by Barrett Tillman
It really was possible to be lonely in a crowd. His was the only Mustang in a crowd of Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulfs. Minutes previously, he had had been leading the 356th Fighter Squadron; now he was the lone defender of a box of heavy bombers deep in German airspace.
On January 11, 1944, the Eighth Air Force sent 650 “heavies” to the Brunswick area; the First Air Division was to bomb the Oschersleben FW 190 factory, 140 miles west-southwest of Berlin. Many groups aborted because of weather, but the Oschersleben region was clear under an overcast. Forty-nine P-51Bs from all three squadrons of the 354th Fighter Group provided target support for the 174 Boeing B-17s attacking Oschersleben.
It had happened so fast. Somebody—the pilot did not give his call sign—had spotted bandits climbing to intercept the Fortresses. Pragmatism ruled in the 354th Group: Whoever made the first sighting took the lead. Col. Kenneth R. Martin, the 27-year-old commander of the “Pioneer Mustangs,” insisted on tactics over protocol.
Howard’s squadron was cruising just below the overcast at 17,000 feet. The anonymous young pilot who had seen the Staffeln of 109s and 110s clawing for position to attack the bombers called, “Go down and get the bastards!”
Recalled Lt. Col. Richard E. Turner, then a 356th flight leader, “The voice sounded enough like Major Howard’s to satisfy us.” As the CO nosed down, he was overtaken by a squadron of youngsters eager to exploit their altitude advantage.
Air discipline vaporized. Without awaiting proper procedure, the entire 354th Group shoved over. Howard pulled up to avoid a collision. He was largely on his own.
Because all three squadrons had jumped on the vulnerable Messerschmitts, Howard realized that the “big friends” were unprotected. Therefore, he led his four-plane flight back to the bombers’ level, providing miniature escort to dozens of B-17s. In the next few minutes, he was going to have more shooting than he wanted.
To read the article from the October 2017 issue of Flight Journal, click here.