James Harding was born on June 27, 1934, in Brookville, Pennsylvania. He was commissioned through the Air Force ROTC program at Penn State University on June 9, 1956, and went on active duty beginning September 23, 1956. Harding graduated from Undergraduate Pilot Training and was awarded his pilot wings in December 1957, and then served as an instructor pilot and aerial demonstration pilot at Lackland AFB, Texas, until September 1962. He flew with the 558th Tactical Fighter Squadron at MacDill AFB, Florida, from September 1962 to July 1963, and then transferred to the 313th Air Division at Kadena AB, Okinawa. Harding served as an Air Liaison Officer, Forward Air Controller, and Special Air Warfare Officer, flying 442 combat missions in Southeast Asia between July 1963 and July 1967. He returned to the U.S. in July 1967 and served as an Instructor with Squadron Officer School at Maxwell AFB, Alabama, until January 1971. Col Harding attended Air Command and Staff College from January to November 1971, and then returned to combat in Southeast Asia as the Commander of the 1st Special Operations Squadron at Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai AFB, Thailand, where he flew another 154 combat missions. He then served with the 23rd Tactical Fighter Wing at England AFB, Louisiana, from November 1972 to November 1973, followed by service at Randolph AFB, Texas, where he served until June 1976. Col Harding then returned to Maxwell AFB, where he served from July 1976 to September 1977. His final assignment was at Shaw AFB, South Carolina, where he served from September 1977 until his retirement from the Air Force on July 31, 1979. After retiring from the Air Force, James served as Commander of several Air Force Junior ROTC detachments in Florida, Hawaii, Germany, Texas, and Italy.
His Air Force Cross Citation reads:
The President of the United States of America, authorized by Section 8742, Title 10, United States Code, awards the Air Force Cross to Major James C. Harding for extraordinary heroism in military operations against an opposing armed force as an A-1 Tactical Fighter Pilot in Southeast Asia from 10 April 1972 to 13 April 1972. During this period, Major Harding was the on-scene commander of an extremely hazardous and complex search and rescue mission that was attempting to recover a downed American pilot who was located in one of the most heavily defended and hostile segments of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in southern Laos. Major Harding made repeated passes at low altitude and airspeed, directly over a hostile gun position, in order to draw antiaircraft fire and pinpoint its position. In spite of battle damage to his aircraft, Major Harding repeatedly counterattacked the numerous heavy gun positions, thereby allowing the vulnerable rescue helicopters to effect a safe and successful recovery of the downed pilot. Through his extraordinary heroism, superb airmanship, and aggressiveness in the face of the enemy, Major Harding reflected the highest credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.