Birth of the Red Ass Squadron
By 1st Lt. Gabriel M. Bernstein and Capt. Albert D. Fowler
On November 15, 1942, at Hamilton Field, California, the 356th Fighter Squadron was created as a unit of the 354th Fighter Group. Captain Charles C. Johnson, a veteran fighter pilot, who had but recently recovered from wounds received in action at Port Moresby, was appointed Commanding Officer of the unit while its birth was still in the paper stage. The formative weeks at Hamilton Field were spent in a painfully slow, red-taped process of culling membership from schools and organized fighter units from all over the country, and when, on the 20th of January, 1943, the entire Group was sent to a bombing and gunnery range at Tonopah. Nevada, the 356th Squadron had barely attained fifty percent of its required complement. As the remaining strength continued to dribble in, a training program for pilots and enlisted men was put into effect under the capable supervision of Captain Johnson. For most of the men it was a period of transition from theory to practice, and an introduction to the bonds of friendship and acquaintanceship that were to be realized for several years to come. On February 6th, the Squadron felt its first tragedy, in the loss of its Commanding Officer, when Captain Johnson was killed while test-piloting a new P-39 type aircraft. In the few weeks of his command he had won from the squadron a respect and an admiration that were not to be diminished by time and that were to be given to few men after him. His successor, Captain Richard D. Neece, assumed command shortly afterwards and continued the program of training and building the squadron.
James Howard's fame had already preceded him from his days as a pilot in the U. S. Navy and, later as a Squadron Leader of the American Volunteer Group in Burma under General Chennault.
The early, cold months of 1943 were spent on that desert training range, and in the first week of March the squadron, now at full strength, was shipped to Santa Rosa, California to undertake a new phase of training. Lectures, demonstrations, hikes and bivouacs were doled to the men in large quantities, and their minds and bodies were tempered to the conditions anticipated in actual warfare. It was at this time and place, May 24th, at Santa Rosa, that Commanding Officers were once again changed, and Captain Neece was replaced by Captain James H. Howard.
James Howard's fame had already preceded him from his days as a pilot in the U. S. Navy and, later as a Squadron Leader of the American Volunteer Group in Burma under General Chennault. The qualities, both personal and military, which had accorded him this recognition in his previous fields, resulted, from the first days of his new command in a steadying and consolidating influence upon the men, who were still in moldable states of military life.
Salem to Colchester
On June 3rd the squadron was moved again and this time to Salem, Oregon, where it was put through the entire combination of training phases it had experienced at the last two fields. But this time the outfit was separated from its parent unit, and the policy of isolation was found to be favorable in several respects. If forced the organization to become self-sufficient and independent of the need of constant and close supervision, and it bred within the squadron the sense of individuality which was to become a marked factor in its eventual success as a fighter unit. Three months at this field keyed the men to a raw-nerved pitch of eagerness and expectation, and in that ill-contained spirit they were moved to Camp Kilmer, an East Coast Embarkation point, where they were examined, stenciled and stamped for shipment overseas. The two weeks aboard H.M.S. Athlone Castle will remain forever in the minds of the men as a symbol of the rigors of war, and if was a beaten an exhausted squadron that set foot on a Liverpool dock in early November 1943.
Lt.Col. James H. Howard, a former Flying Tiger with Chennault's American Volunteer Group in 1941, and commanding officer of the 356th FS single-handedly defended B-17s of the 401st BG, northwest of Halberstadt, Germany. Howard was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor (MOH) for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty in action. The only fighter pilot in the European Theater of Operations to be awarded the MOH.
At Colchester, England, the 354th Group was the first in the ETO to be presented with the P-51 Mustang which was to be its vehicle to fame, and from which if derived its formal title of the Pioneer Mustang Group. From that place, also, actual long-range combat missions to Germany were begun, and the Red Ass Squadron, so christened in honor of what might be termed an industrial affliction suffered by the pilots on the long-range missions, immediately began laying the foundation for the enviable record if was to enjoy throughout the war.
Howard Appointed New 354th Fighter Group C.O.
356th Fighter Squadron Historical Records - 12 Febuary 1944
On the afternoon of the 12th a pilot's meeting was held in the officer’s lounge and as the height of conversation rose General Quesada unexpectedly came in and the group came to a surprise attention. Wasting no time, and mincing no words, the General expressed regret over the death of Colonel Martin*, and praising the fine work done under him, told the pilots to keep on with their splendid record under the new C.O. whom he would now appoint, and beaming at Jim Howard who sat in the front row. He turned, saying, “O.K., Colonel Howard, I'll pin these on, myself”, and produced a pair of silver leaves. Howard stood up, his thin frame erect, and with a shy, half-embarrassed smile lighting up his spare features, faced the General while Quesada and Colonel McCauley each removed his gold leaves to replace them with the silver. Facing the pilots, Howard made a simple and eloquent speech, asking the men to bear with him, and thanking them for their cooperation which he was sure to receive. Speaking slowly, his words reached every man in the room, and surely as one man, they felt a glow of pride and loyalty having him as a C.O., who has proved his worth over again. “…. I hope I have appealed to your minds, if not, then to your hearts…” A wave of warm applause swept the room as Colonel Howard, C.O. of the 354th Fighter Group, took his seat. “Big Jim's” squadron-days were over.
With the appointment of Howard as group C.O., Dick Turner was simultaneously called as C.O. of the squadron. A better choice of man could not possibly have been made. Turner was one of the few men who could wrangle with Howard and get away with it. Sounding off in a free fashion when arouse, he was a marked contrast to Howard who would tighten up like a claw. Handsome, blue eyed dick was accepted as C.O. by the rest of the pilots as a matter of course for it had been assume that he would be a C.O some day, ever since he had been appointment operations officer of the squadron. It was no longer Dick, but Captain Turner, and pride was evident in his manner when he walked into Howard’s old office and sat down at the desk vacated by the “Old Man”. Turner’s policy was to keep the squadron running at its high level of efficiency with little executive interference, and assumed his duties in the natural order of things, with no dramatic stick shaking. It had not been too long ago that he had been out on the football field absorbed in his favorite sport, for in his college days Dick had “majored” in football, and during the autumn season last year had followed the games with keen interest. Playing in the varsity during his college days had sharpen his appetite for the sport, but now he was playing another game…. a game far more grim and significant then the ones previously - where the scores were tallied in lives, and the stakes of victory or defeat were awesome in magnitude. But it was on the playing fields of earlier days that helped to shape men in preparation for the bigger struggle to come, and his he sat in Howard’s chair, he was a physical symbol of his pledge to keep this one of the best squadrons in the Air Force.
* Word that Col. Martin survived the mid-air collision with an enemy aircraft was not known until weeks later.
On January 11th, James Howard, then a Major, provoked further acclaim from an already respectful world by engaging in a one-man attack on a group of thirty enemy aircraft that were jeopardizing the safety of a box of bombers under his protection. The attack would have been phenomenally successful if he had succeeded only in driving the enemy aircraft from the vicinity, but he ensured for himself a place in the legends of warfare by accounting for six of the planes before his ammunition was exhausted and he was forced to retire from the attack. It was not long after that spectacular achievement that the 356th was deprived of the honor and prestige of his direct command, for on February 12th, Lt. Colonel Martin, the Commanding Officer of the Group, collided with an enemy aircraft and went down over Germany and James Howard was promoted to Lt. Colonel and put in Command of the Group. Captain Richard E. Turner, one of the original pilots of the 356th was appointed Commanding Officer of the Squadron and very soon proved himself a fitting substitute for the man whose place he had taken. Like his predecessor, Captain Turner's claim to the right to command a fighter unit was evinced by his record of missions flown and enemy aircraft destroyed, for they stood as a tribute and testimonial to his qualities of ability and leadership in combat. And, also like Major Howard, his rule of the squadron was gentle but firm and, most valuable of all, just.