When aviation artist Matthew Waki of Salt Lake City, Utah, decided to take on a subject of legendary proportions for his next big painting, he was determined first to get his facts straight. The legend in question was an air battle that took place over Europe on January 11, 1944, and the man at the center of the legend was the late Gen. James H. Howard '37, then a major leading a group of P-51 Mustangs in escort duty with a division of B-17 Flying Fortresses on a bombing mission into the heart of Germany--a mission that would earn Howard the Congressional Medal of Honor and win him the nickname of "One-Man Air Force" from journalist Andy Rooney, then writing for Stars and Stripes.
Although the mission had become "one of the most famous of World War II and many accounts had been written of it," Waki writes in a booklet accompanying prints of his painting, titled Odds of Valor, "none came close to providing the detail or documentation necessary for an accurate painting." Based on extensive research that included interviews with survivors, exploration of documents in the National Archives, and even examination of Luftwaffe casualty reports, reported crash locations and detailed maps, Waki's finished painting depicts a scene from that famous engagement--the downing of a German Bf-110, the first of Howard's "kills" on that day.
An article from Air Force Magazine describes the action:
"As the division, now in clear weather, approached its target, it came under exceptionally heavy attack by crack Luftwaffe day and night fighters concentrated for the defense of Berlin. Howard released squadrons and flights of his P-51s to defend the bomber stream while he climbed to meet attacks against the lead box of bombers. He immediately shot down a twin-engine Messerschmitt Bf-110 night fighter. After that initial engagement, he found himself alone, confronted by some 30 Luftwaffe fighters whose attacks were centered on the 401st Bombardment Group.
"Rather than waiting to reassemble some of his P-51s, Howard took on the swarm of Bf-109s, FW-190s and Bf 110s single-handed. In a violent, exhausting, climbing, diving melee that lasted for 30 minutes, he shot down three enemy aircraft, scored one probable and damaged at least two others. Howard continued the fight until he was out of ammunition, then broke up enemy attacks on the bombers by diving at incoming fighters until his fuel was dangerously low and there were no more bandits in sight. By that time, the 401st had bombed its target successfully and had begun the long return flight to England. Not one of the group's B-17s was lost during Jim Howard's epic battle against overwhelming odds."
"It's fascinating to me that of all the great American fighter aces fighting against the mighty Luftwaffe, only one was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor," Waki notes. "Calling it unique is almost an understatement. ... Who wouldn't be inspired by such a man?"
Prints of Waki's Odds of Valor may be purchased from Air Art Northwest, a gallery specializing in aviation art in Cornelius, Oregon (www.airartnw.com). --Mark Wood