Reach out and touch a true hero

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 6, 2008

I never knew Joe Howard.

After learning more about the man, I now envy those who did.

This past Saturday, it was extremely clear the impact this man made on the lives of those he knew and loved, even upon those he never met. Now armed with that knowledge, I could die happy if I had that same respect and love shown towards Joe Howard.

As a young man, no one fired missiles or bullets in my direction, as they did at Joe. I never spent a single day worrying that this may be the last for me on this Earth.

But Joe Howard did. As a United States Air Force jet pilot, he constantly flirted with death, flying daily missions over a hostile North Viet Nam. Even when he was shot down, badly injuring his leg, the last thing on Joe Howard’s mind was quitting. As soon as he recovered, he climbed right back in the cockpit and defended this nation with the highest degree of dignity and respect.

That respect came back a hundred, perhaps a thousand, fold on Saturday of last week. The only sad part was he wasn’t there to accept the accolades he so richly deserved.

Joe Howard graduated from Ahoskie High School in 1958, five short years after I was born. His friends said he longed to fly, a dream that eventually became reality after completing his education in 1962 at NC State University.

Mr. Howard joined the Air Force and learned, perhaps from the seat of his pants, to fly jets. He went on to log over 300 missions during the Viet Nam War, earning numerous medals, including the famed Purple Heart, along the way.

But his love of the freedom of flight failed to stop there. Despite his “country boy n ah shucks” upbringing, it seemed that Joe Howard was a natural fit for the famed US Air Force Thunderbirds – the premier demonstration squadron of the most elite air and space force the world has ever known.

Founded on May 25, 1953, the Thunderbirds are famous for their precision aerial maneuvers that exhibit the capabilities of modern, high performance aircraft and the high degree of professional skill required to operate those state-of-the-art flying machines.

Under the direction of Thunderbird Commander Lt. Col. Tom Swalm, Major Joe Howard joined that elite team in 1971, taking over the right wing position. The team performed 114 shows, including a 30-day tour of the European continent that broke all previous European attendance marks. In one day at Paris, the ’71 Thunderbirds equaled the entire attendance record of the 1967 tour.

Then came that one fateful day on June 4, 1972. It was during the Transpo 72 air show at Dulles International Airport in Washington, DC where Major Joe Howard, flying Thunderbird 3, lost his life. His jet experienced mechanical problems and he steered his aircraft out of formation, away from the spectators, and flew over the woods. It was obvious that Howard was doing so in an effort to prevent his jet from crashing into a huge crowd. He 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. Only a person with a deep love of his fellow man, a vast majority of which he never knew, would have sacrificed his own life in an effort to save others.

The news of Howard’s tragic death shocked the world, most particularly those back in his native Ahoskie. Fortunately for people like me, Howard’s love and dedication to man and country was never forgotten by his former friends and classmates back in Ahoskie.

On Saturday afternoon at No Man’s Land Park in downtown Ahoskie, those same friends and classmates unveiled a beautiful monument in Howard’s honor. The touching ceremony surrounding that unveiling revealed a lot about a man I never knew.

But now I do know Joe Howard and I feel better for having that knowledge.

If you want to see and touch the legacy of a great American hero, please visit the monument.

Cal Bryant is the Editor of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald and Gates County Index. He can be reached via email at