Shortly after the group moved to Boxted, the pilots and ground crews started to get accustomed to the Mustangs, more of these aircraft started to arrive, a few each day. By the last day of November 24, aircraft and crews were combat ready. They flew their first mission the very next day.
Colonel Don Blakeslee had been seconded to the 354th to lead them on their early missions because of his combat experience. On 1st December, 23 P51's led by Don Blakeslee with Col Martin as his wingman, carried out a fighter sweep over St Omer, in the Knocke area of Belgium. They watched the flak come up and all returned safely.
On the 13th December they encountered the enemy for the first time, one P51 was lost and one enemy aircraft hit. Blakeslee’s uncompromising pep-talks made the pilots wonder who they feared most. During the Winter, the pilots found themselves flying on instruments through thick fog. On the 16th December the first enemy aircraft fell to the 354th's guns. On the 5th January 1944 while supporting heavy bombers over Kiel, they were attacked by a gaggle of German fighters, 16 enemy aircraft were destroyed.
On the 11th of February, Ken Martin was involved in a mid-air collision. This was a head-on collision where neither pilot gave way, as they were trained to do. Miraculously, both pilots survived the crash and later met in a German hospital. Both pilots were taken prisoner. James Howard was consequently promoted from Squadron to Group Commander. A veteran of extensive combat against the Japanese over China and Burma, his appointment gave the group a tremendous boost. Howard’s flying skills were legendary, and he was quite a task master. He installed a flying training programme similar to the one he had used in China. This produced an aggressive, finely-tuned squadron. For the next three months, the group was on all the Eighth Air Force's major operations, and went deeper and deeper into Germany escorting B-17's on missions to Berlin, Leipzig, Strasbourg, Schweinfurt and so on.
The 354th pioneered the fighter tactics that were needed to escort large formations over Germany. On 18th April, they had flown their last escort mission for the Eighth. The 354th was the first US unit to be equipped with the P51-B Mustang, hence the "Pioneer Mustang Group". The 354th had the top number of air victories, 701, of any American FG in the ETO, as well as the only Medal of Honour recipient, Col James Howard. The 56th FG had 677 victories and the 353rd mentioned above had 320, but the 354th was the last of these groups to deploy and start operations on December 1st 1943.
11th January 1944
The 354th were escorting the 401st B.G., when Jim Howard found him self alone as he had somehow got separated from the rest of his squadron. He saw 30 to 40 German fighters heading for the bombers. The enemy started to break off and Jim went after them until he ran out of ammunition and was then able to get away in the confusion. Sometime later, by tracing Howard’s aircraft code, the 401st were able to thank him for his actions and recommend him for the medal of honour. The bomber pilots confirmed Howard had destroyed at least six aircraft and damaged others.