. I'd see one, give him a quirt and go up again. There were an awful lot of them around; it was just a matter of shooting at them.
Our group was assigned to provide target support for the bombers," explained Howard, who was leading the group in support of the B17s going to Oscherleben and Halberstadt.
"When we rendezvoused with the bombers from the rear, I dispatched two flights to cover the last bomber boxes. 'A' Squadron was sent to the forward box, and I later discovered that this was where all the activity was centered, but at the time I was unable to do anything about it but use what we had to the best advantage.
"The bombers passed over the target," Maj. Howard continued, "and there we met our first enemy attacks. Flights of P51s were dispatched to engage the attacking enemy aircraft, and I began attacking with my flight. On the first encounter, which turned into a melee, my flight lost me.
When I regained bomber altitude, I discovered in the vicinity of the forward boxes bombers. There was one box of B17s in particular that seemed to be under pressed attack by six single and twin-engined enemy fighters. There were about 20 bombers in a very compact formation, and the fighters were working individually.
Round One: A KO
"The first plane I got was a two-engined German night fighter. I went down after him, gave him several squirts and watched him crash. He stood out very clearly, silhouetted against the snow that covered the ground. He went down in a cloud of black smoke and fire and hit the ground.
"Shortly after that an FW came cruising along underneath me. He pulled up into the sun when he saw me. I gave him a squirt and I almost ran into his canopy when he threw it off to get out. He bailed out.
"Then I circled trying to join up with the other P51s. I saw an Me109 just underneath and a few hundred yards ahead of me. He saw me at the same time and chopped his throttle, hoping my speed would carry me ahead of him. It's an old trick. He started scissoring underneath me but I chopped my throttle and started scissoring at the same time, and then we went into a circle dogfight and it was a matter of who could maneuver best and cut the shortest circle.
"I dumped 20-degree flaps and began cutting inside him, so he quit and went into a dive, with me after him. I got on his tail and got in some long-distance squirts from 300 or 400 yards. I got some strikes on him, but I didn't see him hit the ground.
"I pulled up again and saw an Me109 and a P51 running, along together. The 51 saw me coming in from behind and he peeled off while the Me started a slow circle. I don't remember whether I shot at him or not. Thing happen so fast it's hard to remember things in sequence when you get back.
A Probable, But Unclaimed
"Back up with the bombers again, I saw an Me110. I shot at him and got strikes all over him. He flicked over on his back and I could see gas and smoke coming out - white and black smoke."
In Maj. Howard's report he did not put in a claim for having destroyed this plane, although there was almost no doubt that it crashed, according to reports from bomber crews.
"It could be that he had some sort of smoke equipment to make it appear that he was damaged worse than he was," Maj. Howard explained.
Again the major climbed up with the box of bombers he was fighting to protect.
"I saw an Me109 tooling up for an attack on the bombers. They often slip in sideways, the way this one was doing. We were both pretty close to the bombers, and I was close to him. I give him a squirt and he headed down with black smoke pouring out."
The fighters were scheduled to stay with the bombers in the vicinity of the target area for just an hour, and Maj. Howard, fully conscious that his job was to protect bombers first and shoot down German fighters when it as part of the job, had up to this time been using his ammunition sparingly. In his first two attacks all four .50 caliber guns were firing, but on his third attack only two were functioning. In his last two attacks only one of his .50s was firing.
With his one good gun, Maj. Howard climbed once again to the port side of the bomber formation. By this time the bomber crews were practically hanging out their plane windows watching the one-man show.
"I saw an Me 109 over on the starboard side getting in position at attack the bombers," the Major said. "I dived on him from where I was and got strikes all over him with my one gun. He turned over on his back and skidded out. He thought he had lost me with the skid and he pulled out into a 45-degree dive. I followed him down and kept on shooting.
"I'd been with the bombers for more than an hour altogether by then and just before I left I saw a Dornier 217 - I think it was coming alongside the bombers, probably to throw rockets. I dived on him and he left, but never did fire a shot at him."
With his job done and his gas getting to the point where he had to leave. Maj. Howard took off for home with nothing more serious than a lone hole through his left wing. He doesn't know for sure when he was hit.
A Valued Boss in the Air
Despite Maj. Howard's individual performance over Oschersleben last Tuesday, the men who fly with him insist that he is most valuable, not as a fighter pilot, but as an air commander. Quiet, uncommunicative on the ground, the lanky fighter pilot takes command in the air.
"Maj. Howard flies into enemy territory, waits until enemy aircraft come up-to attack the bombers, and then, after looking the situation over, he starts dispatching flights from his group where he thinks they'll do the most good. He always saves the biggest group of enemy planes for his own flight," said 2/Lt. Mike Rodgers, of Newton, Mass.
The fighter ace's background is as unusual as his performance in the air. He was born 30 years ago in Canton, China. His mother was the wife of an eye surgeon who was playing a dual missionary-medical role in the south China province.
Maj. Howard studied in a school in Pekin until he was 14, when his family brought him to America. When he was 19 he entered Pomona College in California, determined to become a surgeon in the footsteps of his father. When graduated from Pomona in 1937, he gave up medicine, joined the Navy and learned to fly at Pensacola, Fla.
Fly With Navy 3 Years
For three years Howard flew with the Navy, operating Grumman Wildcats off three different aircraft carriers, the Lexington, the Wasp, and finally the Enterprise.
The fantastic story of this American airman never tapers off. It was just beginning when he left the Navy and joined up with Claire Chennault's Flying Tigers in 1941. Howard returned to China and started operating against the Japs with the AVG.
In 13 months with the Flying Tigers, Howard flew 56 combat missions and was credited with the destruction of six Jap planes. At first he flew as deputy squadron commander under "Scarsdale Jack" Newkirk, one of the most famous of the Flying Tigers, and look command of the outfit after Newkirk was shot down.
As recognition for his work on the staff of Gen. Chow, chief of the Chinese Air Force, and for his work as a pilot, the Chinese government conferred upon Howard two decorations, the White Cloud Banner and the two-star medal of the Chinese Air Force.
He Hates the Japs
"I have a personal hatred for every Jap that I don't feel for the German," Maj. Howard says. "The German's are good fighters. You really have to riddle one of their planes to bring it down, whereas a few hits on a Jap plane will finish it.
"The Japs aren't very good shots either, but they are more alert that the German pilots. The Japs flew different planes, and the formations were different, so it is hard to compare the fighting here with the fighting in China. This is the biggest air offensive center in the world here, and it was on a small scale with Chennault.
"I'll tell you one thing though, you have a better feeling flying over France and Germany in a single-engined plane than you have flying in Burma. You have the feeling you'll get better treatment here if you do go down. Over there once you are shot down you are either lost or in the hands of the Japs."
The men at the base with Maj. Howard know little about him. "He doesn't drink much, plays chess once in awhile and is often studying navigation and technical magazines on aviation," they said.
James Howard is a professional fighter pilot, and at this point any story on his career must end: "To be continued."