It was seventy years ago now, on July 15th, 1943, that the 371st Fighter Group was activated at Richmond Army Air Base in Virginia, “…pursuant to authority contained in General Order #52, Headquarters I Fighter Command, dated 12 June 1943.” The huge wartime buildup of American airpower for combat in a global conflict was well underway at that time. As such, the 371st Fighter Group’s existence began rather modestly.
On this date of activation, the unit was temporarily commanded by First Lieutenant Leon Bilstin. As the acting commander, his newly established unit numbered nine officers and 165 enlisted men, and no assigned aircraft. Of those assigned at activation on July 15, seven officers and 49 enlisted men were off station on detached service at the Fighter Key Personnel Cadre Course in Orlando, Florida. The group’s full complement would eventually number some 149 officers, 728 enlisted men and over seventy P-47 Thunderbolt aircraft, according to the pertinent table of organization and equipment for a single-engine fighter group.
The new group set up its first headquarters in a corner of the 327th Fighter Group’s headquarters building. Scant days later, the group moved for the first time, on July 19, to building T-2743. A week later, on July 26, Captain Edmund A. Goolsbee replaced Lt. Bilstin as acting commander.
But the ”Big Wheel” arrived the next day, July 27, when Lt. Col. Bingham Trigg “Bing” Kleine became the 371st Fighter Group’s first and only wartime commander, assumed command. He was from Gonzales, Texas; married, father of one. Col. Kleine was a Regular Army officer, and an experienced senior pilot, having earned his wings at Randolph Field in October, 1935. He was fresh from a brief command of the Boston Air Defense Wing, and quickly brought his vast experience to bear in building up the group. In less than eight months the 371st Fighter Group would be trained, deployed, and in place in England, ready to engage in aerial combat with the enemy over Northwestern Europe.
But it all began on July 15, 1943. So on this occasion, we render a hand salute to the members of the 371st Fighter Group – Happy Birthday!