Quadru­ple PTO Ace—KIA

Robert “Westy” West­brook

Flight Journal - - CONTENTS - By Steve Blake

Makas­sar Bay, Celebes, Novem­ber 22, 1944. P-38 pi­lots of the 347th Fighter Group are straf­ing some Ja­pa­nese ships. Two of them tar­get what turns out to be a heav­ily armed gun­boat. Al­though the ves­sel is se­ri­ously dam­aged in the ex­change of gun­fire, so is the lead P-38—its right en­gine bursts into flame. The Light­ning lev­els out as though it is go­ing to at­tempt a wa­ter land­ing but then slams nose first into the sea, killing its pi­lot, Lt. Col. Robert West­brook.

Hero at the Be­gin­ning

Robert Bur­dette West­brook Jr. was born in Los An­ge­les on Novem­ber 9, 1917, and at­tended Hol­ly­wood High School, where he was an ROTC cadet cap­tain. It was fit­ting that he was raised in the world’s cin­ema cap­i­tal as he had movie-star good looks and a per­son­al­ity to match. As­so­ci­ated Press war cor­re­spon­dent Fred Hamp­son wrote about West­brook that he “is some­times re­ferred to as the Ado­nis of the 13th fight­ers. He is one of very few pi­lots who looks like the movie ver­sion—tall, hand­some, mus­tached, debonair.” At six foot two, he was con­sid­er­ably taller than the av­er­age fighter pi­lot.

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from high school, Bob at­tended UCLA and joined the Cal­i­for­nia Na­tional Guard, with which he was com­mis­sioned as a sec­ond lieu­tenant. His unit was called to ac­tive duty (fed­eral ser­vice) in March 1941, but he had al­ways wanted to be a pi­lot, so he ap­plied for Air Corps flight train­ing later that year and was ac­cepted. He was awarded his wings with Class 42-G at Luke Field, Ari­zona, on July

26, 1942, and then or­dered to Hawaii. On Au­gust 15, he joined the P-40 Warhawk–equipped 44th Fighter Squadron of the 18th Fighter Group at Bel­lows Field on Oahu, with which he was soon be­ing ad­dressed by his new nick­name, “Westy.”

He was pro­moted to first lieu­tenant in Oc­to­ber, and on the 20th of that month, the squadron’s pi­lots and ground crews were trans­ported to the South Pa­cific is­land of New Cale­do­nia. Shortly there­after, its P-40s ar­rived at the port of Espir­itu Santo, north of New Cale­do­nia in the New He­brides. When the planes were op­er­a­tional, the pi­lots flew them from Espir­itu to their new base on the nearby is­land of Efate.

The 44th FS be­came part of the 13th Air Force when it was ac­ti­vated on Jan­uary 13, 1943. A week later, its pi­lots flew their planes to Guadal­canal in the Solomon Is­lands, from which they be­gan fly­ing com­bat mis­sions.

The Fight Be­gins

The squadron en­gaged the enemy for the first time on the morn­ing of Jan­uary 27, when 10 P-40s, six P-38 Light­nings of the 339th FS, and a dozen U.S. Marine Corps F4F Wild­cats were scram­bled to in­ter­cept a Ja­pa­nese Navy Air Force raid on Guadal­canal com­prised of nine Mit­subishi G4M “Betty” bombers es­corted by 30 Mit­subishi A6M “Zeros.”

Two of the Warhawks were shot down by Zeros as they clawed for al­ti­tude, as were two of the P-38s. The re­main­ing P-40s downed five of the enemy fight­ers (one of them by West­brook), prob­a­bly de­stroyed two, and dam­aged an­other. The P-38s were cred­ited with three de­stroyed and one prob­a­ble Zeros and the Wild­cats with two de­stroyed.

Westy’s plane was also hit, where­upon he dove away to evade an­other pass by the Zeros. As he climbed back up into the fight, he spot­ted three of them that had ev­i­dently not seen him, turned into one of them, and fired. It burst into flame and crashed into the sea.

On Fe­bru­ary 13, seven P-40s and four P-38s es­corted some B-24 Lib­er­a­tors to Bougainville Is­land. Three of the Warhawks and two Light­nings turned back, leav­ing just six Amer­i­can fight­ers to deal with sev­eral dozen Zeros that were cov­er­ing the tar­geted ships. The P-40 pi­lots shot down four and prob­a­bly de­stroyed two others, but two of them also went down. The P-38 pi­lots de­stroyed two Zeros, but only one of them re­turned to Fighter Two (Kukum Field), the air­field for them and the 44th FS. Three of the B-24s were also lost. Westy, who scored one of the con­firmed vic­to­ries and a prob­a­ble, was awarded a Sil­ver Star for this mis­sion.

On April 14, the 44th was re­united on Guadal­canal with the 18th FG, which had moved to the South Pa­cific the pre­vi­ous month. Since ar­riv­ing on “the ’Canal,” the squadron had been un­der the op­er­a­tional con­trol of the 13th’s other fighter group, the 347th.

Westy re­ceived his pro­mo­tion to cap­tain in early May. He saw his next air com­bat on June 7, when 40+ Zeros head­ing for Guadal­canal were in­ter­cepted by an equal num­ber of Warhawks, Wild­cats, and Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) Kit­ty­hawks (Lend-Lease P-40s).

Af­ter mak­ing a pass at the Warhawks, a pair of Zeros pulled up sharply and West­brook took a shot at one of them, which “blew up.” He then shot an­other Zero off the tail of a P-39 Aira­co­bra; he saw his trac­ers flash­ing along its fuse­lage and pieces fall­ing off as it went down.

The Amer­i­can and New Zealand fight­ers claimed 23 Zeros de­stroyed, eight of which were cred­ited to the 44th FS (two of them to West­brook), plus five prob­a­bles. On the debit side, a 44th FS P-40 and 10 other Al­lied air­craft were lost.

Westy be­came the squadron’s first ace on

June 12, when he claimed one of the three Zeros shot down by his flight near the Rus­sell Is­lands, north­west of Guadal­canal. Later that month, he was pro­moted to ma­jor.

He scored his last vic­to­ries with the P-40 on

July 1, when the 44th racked up 16 kills while pro­tect­ing Al­lied ships that were sup­port­ing the land­ings on the is­land of New Ge­or­gia and nearby Ren­dova Is­land—along with some Wild­cats and Kit­ty­hawks—from at­tack by a large for­ma­tion of “Vals” (Aichi D3A dive-bombers) es­corted by Zeros. His share was a “Hap” (“clipped-wing” A6M3) and a “Zeke” (A6M2). Westy sub­mit­ted a de­tailed re­port on this mis­sion:

“Upon ac­cu­rate warn­ing from [con­troller] Vega (who sent my flight up) we spot­ted some 10-12 dive bombers and 15 or so Zeros a few thou­sand feet above and south of Ren­dova. We dropped our belly tanks, poured on the coal and con­tin­ued climb­ing. Saw the dive bombers peel off so gave the gang a ‘tally-ho’ warn­ing on the ra­dio and started down. The flight was ech­e­loned to the left in the dive and we were nearly on the bombers when my wind­shield fogged up. I pulled up in a wing-over to the left, wip­ing my wind­shield and canopy off as best I could (later found that my wing­man was picked off at this point and my el­e­ment con­tin­ued af­ter the bombers, which I’d over­shot), and then lo­cated the dive bombers down to my left scoot­ing over the wa­ter. I went down af­ter them but they were ei­ther all burn­ing or some friendly plane was se­curely latched onto their tail.

“The Zeros were out of the fight milling around to­gether, seem­ingly wait­ing for us to fin­ish off the dive bombers. I called my flight and Lt. [Elmer] Wheadon, telling them to start climb­ing for al­ti­tude af­ter me. An op­por­tu­nity pre­sented it­self and I went into the edge of the Zeros, get­ting one and pulling out just below the other P-40s, who were now mix­ing it up. I climbed back in, hunt­ing for my wing­man, think­ing he was per­haps with Wheadon, joined with an F4F and tan­gled again, this time with neg­a­tive re­sults. Pulled up again, lev­eled in and took a Zero head-on from an

F4F, heard the F4F say, rather peeved, ‘nice work 40!’ Nearly out of am­mu­ni­tion and low on fuel, I joined with Lt. [Charles] Sacket (from Wheadon’s flight) and ren­dezvoused with the other P-40s.”

Three of the squadron’s Warhawks were lost. The Kit­ty­hawks and Wild­cats were cred­ited with 12 de­stroyed.

En­ter the Light­nings

West­brook as­sumed com­mand of the 44th FS on Septem­ber 25. It traded in its P-40s—with which it had scored 125 con­firmed vic­to­ries—for P-38s in Novem­ber, but its C.O. got a big head start on that tran­si­tion. Westy had al­ready learned to fly the Light­ning and had flown his first com­bat mis­sion in one with the 339th FS on Oc­to­ber 10.

This was a B-24 es­cort flown by 16 P-38s from the new Al­lied air base at Munda on

New Ge­or­gia to the enemy air­field at Kahili on Bougainville, dur­ing which 15 Zeros at­tacked the bombers, shoot­ing one down. West­brook then de­stroyed one of them and shared an­other, cred­ited as prob­a­bly de­stroyed, with the 339th’s leader, Capt. Bill Har­ris, on whose wing he was fly­ing. Har­ris, who ended up as the 13th AF’s sec­ond-ranked ace, with 15 1/2 kills, was cred­ited with three of them in this ac­tion, for which the to­tal was 10 enemy air­craft de­stroyed and four prob­a­bly de­stroyed. He later re­called his wing­man’s par­tic­i­pa­tion:

“West­brook stayed on my wing tip like he was glued there, and to­gether we shot down some of the most ag­gres­sive Ja­pa­nese fighter pi­lots I had en­coun­tered to date. Nat­u­rally, as flight leader, I got the first shot and knocked three off [an] iso­lated bomber the first time I fired on them. A fourth [the shared prob­a­ble] was smok­ing and passed in front of West­brook, and he hit it dead cen­ter. There was an­other ‘Nip’ just above me and I couldn’t pull up or turn suf­fi­ciently to get in a burst. I didn’t have to worry about that, for West­brook pulled his nose up, tilted his right wing tip up higher, got the Zero in his sights and shot it out of the sky.”

It was around this time that the 44th’s per­son­nel chose a new name for it: “Vam­pire Squadron.” It had con­verted to Light­nings in time to uti­lize them in the cli­mac­tic aerial cam­paign against the in­fa­mous Ja­pa­nese strong­hold of Rabaul on the is­land of New Bri­tain. Both of the 13th AF’s P-38 squadrons were now op­er­at­ing from the for­ward air­fields at Munda and on Stir­ling Is­land, just south of Bougainville.

A String of Vic­to­ries

Start­ing with De­cem­ber 23, Westy would score on three con­sec­u­tive days, all mis­sions of which were flown from Munda. On the 23rd, 27 Vam­pire Squadron P-38s, along with three Marine F4U squadrons, es­corted Lib­er­a­tors to Rabaul. As the bombers came off their tar­gets, the Laku­nai and Vu­nakanau air­fields, they were at­tacked by 60+ Zeros. West­brook’s was the sole P-38 flight to en­gage them, and only he and his wing­man, 2nd Lt. Ray­mond Fou­quet, scored in the en­su­ing fight. The mis­sion re­port de­scribes what hap­pened af­ter Fou­quet shot down one of the Zeros:

“Ma­jor West­brook, with a Zero on his tail, was em­ploy­ing eva­sive ac­tion with no suc­cess un­til this Jap pi­lot saw Lt. Fou­quet flame [his] Zero, at which time he peeled off and van­ished. Ma­jor West­brook, pulling up to re­join the for­ma­tion, saw an­other Zero in front of him and gave it a long burst. The Zero went down spi­ral­ing in flames. Ma­jor West­brook then ob­served a Zero on Lt. Ge­orge Con­der’s tail, fir­ing. He made a pass at it, gave it a long burst and ob­served trac­ers en­ter the fuse­lage. The Zero peeled off smok­ing but was not seen to flame or crash.” (The lat­ter was cred­ited to him as dam­aged.)

The Marines scored 18 kills for the loss of three Cor­sairs, and the B-24 gun­ners claimed six more Zeros.

The fol­low­ing day, 17 of the squadron’s pi­lots

ac­com­pa­nied the Lib­er­a­tors to the same two air­fields. Af­ter the bomb­ing, they es­corted them to a safe dis­tance on the way home and then re­turned to Rabaul to hunt for Zeros. They got into a big fight with two dozen of them and were cred­ited with eight con­firmed and two prob­a­ble vic­to­ries, with­out loss. Westy was cred­ited with four of the for­mer, two of which were shared. Ac­cord­ing to the mis­sion re­port:

“At 1330 hours, Ma­jor West­brook saw a sin­gle Zeke 1,000 feet below and dived to at­tack—his fire brought smoke from the Zero and Lt. Howard Cleve­land fin­ished it in flames. Ma­jor West­brook promptly turned onto an­other enemy plane and ex­ploded it, then im­me­di­ately smoked a third which was flamed by Lt. By­ron Bow­man. A few sec­onds later a flight of three Zekes was ob­served—Ma­jor West­brook picked one, dived on it, fired a medium burst and the Zero went down flam­ing.”

Christ­mas Day found the 44th FS’s P-38s again pro­vid­ing top cover for B-24s bomb­ing Rabaul, with RNZAF Kit­ty­hawks and Marine Cor­sairs below them. The mis­sion re­port states:

“Ma­jor West­brook saw 18 Zekes al­most over the town of Rabaul—about half of these peeled off to at­tack the bombers. The others broke up and started away from our planes. Ma­jor West­brook picked out the third Zero from the left and pur­sued it; it made a 180-de­gree turn and he sent

sev­eral bursts to­ward it, see­ing his trac­ers go into the fuse­lage. The Zeke, as it com­pleted the turn, went into a shal­low dive—Ma­jor West­brook fol­lowed, fir­ing un­til he was over on his back, then saw flames and black smoke come from the Zeke’s en­gine cowl­ing. Pulling up, with F/O [Flight Of­fi­cer] Rex A. By­ers on his wing, he fired at sev­eral in­di­vid­ual Zeros with­out ob­serv­ing re­sults.”

Ev­ery Fight Was a Hard One

The mis­sion re­port con­tin­ues: “Ap­proach­ing Duke of York Is­land, one Zero came around onto By­ers’ tail—Ma­jor West­brook pulled up in the rear, fired and saw it go down in a slow spi­ral, then spin, smok­ing heav­ily and shed­ding pieces. At this point F/O By­ers shot one Zero off Ma­jor West­brook’s tail, and the lat­ter saw both enemy planes make splashes in the sea to the east of Duke of York Is­land. At the com­ple­tion of this ac­tion, Ma­jor West­brook’s left en­gine started burn­ing. He saw F/O By­ers turn away from him and go into a cloud over Duke of York Is­land, pur­sued by three Zekes, his right en­gine smok­ing and leak­ing Pre­stone.

“In striv­ing to reach the clouds, Ma­jor West­brook, now at­tacked by sev­eral Zekes, was joined by an F4U, which dis­persed the enemy planes. Ma­jor West­brook cut all switches, the fire in the right en­gine was some­how ex­tin­guished, and he re­turned to Barakoma [the Marine air­field on the is­land of Vella Lavella] and landed at 1430 hours.”

By­ers and an­other 44th Squadron pi­lot were miss­ing in ac­tion, against four con­firmed kills— two of them by West­brook. The Marine pi­lots claimed eight Zekes and Hamps de­stroyed for the loss of one Cor­sair. Westy later de­scribed the De­cem­ber 25 ac­tion as “the worst scrap I was ever in.” He was awarded a Dis­tin­guished Ser­vice Cross for these three mis­sions.

On Jan­uary 6, 1944, 16 Vam­pire Light­nings took off from Stir­ling and joined up with 56 Cor­sairs and U.S. Navy F6F Hell­cats for a fighter sweep to Rabaul. Al­though all the P-38s made it to the tar­get through some bad weather, none of the

F6Fs and only eight of the F4Us did. They ran into three dozen Zeros near the Rapopo Air­field, and in the fight that en­sued, the P-38 pi­lots were cred­ited with nine de­stroyed and five prob­a­bly de­stroyed for the loss of two of their own. The Marine pi­lots claimed two and lost one. West­brook’s share was a con­firmed and a prob­a­ble. He re­ported:

“We had a tough time of it and I tried to get the flight out, but as my ra­dio was bad couldn’t con­tact them. We went al­most to Laku­nai, fight­ing all the way. The longer we stayed the more they

came, so near Laku­nai we did a 180° and fought our way to Cape Gazelle. I ob­served a P-38 in a steep dive, which ex­ploded when it hit the wa­ter.

“A few sec­onds af­ter we reached Cape Gazelle I made a head-on pass at a Zeke and it started smok­ing badly. I couldn’t ob­serve if it went down. I then saw a plane mak­ing a 60° to 90° pass on a P-38. I started to­wards it and he came head-on to­wards me. I fired a burst into him and he burst into flames and went down. I ob­served five to six splashes in the wa­ter and saw three planes burn­ing on the north­west shore be­tween Rapopo and Laku­nai on Blanche Bay.”

The con­firmed kill brought his to­tal to 15, seven of them with P-40s and eight while fly­ing P-38s.

A Well-Earned Pro­mo­tion

The Jan­uary 6 mis­sion was West­brook’s last with the 44th FS. Two weeks later, he was back home on a 30-day leave. He then re­turned to Guadal­canal and, in May, was ap­pointed Deputy C.O. of the 347th FG and pro­moted to lieu­tenant colonel.

The 347th was then based on Stir­ling Is­land, but it moved to Sansapor, on the western tip of New Guinea, in Au­gust and then to nearby Mid­dle­burg Is­land in Septem­ber. The group’s main task was to fly seven-hour sweeps to enemy air­fields on the is­land of Celebes and de­stroy as many air­craft and as much other ma­teriel as pos­si­ble, in the air and on the ground.

On these mis­sions, Westy shot down five Ja­pa­nese Army Air Force fight­ers—all of them Naka­jima Ki-43 “Os­cars.” They in­cluded one near the air­field at Ken­dari on Septem­ber 25 and an­other five days later near the Boroboro Air­drome (A/D). On Oc­to­ber 23, he was cred­ited with three of them over the Boeloe­dowang A/D near Makas­sar. He nailed one Os­car at 2,000 feet and the other two on the deck right af­ter they took off. He also de­stroyed one on the ground by straf­ing as it was about to take off.

The West­brook Saga Ends

The 347th FG was awarded a Dis­tin­guished Unit Ci­ta­tion for three sim­i­lar mis­sions in Novem­ber. The last of these was flown on the 22nd by two squadrons, the 68th and the 339th, led by West­brook, who was fly­ing with the lat­ter. They spot­ted a con­voy in Makas­sar Bay and pro­ceeded to de­stroy or heav­ily dam­age 13 ves­sels by straf­ing. The cost was high, how­ever, as three of the Light­nings were shot down by the an­ti­air­craft fire em­a­nat­ing from the ships. One of them, P-38J-20 se­rial num­ber 44-23394, was flown by West­brook. His wing­man, Lt. Si­mon Snider, re­ported what hap­pened:

“West­brook and I were in high-speed dives, fir­ing all guns as we de­scended to­ward the boat he had se­lected. I could see our fire was tearing chunks out of the boat’s decks and su­per­struc­ture. Our tar­get turned out to be a de­coy barge and was, in­stead, a gun­boat. Enemy fire was com­ing di­rectly at us with in­ten­sity I had never seen be­fore. Even so, West­brook stayed on tar­get, and our com­bined fire si­lenced all the decks guns be­fore we passed over the boat. West­brook’s right en­gine was burn­ing. Ap­par­ently the Ja­pa­nese gun­ners were fo­cused on him. As we streaked past the boat West­brook was feath­er­ing his prop and try­ing to put the fire out. Ma­jor [John] En­dress [C.O. of the 339th FS] ra­dioed for him to take pre­ven­ta­tive ac­tion, and West­brook replied that he thought he had ev­ery­thing un­der con­trol. His P-38 lev­eled out as if he was go­ing to make a wa­ter land­ing. There was a lot of smoke pour­ing out of his cock­pit. Sud­denly, his plane turned its nose down and slammed into the wa­ter, break­ing into many pieces. Other P-38s in our group buzzed the crash site and ob­served frag­ments of his plane’s tail sec­tion and an open para­chute in the de­bris, but West­brook was not vis­i­ble.”

Thus died the 13th AF’s lead­ing ace—and one of its most pop­u­lar lead­ers—at the age of 27. Westy’s re­mains were never re­cov­ered, and his name ap­pears on one of the Tablets of the Miss­ing at the Manila Amer­i­can Ceme­tery. His fi­nal score in the air was 20 de­stroyed, 2 1/2 prob­a­bly de­stroyed, and 1 dam­aged. His dec­o­ra­tions in­clude a Dis­tin­guished Ser­vice Cross, two Sil­ver Stars, two Dis­tin­guished Fly­ing Crosses, and 16 Air Medals. He flew an amaz­ing to­tal of 367 com­bat mis­sions.

A quote from one of West­brook’s in­ter­views sums up his con­tri­bu­tions: “With us, no pi­lot goes up on a pedestal just be­cause he shoots down a bunch of Japs. We aren’t su­per­men. We’re a team. When one of us hits the jack­pot, it is partly luck in be­ing in the right spot at the right time, but mainly the work your wing­men and the other boys do in pro­tect­ing your tail.”

Well said.

“With us, no pi­lot goes up on a pedestal just be­cause he shoots down a bunch of Japs. We aren’t su­per­men. We’re a team.”

Robert West­brook scored 13 of his 20 vic­to­ries in the P-38. (Photo by John Dibbs/planepic­ture.com) Guadal­canal, April 1943:1st Lt. Robert West­brook and his P-40M. (Photo cour­tesy of Jack Cook)

Al­though the P-40s West­brook flew at Guadal­canal were not as ma­neu­ver­able as the Zeros, they were more durable and pi­lots learned to cap­i­tal­ize on their strong points. Six of West­brook’s seven kills in the P-40 were Zeros. (Photo cour­tesy of Steve Blake)

The P-38 was unique in that it used a con­trol yoke, rather than a joy­stick, as is usual with fight­ers. (Photo cour­tesy of the U.S. Air Force)

Lt. Col. West­brook poses with his P-38, Florida Thrush, on Mid­dle­burg Is­land shortly af­ter scor­ing his 16th vic­tory on Septem­ber 25, 1944. He named the plane af­ter singer/ ac­tress Frances Lang­ford, with whom he had be­come friendly af­ter meet­ing her at a USO show on Guadal­canal. (Her home­town was Lake­land, Florida.) He even took her up for a ride in a “pig­gy­back” (two-seat) P-38. Al­though it can­not be con­firmed con­clu­sively, this was prob­a­bly the air­craft in which Westy was killed two months later: P-38J-20 44-23394. (Photo cour­tesy of the U.S. Air Force)

The 347th Fighter Group’s “wheels” on Mid­dle­burg in Oc­to­ber 1944. From left to right: Maj. Leonard Shapiro, 68th FS C.O.; Maj. Don Lee, 67th FS C.O.; Lt. Col. Shelby Eng­land, 347th FG Ex­ec­u­tive Of­fi­cer; Col. Leo Dusard, Group Com­man­der; Lt. Col. West­brook, Deputy C.O.; and Maj. John En­dress, 339th FS C.O. Eng­land was later killed as a pas­sen­ger in a C-47 ac­ci­dent. (Photo cour­tesy of Jack Cook)

Princess Pat II/# 129, P-40M-5, se­rial num­ber 43-5684, was pho­tographed at Munda Air Base on Au­gust 14, 1943, with Flight Of­fi­cer Rex By­ers at its con­trols. This Warhawk has some­times been iden­ti­fied as West­brook’s air­craft, but it was, in fact, as­signed to Capt. John Voss, who named it af­ter his in­fant daugh­ter—al­though it was also flown by other pi­lots. It re­port­edly shot down 12 enemy air­craft, and was re­turned to the United States to par­tic­i­pate in a war-bond tour. 43-5684 was de­stroyed in a crash at Luke Field, Ari­zona, on June 6, 1944. Voss was killed in ac­tion on Novem­ber 8, 1943; he had been cred­ited with 3 1/2 kills. (Photo cour­tesy of Jack Cook)

In this photo, taken at the same time as the pre­vi­ous shot, Lt. Col. West­brook chats with two of his ground­crew­men. A 13th AF press re­lease fol­low­ing Westy’s death noted “his sin­cere friend­li­ness, his habit of al­ways find­ing time to shoot the breeze with both of­fi­cers and en­listed men.” (Photo cour­tesy of Jack Cook)

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