Ken Harbaugh tells the stories of service members who have distinguished themselves through an act of valor. These stories feature recipients from the Civil War to present day, including a few who were originally overlooked for the medal.
Howard led a long career as a pilot, serving in multiple branches of the military and across several conflicts. His flying skills quickly led him to become a squadron leader and Ace. Howard won the Medal of Honor in 1944 defending American bombers from German attacks.
Welcome to the Medal of Honor podcast, brought to you in partnership with the National Medal of Honor Museum. I’m Ken Harbaugh. In each episode, we’ll learn about a different service member who has distinguished him or herself through an act of valor.
For Lieutenant Colonel James Howard, flying was an inseparable part of who he was. His long record of service spanned three branches, two nations, and both theaters of World War II.
Howard was born in China and spent the first 14 years of his life in Guangzhou, where his father taught eye surgery. They eventually moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where Howard attended high school. Graduating from Pomona College in California, Howard joined the Navy as an aviation cadet in 1937. Six months before the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor, he left the Navy and joined the American Volunteer Group of the Republic of China Air Force.
Before the US entered the war, the American Volunteer Group, known as the Flying Tigers, fought the Japanese Empire in the skies over China. Howard’s stint with the Flying Tigers was short, lasting only a year, yet he proved himself and became a squadron leader. The group disbanded as the US entered the war against the Axis Powers.
Howard then joined the Army Air Corps and found himself leading the 356th Fighter Squadron flying out of Great Britain. His experience dogfighting the Japanese, and his status as an Ace, was represented by the six rising suns painted on his Mustang fighter. The fighters’ mission was simple: protect the bombers on their raids against Germany.
On January 11th, 1944, Howard was the flight lead for three squadrons escorting roughly 650 bombers attacking factories in Oschersleben and Halberstadt. After the bombing run, 500 Luftwaffe fighters intercepted the Allied formation. Howard spotted a lone B-17 bomber under attack by some 30 German fighters. Without hesitation, he rushed in to shake them off. One enemy plane had its sights on the B-17 before Howard destroyed it. In 30 minutes, he destroyed three more enemy fighters, even as all but one of his Mustang’s guns jammed. The rest of the Luftwaffe fighters withdrew and the 16 men aboard the B-17 lived to see another day.
One of the B-17 group leaders, Major Allison Brooks, said this of Howard’s actions: “For sheer determination and guts, it was the greatest exhibition I’d ever seen,”. When LtCol. Howard received the Medal of Honor in June 1944, he made sure to pay tribute to the other pilots that exhibited similar courage but did not make it back. He said, "I felt that in some sense, I was a symbol for all those whose actions were overlooked and unrecognized, even though they may have given their lives,”. Howard transferred to the U.S. Air Force upon its creation and retired in 1966 as a Brigadier General in the Air Force Reserve. He lived to be 81 years old, passing away in 1995. Howard was the only fighter pilot to be awarded the Medal of Honor in Europe.
The Medal of Honor podcast is a production of Evergreen Podcasts.
Declan Rohrs is our producer, León Pescador is our associate producer, Nathan Corson is our engineer, and I’m Ken Harbaugh.
We are proud to support the National Medal of Honor Museum. To learn more, and to support their mission, go to mohmuseum.org. Thanks for listening.