Monumental Memories

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 6, 2008

AHOSKIE – “As long as this monument stands, we will have memories of Joe Howard.”

That one statement, made by Ronald Edwards of the Ahoskie High School Class of 1958, aptly summed up a Saturday afternoon ceremony here that honored the life of a man who by many is hailed as the town’s greatest hero.

Hundreds gathered at Ahoskie’s No Man’s Land Park to hear the speeches and watch the unveiling of the Major Joseph C. Howard monument, a beautifully crafted polished grainite stone bearing Howard’s military accomplishments.

Howard, a 1958 graduate of Ahoskie High School and a 1962 graduate of N.C. State University, was a decorated war hero who served in Viet Nam before becoming a member of the famous United States Air Force (USAF) fliers and ambassadors, the Thunderbirds.

In June 1972 in Washington, D.C., Howard lost his life in a Thunderbird aerial demonstration performed before a huge crowd. When his plane experienced mechanical problems, Howard pulled out of formation, away from the spectators, and flew over the woods. In doing so, Howard stayed in the plane long enough to save the audience members below, but lost his own life when the plane exploded and burned his parachute.

On Saturday, one month shy of the 36th anniversary of his death, Howard’s life as a classmate, a friend, a scholar and a man was reopened for all to witness. Several of Howard’s Ahoskie High classmates from 1958 n Zoble Morris (Class President), Carolyn B. Mitchell, Elaine E. Myers, Bill Parker, Doug White and Edwards n were in attendance as well as several former AHS teachers. That made the day a 50th class reunion and a memorial dedication all rolled into one.

USAF Major General (retired) Stan Musser delivered the keynote address. He took pride in informing the audience that Major Howard flew over 300 combat missions in Viet Nam as well as reporting Howard’s 300-plus aerial demonstrations as a member of the famed Thunderbirds.

“Joe Howard was a true American and a tremendous patriot,” Major General Musser said.

The General, who once served with Ahoskie’s hero at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, told the story of Howard being shot down while on a mission over North Viet Nam.

“Joe injured his leg very badly; most thought he would never be able to fly again,” Musser recalled. “But that didn’t stop Joe Howard.”

Musser explained the format of how a pilot is accepted as a Thunderbird. He said upwards to 150 pilots apply annually for two open positions. At the outset of the process, an application is filled out by the prospective team member.

“Joe’s application was amazing to read,” Musser remembered. “There was no doubt that he would become a Thunderbird.”

The General went on to say that Howard was a natural, both in the air and on the ground where, as required by the Thunderbirds, the pilots interacted with the public at air shows, visits to schools and hospitals, etc.

“When he talked to you, he made you feel right at home,” Musser remarked. “I remember on one occasion, the Thunderbirds met with then President (Richard) Nixon. One-by-one, they greeted the President and spent a few brief minutes with him; all but Joe. He spoke with the President for 20 minutes, telling him all about his hometown of Ahoskie. Joe had a charisma that was second to none.”

In closing, Major General Musser compared Howard to the symbol of United States n an eagle, ever soaring on high, ready to attack.

“Joe Howard was a friend, a war hero and a man who gave his life for his country,” Musser concluded. “God bless Joe Howard; God bless America.”

Howard’s widow, Sue, now living in Oklahoma, was unable to attend the ceremony. However, she sent a letter, one read by Myers.

In that letter, Mrs. Howard commended the AHS Class of 1958 for remembering her late husband in this way.

“I remember visiting the USS Arizona Memorial with Joe on a trip to Hawaii,” Mrs. Howard wrote. “As we stood before the plaque which listed the names of all the sailors who died on that ship, Joe said, ‘The reason you are willing to die for your country is because you know that people will remember.’ Now, 36 years after Joe’s death, his classmates are again remembering him.

“From the bottom of my heart, thank you,” the letter closed. “It means so much to our son, John, and to me that Joe’s friends still remember him and want to honor him this way. I have no doubt at all that he is watching and thoroughly enjoying the celebration.”

As the memorial was unveiled, Morris, acting on behalf of the AHS Class of 1958 and the Friends of Joe Howard, formally presented the monument to the Town of Ahoskie, one accepted by Mayor Linda Blackburn.

The monument’s dedication also included a Friday afternoon flyover by two USAF F-22 fighter jets.