Against the Reich
Howard went through transition training with
the 329th Fighter Group at Glendale, California,
and in May 1943, he joined the 354th at Santa
Rosa, California, then flying Bell P-39s. Upon
sailing to England that fall, however, the 354th
became the first unit flying new Rolls-Royce
Merlin-powered P-51Bs—thus, the name: Pioneer
Col. Martin’s group entered combat from
Boxted, Essex, England, in November 1943.
Although assigned to the 9th Air Force—the
tactical organization intended to support ground
forces in Occupied Europe—the Mustang’s range
and performance commended it to the “Mighty
Eighth.” Therefore, the Pioneer Mustangs flew
long-range bomber escorts for heavy bombers.
The P-51s arrived none too soon. During the
summer and fall of 1943, German fighters and
flak took a fearsome toll of U.S. bombers, to the
point that deep-penetration missions into Reich
skies became problematical. At one point, it had
been statistically impossible for a bomber crew to
survive a 25-mission tour.