PORTLAND, Ore. --
Every person has a birthday, and so do organizations. This year marks the 78th anniversary of the 142nd Wing, which was initially created during the Second World War with the activation of the 371st Fighter Group on July 15, 1943.
The lineage and honors earned of the 371st were retained by the 142d following the 1946 renumbering of the 371st Fighter Group as the 142nd Fighter Group and allotment to the Oregon National Guard. Although the post-war renumbering can be confusing, the lineage and honors of this single organization, albeit renumbered, remain unbroken.
The establishment of any military organization requires planning, staff work, a lot of hard work, sweat and time. So it was for the 371st Fighter Group as it started out in the summer of 1943. The following is a summary of the major events in the group’s establishment from a paper organization to a cohesive combat unit and which prepared it for deployment overseas within the timespan of but seven months.
The group received its start in authorizations put on paper by various headquarters. First and most fundamental, pursuant to the authority contained in HQ I Fighter Command General Orders # 52, 12 June 1943, the 371st Fighter Group and its three fighter squadrons, the 404th, 405th and 406th, activated in Richmond, Virginia at Richmond Army Air Base (RAAB, today’s Byrd Field/Richmond International Airport) on July 15, 1943. Lieutenant Leon Bilstin* was appointed as acting commanding officer (CO) pending the arrival of the permanent commander.
The first personnel assigned to the group were 163 enlisted men and nine officers drafted from the 327th Fighter Group (FG) at RAAB per Special Orders # 194, HQ Philadelphia Air Defense Wing, dated July 13, 1943.
At the time of activation the entire organization, the Group and assigned elements consisted of the personnel transferred from the 327th FG. However, only two officers and 116 men were at Richmond, with the rest on temporary duty at Orlando, Florida going through the Fighter Key Personnel Cadre training course.
In order to begin the assignment of personnel throughout the group, Special Orders # 1, HQ 371st FG, was promulgated on July 15, 1943. For example, the 404th Fighter Squadron (FS) received 53 enlisted men on this date but did not receive any officers until August 9, 1943, per SO # 16, HQ 371st Fighter Group.
The 371st stood up in a corner of the headquarters building belonging to the 327th Fighter Group with Lt. Bilstin as the acting CO and Lt. Julian Lee as the group adjutant. The first of many moves was only four days after activation, when the group and three flying squadrons moved to their own headquarters building at RAAB, Building T-2749, At this time, however, for the purposes of billeting and messing, all personnel were still within 327th FG facilities.
On July 26, after several days of routine daily operations, Captain Edmond A. Goolsbee assumed acting command of the group from Lt. Bilstin.+ His command was short, however, as Lt. Col. (later Col.) Bingham T. “Bing” Kleine arrived the next day and assumed permanent command of the organization. Kleine would lead the group through the rest of World War II. He began active duty service in June, 1934, earned his wings in October, 1935 and trained many aviation cadets at Barksdale and Randolph fields. Lt Col Kleine’s position immediately prior to assignment to command of the 371st FG was as the Commander of the Boston Air Defense Wing.
In this initial period of establishment and organization, the group secured additional training for men assigned. Personnel went hither and yonder to acquire or boost their skill set tailored for the mission and aircraft of the group. For example, engineers (aircraft maintainers today) went on detached service status to Republic Aviation in Farmingdale, Long Island, New York, in order to learn about the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt fighter which the group was assigned to fly. Communications personnel went across base to the 327th Fighter Group area to receive further VHF radio school training.
The organization and operation of a unit mess is key to an organization’s ability to function autonomously. The 404th FS was the first to organize and operate a mess to which the whole group was attached for rations. In less than a month the 404th’s mess hall received a higher rating than any other mess at RAAB from the medical inspector. Col Klein lauded the 404th and hoped that all departments in the unit could attain such a great result.
In mid-August the group obtained motor vehicles, essential in modern Air Forces operations, although Lt. Bilstin was injured in a jeep accident on August 13 on the way back to Richmond with vehicles for the group.
By the end of August the group was at 35% strength with 28 officers and 349 enlisted men assigned. This was sufficient to establish a solid foundation. During September the group outgrew its housing and obtained new barracks as well as use of Building T-3516. When September ended the unit was at roughly 60% of authorized strength.
Acquisition of aircraft was a similar process of building up. The group’s first aircraft, a Vultee BT-13 Valiant trainer, was received on September 22. Prior to then the unit was completely reliant on the 327th FG. The first P-47 arrived the next day, along with 31 new pilots who had to go to the 327th FG for training.
Between September 30 and October 2, the group and its squadrons moved to Camp Springs, Maryland (Joint Base Andrews today). It was there that operational training with P-47 Thunderbolt fighter aircraft began in earnest. But the lack of sufficient administrative personnel and aircraft were holding things back. Having already left Richmond, word soon came at Camp Springs that 15 P-47s for the 371st were now at Richmond ready to be picked up and shortly afterwards were.
The next day, October 8, was the original target date for the group having its full authorization of personnel on hand, 149 officers and 728 enlisted. But only 99 officers and 605 enlisted men were on the roster, and even then, 40% of them were on detached service at various schools and training activities.
In October the number of planes grew from a trickle to a flood. On October 9 the group received five P-47D-11-RE directly from the Republic factory. Three days later 12 more P-47s were transferred to the group from the 361st FG. On October 13 another 10 planes came in from Republic and the group finally had a decent number of aircraft to work with, some 45 combat planes and 2 basic trainers.
These aircraft arrived in time for the startup of operational training, slated for October 15, though bad weather nixed that and created delays in the schedule. Within the next week 14 more P-47sd arrived to boost the resources to work with.
Despite some bad weather, the operational training took off and by November 5, 39% of the flight training was complete. When bad weather impacted flying, ground school filled in with lectures, films and review of new or revised training procedures.
As the group achieved its operational training objectives, parts of the flying squadron were sent from Camp Springs for gunnery training. A detachment of personnel and aircraft was made on November 17 sending both to Millville Army Air Field, New Jersey, for gunnery training. Hundreds of P-47 pilots were to receive gunnery training at Millville during the war.
In late November the 371st received a warning order for movement overseas from the War Department on orders dated November 19. This order translated into the practical realm on December 29, when a pre-Preparation for Overseas Movement (POM) inspection occurred.
By December 31, 1943 gunnery training at Millville was completed and the group was all together again. Little time was available before the POM Inspectors arrived on January 10, 1944 after a week of urgent preparation by group personnel. The inspection went smoothly with no major deficiencies noted or reported as the unit continued to prepare for deployment overseas. The only question at that time was, to where?
Following the POM inspection was a three-day bivouac designed to simulate combat conditions in the field. With this done, operational training was complete and all parts of the group returned to home station at RAAB between January 18 and 20. There at Richmond, personnel prepared for their overseas movement. A regular and intensive physical training program was also pursued. New and replacement clothing was issued, as were small arms.
HQ RAAB Special Orders # 41, February 12, 1944, was the document which sent the 371st on a permanent change of station. On Valentine’s Day 1944, the group entrained and departed at 1500 for Camp Shanks, NY, a trip filled with sleet and rain and which took some 18 hours.
On February 27 the group’s personnel embarked aboard troop transport ship RMS Mauretania and sailed to join the great buildup of American airpower in Europe in the period leading up to D-Day. The 371st FG began combat operations on April 12, 1944, played an important role in six military campaigns and received the Distinguished Unit Citation for actions in Germany, March 15-21, 1945. In addition, the group was cited in the Belgian Army Order of the Day for achievements between June 6 – September 30 1944.
After the war the 371st FG lingered a bit in Europe on occupation duty in Austria before returning to the US east coast where it inactivated on November 10, 1945. All assigned personnel were either discharged or transferred to other units. The group was in this inactive status until May 24, 1946 when it was renumbered as the 142nd Fighter Group and allotted to Oregon as part of the post-war ANG buildup. But July 15, 1943 remains the unit’s birthday.
Today, Airmen of the 142nd Wing can look back over the last 78 years and take pride in the accomplishments the unit has achieved, in World War II, the Korean War, the Cold War and in the expeditionary era we have been in since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Each generation has served proudly and served well to help ensure America has the airpower it needs. Happy Birthday, 142nd Wing!
*Note: Lt., later Capt. Leon Bilstin flew with the 405th and 406th fighter squadrons, and was later transferred to the 362nd Fighter Group. He went Missing in Action and was later declared as Killed in Action during a combat mission on September 28, 1944 flying with the 378th FS. He is remembered on the Tablets of the Missing at the Lorraine Military Cemetery, in St. Avold, France. Leon Bilstin was awarded the Purple Heart and the Air Medal with 11 Oak Leaf Clusters.
+Note: On June 5, 1944, Major Edmond A. “Buster” Goolsbee, Operations Officer of the 406th Fighter Squadron, became the first member of the 371st Fighter Group to be honored with the Purple Heart. He was the first pilot in the group be wounded in action against the enemy, which occurred May 21, 1944, during a “train-busting” mission at Rennes, France.