The Jim Brooks Story

Major James L. Brooks

Major James L. Brooks flew World War II’s front-line Allied fighter, the North American P-51 Mustang, in the Mediterranean Theater of Operation. In April 1944, he began his combat tour in Europe and was assigned to the Fifteenth Air Force, 31st Fighter Group, 307th Fighter Squadron, based in San Severo, Italy, near Foggia.

A native of Roanoke, Virginia, Brooks entered the Army Air Corps in 1942. He attended Pre-Flight (class 43E) at Kelly Field in San Antonio, TX. In Primary, in Corsicana, TX, Brooks learned to fly in the open cockpit Fairchild PT-19. Upon graduation as a Second Lieutenant he was assigned to the 52nd Fighter Squadron in the Panama Canal Zone. Brooks spent six months in Panama flying P-40 and P-39 fighters before being sent to Europe.

Brooks was twenty-three years old when he arrived in Italy. The 31st Fighter Group was transitioning from Spitfires to P-51B Mustangs. With the change in aircraft came a new role: bomber escort. The 31st Fighter Group primarily flew escort missions into the Balkans and southern Europe for the Fifteenth Air Force’s heavy bombers, B-24s and B-17s. Their missions were often flown at high altitude and typically lasted between five and six hours. Prior to the Mustang, the Allies didn’t have a fighter with the endurance to escort its bombers to the target and back on long-range missions. Together the Mustang and the men who flew her, played a critical role in securing Allied victory in Europe.

Brooks’s tour took place at a key moment in the war. Thanks to the escort protection provided by the P-51 Mustang, Allied daylight precision bomber losses were reduced. And, a key Axis target, the oil fields around Ploesti, Rumania, were destroyed, crippling Germany’s fuel oil supply.

Brooks was assigned to a new P-51B. Since he didn’t have a girlfriend at the time, he named it January, after his birth month.

21 April 1944—Ploesti, Rumania:

On just his fourth mission, Brooks went to Ploesti, Romania, one of the most heavily defended targets in Europe. The Axis’s largest petroleum complexes were located around Ploesti and it was a target dreaded by bomber and fighter pilots due to heavy flak and the concentrated presence of enemy fighters. Once in the air, the mission had been aborted due to weather, but word never made it to many of the bombers and their escorts. They continued on through the weather and carried out the mission. The 31st Fighter Group was awarded a Distinguished Unit Citation for the mission. In all, the 31st destroyed sixteen enemy aircraft, probably destroyed seven, and damaged ten. Brooks was credited with damaging a German Messerschmitt Me 109. He returned to Ploesti ten more times.

First victory—18 May 1944—Ploesti, Rumania:

Brooks scored his first victory over Ploesti against an Italian-built Fiat G-50 Freccia fighter. At the time, he was flying as a wingman, but it was not long before he was leading.

6 June 1944—D-Day:

On 4 June, the Allies took Rome and two days later, when Brooks awoke at 5:30 a.m. for a mission to Ploesti, he had no idea what was about to unfold. It wasn’t until he landed after five hours in the air that Brooks learned that the Allies had landed in Normandy. It was a glimmer of hope that there might be an end in sight.

P-51D February—June 1944:

At the end of June, another pilot flew Brooks’s P-51B, January, on a mission and ditched the airplane into the Adriatic, off Italy’s east coast. P-51Ds had just started arriving in the squadron to replace the older Bs and Brooks was assigned a new airplane, a P-51D he named February.

Ace—18 July 1944—Friedrichshafen, Germany:

On July 18, while flying an escort mission to Friedrichshafen, Germany, Brooks got his fifth victory and became an ace. In the chaos of engagement, Brooks got separated from his flight. He recalls the incident:

It seemed a mixed force; these were FW 190s, Me 109s, and a Macchi MC.205… They had me so hopelessly outnumbered that one FW 190 had his gear down, for what reason I don’t know, however, he did make a head-on pass, firing as he came. However, he was of little concern to me at the time because the Macchi MC. 205 had latched on to me and wouldn’t turn loose. The radius of turn of the Macchi is better than the Mustang and we went around three turns in a Lufbery circle. I knew that about the fourth or fifth turn he would be able to pull his nose around and be in a good position to fire, so I Split-Sed.” Brooks dove for the deck with the Macchi in chase. Brooks pulled out at the last second, but the Macchi miscalculated and slammed into the ground. “Believe it or not, I climbed back up again and got back into the same fight I had just left ... I didn’t stay there too long because I figured that I had pretty well had it and was hoping that if they did shoot me down I would be in Swiss territory and be interned. Fortunately, they gave up the chase and I returned to my base a very frightened, but much wiser combat pilot.”

(Hess, William N., Fighting Mustangs: The Chronicle of the P-51, Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., p. 96-98)

Shuttle mission to Russia (Operation Frantic III)—22-26 July 1944:

At the end of July, the 31st Fighter Group flew to a base in Piryatin, Russia as part of Operation Frantic III, the first all-fighter Russian Shuttle mission. The 31st P-51s escorted P-38s. Piryatin, in the Ukraine east of Kiev, was new territory for the 31st and their maps were inaccurate. Their big mission, staged from Ukraine bases, took place on 25 July.

Silver Star—25 July 1944—Mielec, Poland:

Brooks recalls the details of the mission:

At this particular time, 25 July 1944, the German Army was in full retreat from Russia into Poland. From my vantage point, it was an unbelievable sight. Vehicles of all sorts bumper to bumper on what seemed to be the only highway west available to the Germans.

East of the Polish city of Lvov, I was leading Blue Section of the 307th Squadron, and Sam Brown was leading Red. The other two squadrons were dogging it somewhere else … I called out targets and gave my section permission to begin strafing. During one of my strafing runs, I shot down a Ju 52 transport – presumably full of troops. A few minutes later I shot down a Storch observation plane … After we worked over the area pretty good, I called for Blue Section to form up over a steel bridge a little west of the action. Sam Brown with the Red Section formed up on my section.

After being on course for Piryatin, Russia, for about ten minutes, I saw in the distance large numbers of aircraft circling in a sort of traffic pattern. As we drew closer I recognized them as the famous Stuka dive bombers, taking off from a nearby base and bombing the Russian trenches. This was World War I-style warfare that startled me, because they were flying at 500 feet or less. I ordered all flights to attack the Stukas. The boys needed little prodding, but I cautioned them to keep an eye on several Bf 109s circling above us at about 3,000 feet.

During this engagement, the 307th Squadron shot down twenty-four Stukas, and probably destroyed six more. I got one. This action was later mentioned in Hans-Ulrich Rudel’s postwar book ‘Stuka Pilot.’ The most highly decorated German pilot of the war was in this imbroglio somewhere. We could easily have destroyed more Stukas, but I thought it prudent to reform and set course because the country was unfamiliar, as well as the base and its location inside Russia. Navigation was tricky due to our maps being somewhat unreliable. En route we were bounced by Russian Stormoviks, but when I broke into them they moved off. No one was lost on this mission, which was incredible.

(Toliver, Raymond F. and Trevor J. Constable, Fighter Aces of the U.S.A. Toliver, Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 1997, pg. 179.)

Brooks scored three victories this day. The 31st Fighter Group was awarded its second Distinguished Unit Citation for this mission. Brooks was awarded the Silver Star. In 2002, Brooks went to Moscow and was decorated for the mission by the Russian government.

On the way back to Italy from the Ukraine, on 26 July, over Ploesti, Brooks scored his ninth victory.

Invasion of Southern France—15 and 16 August 1944:

The 31st played an integral role in the Invasion of Southern France, providing escort protection to the more than 200 Douglas C-47 transports towing gliders that would land behind enemy lines in France, delivering troops and supplies. Brooks and the 31st staged out of the Voltone airdrome, northwest of Rome.

Double ace—25 August 1944—Prostejov, Czechoslovakia:

Brooks scored his tenth and eleventh victories on 25 August on an escort mission over Czechoslovakia. The target was the Prostejov-Kosteler airdrome. Brooks was credited with downing two FW-190s.

18 Aug 1944 – Brooks’ last mission to Ploesti:

Brooks flew his final mission to Ploesti on 18 August 1944. The mission was part of the Fifteenth Air Force’s final push to destroy Ploesti.

The Fifteenth Air Force’s relentless bombing of Ploesti during the spring and summer of 1944 proved a success and the P-51s escorts of the Fifteenth Air Force played a central role in the campaign. The efforts knocked down ninety percent of Rumania’s oil production capabilities, representing one-third of Germany’s fuel oil supply.

29 August 1944—Moraska Ostrava, Czechoslovakia:

Brooks’ final two victories were against Me-109s on an escort mission over Czechoslovakia. The 307th and 308th Fighter Squadrons flew this mission without the 309th. (The 309th had been assigned to escort B-17s transporting over 1,000 U.S. POWs home from the newly liberated Bucharest/Ploesti area.) Brooks was the mission’s Flight Leader and without a full group, his resources were stretched thin. A group of B-17s was lagging behind the main stream, under attack by fifteen Me-109s. Brooks lead two sections of 307th P-51s toward the bombers under attack. Brooks dove into the attacking Me-109s. The enemy aircraft scattered, Brooks chasing two and shooting them down. In all, three Me-109s were destroyed and one damaged.

Brooks finished his combat tour in September 1944 with fifty-five missions and 263 combat hours. He scored thirteen victories, three probably destroyed, and two damaged. Brooks is the third highest scoring ace in the 31st Fighter Group. He was awarded the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross with one oak leaf cluster, an the Air Medal with twenty-one clusters. Brooks has deep gratitude for his Crew Chief, Sergeant Bill Trest, who kept January and February in tiptop shape and battle ready at all times.

After the war, Brooks accepted a regular commission and became jet qualified in 1946. On December 22, 1950, while flying F-86s with the 4th Fighter Group during the Korean War, Brooks participated in the first big, all jet air battle at 42,000 feet over the Yalu River. Involved were twelve Migs and four F-86 Saber jets.

Brooks resigned from the Air Force in 1951 as a Major and joined North American Aviation as an engineering test pilot. Over the next six years he logged test flights in all F-86 series aircraft, the B-45 jet bomber, the XF-100s, and the F-86 rocket augmentation project.

In 1953, Brooks married singer Martha Tilton. Brooks was one of the founders and first president of the Fighter Aces Association and is past president of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots.

James L. Brooks WWII aerial victory credits*:

Date Type enemy aircraft Mission
18 May 1944 1 G-50 Ploesti, Romania
24 May 1944 1 Me-109 Wiener Neustadt, Austria
29 May 1944 1 Me-109 Wiener Neustadt, Austria
23 June 1944 1 Me-109 Ploesti, Romania
18 July 1944 1 MA-205 Friedrichshafen, Germany
25 July 1944 1 Ju-52, 1 Fi-156, 1 Ju-87 Mielec, Poland
26 July 1944 1 Me-109 Ploesti, Romania
25 August 1944 2 FW-190 Prostejov, Czechoslovakia
29 August 1944 2 Me-109 Moraska Ostrava, Czechoslovakia
*Source: Air Force Historical Research Agency, Maxwell AFB, Alabama.