Howard was on his own when he came across a group of Flying Fortresses that were taking fire from 30 German Luftwaffe fighters. The bombers were trying to return from their mission but it was clear that they would not make it without help. Howard decided to stay with the bombers and do whatever he could to protect the B-17 bombers. Howard would later say that he just decided “to stick around.”
In a 1992 interview he expanded a bit saying that “It was up to me to do it, there were 10-men crews in those bombers and no one else to protect them.” It was supposed to be the mission of all the P-51s to protect the bombers but Howard was separated from his group and knew that he could not rendezvous with them and leave the bomber formation undefended.
For more than 30 minutes Howard defended the bombers from the onslaught of German planes. He attacked them repeatedly, bringing down six planes before ran out of ammunition. Even without ammo, Howard refused to leave the bombers and dived onto the enemy planes to prevent them from being able to bring down the Flying Fortresses. But worse than losing three of his guns, Howard also dipped dangerously low on fuel and still remained with the bomber formation as long as possible. Howard’s dedication ensured that all the bombers were able to land safely in Allied territory.
It wasn’t long before news of Howard’s bravery and determination spread throughout the military. The leader of the bombing formation reported “For sheer determination and guts, it was the greatest exhibition I’ve ever seen. 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.”
It was just a week later that Army Air Forces held a press conference where Major Howard described the attack to dozens of riveted reporters. All the major news organizations picked up the story with True magazine calling Howard the “One Man Air Force.” Howard’s success was credited to him being a typical American pilot and a sensational American airplane. Other fighter pilots during the war could not imagine such bravery. One wrote in his memoirs “An attack by a single fighter on four or five times his own number was not uncommon, but a deliberate attack by a single fighter against thirty-plus enemy fighters without tactical advantage of height or surprise is rare almost to the point of extinction.”