"A native of Roanoke, Virginia, James L. Brooks entered the Army Air Corps in 1942. Upon Graduation as a Second Lieutenant he was assigned to the 52nd Fighter Squadron stationed in the Panama Canal Zone. He spent seven months in this assignment flying the P-39 and P-40 fighters before being sent to San Severino, Italy to join the 307th Squadron, 31st Fighter Group as part of the Fifteenth Strategic Air Force. There, Brooks first flew Spitfire MK IXs which were replaced by the P-51B Mustang fighters to escort the heavy bombers deep into Europe and the Balkans.
On one of his early missions in his personal P-51B, named “January” after his birth month, the young Mustang pilot was leading an element in his squadron on a mission to Munich. Brooks spotted about ten enemy aircraft off to the right and high. As the enemy was approaching he told his flight leader to break right, but later his leader told him that he didn't receive the call. The crux of the matter was that Brooks wound up alone amid the bevy of enemy fighters. Brooks recalls, “It was a mixed force of Folke-Wulf 190s, Me 109s and a Macchi MC. 205. They had me so hopelessly outnumbered. One FW 190 made a head-on pass at me firing as he came. 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. I was loaded down heavy with fuel and the radius turn of the Macchi was better than the Mustang. We went around three turns in a Lufbery circle and I knew that in about the fourth or fifth turn he would be able to pull his nose around and be in a good position to fire at me. So I did a tight split S and fortunately he did not follow. I climbed back up again, but unfortunately got right back into the same enemy fighters that 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.”
Early on with the 307th Squadron, Jim shot down his first enemy aircraft as a “shared” kill when he aided a fellow Mustang pilot Bud Bowles during his first fighter sweep over Udine, Italy. There, they encountered a large group of Me 109s, which Brooks says, “Scared the shit out of me!” Bowles was chasing one of the enemy fighters who was trying to shake Bowles by diving in and out of the towering thunderhead clouds. When Bowles could get a shot in the clear he fired, but the hits weren't stopping the nimble Me 109. Brooks could see this and went in to help his friend. He pulled in next to Bowles and opened fire, finishing off the enemy aircraft.
Brooks grew up fast as a young fighter pilot and was leading entire fighter groups, fifty-four Mustangs, as a First Lieutenant into the heavily defended German oil refineries in Ploesti, Romania. These bomber escort missions lasted up to seven hours. On May 18th, 1944, while escorting the heavy B-24 bombers over Ploesti, he shot down a Romanian G-50 fighter. The G-50 was Romanian built and similar to the German built Folke-Wulf 190. A week later on May 24th, again escorting B-24s to Vienna, Austria to bomb the Munchendorf aerodrome, the 307th Squadron became involved in a big dogfight with up to sixty enemy fighters that attempted to attack the bomber formations from the rear in waves of twelve. Six of these enemy fighters were destroyed by the 307th, which became so involved in the fray that they were unable to reach the target area. Brooks was credited with downing one Me 109.
On May 29th, the 31st went back to Vienna and once again the bomber attacks were challenged in full force. Sixty ME 109s were encountered before the target area was reached. The Mustangs of the 31st broke up the enemy formations and destroyed seven of their number with Brooks downing another Me 109. On a mission escorting the heavy bombers of the Fifteenth Air Force during their frequent raids attacking the oil refineries in Ploesti, Romania. Brooks recalls, “We did our best to keep the enemy fighters off the bombers on the way in and when we got near the target area, we broke off from the bombers. Those brave men continued headlong into the black wall of exploding flak. We'd meet back up with whoever made it through that hell on the other side of the target area. Only half of the bombers would survive the firestorm of flak and we'd see broken up bombers spinning toward the ground, parachutes popping open everywhere and heavily damaged bombers limping back home. It was a horrible and sad sight. Many of those guys were my classmates in primary training.” Brooks and the 307th Squadron shot half of the enemy fighters who tried to get the bombers prior to reaching the target area. Brooks got another Me 109 that day.
In early July, Brooks went on a three-day leave to Rome and another pilot from the 307th Squadron took “January” up on a sortie. The pilot experienced engine trouble and had to ditch Brooks' Mustang into the Adriatic. He bellied into the sea and was rescued, but “January” was a write off. When Brooks returned back to his base in San Severino, there was a brand new P-51D model there to replace his B model. With no real inspiration or girlfriend to name his new D model Mustang after, he had “February” painted on the nose to follow “January.”
Brooks became an ace on July 18th on a mission over Germany. There was some confusion over the target area and the bombers were not holding to their assigned quadrants. The Mustangs of the 307th Squadron entered combat near Friedrichshaven when they intercepted a large formation of ME 109s. A flight of only four Mustangs took them on, but the overwhelming odds forced them to break off the attack. One ME 109 took after Brooks who headed for the mountains at full throttle. Approaching one peak, Brooks waited until the last possible moment to pull up. The ME 109, intent on getting Brooks, hesitated and slammed into the mountain.
On July 25th the 307th Squadron was assigned to escort P-38 fighters on a mission to strafe the Mielec aerodrome in Eastern Poland. The mission was quite successful because no enemy aircraft were encountered over the target, and Brooks was decorated by the Russian government for the mission. On the way home they sighted a huge formation of thirty-five Ju 87 Stuka dive-bombers. The Mustangs tore into the formations and shot down twenty-one of the Stukas and damaged a number of others. Brooks not only got a Stuka, but also shot down a Ju 52 transport and a Fiesler Storch liaison aircraft. The next day the 307th Squadron strafed an airfield in Ploesti, Romania and destroyed six-enemy aircraft on the ground. A few enemy fighters were caught in the air and three were destroyed. Brooks was credited with a ME 109.
While providing close cover for B-24s bombing aerodromes in Czechoslovakia on August 25th, the 307th Squadron encountered three Folke-Wulf 190s over Brno aerodrome and Brooks shot down two of them. Brooks recalls, “After I shot down the first FW 190, the other headed for the deck at full throttle in an attempt to run away from me. I took off after him with my Mustang at full throttle. We had heard that the FW 190 was a fast aircraft and I was curious to see just how fast. With the Merlin engine screaming, the Mustang caught up to him skimming very low over the mountains. I was just about to let him have a burst with the guns, when I saw him in the cockpit turning his head to see where I was. That took his focus off the terrain ahead, which we were only a few feet above, and he slammed into the trees exploding on impact. My wingman saw the whole thing and said that it was quite a sight to see the FW 190 hit the ground at over 400 MPH. The aircraft just disintegrated into a ball of fire.”
Brooks final scoring took place on August 29th when he went back to Czechoslovakia to cover the bombers attacking oil refineries in the Moravska-Ostrava area. Fifteen Me 109s attacked the rear of the bomber formation before the Mustangs could get at them. A ferocious dogfight ensued and the Mustangs of the 31st Fighter Group shot down five of the enemy fighters. Brooks was credited with two of them.
Brooks finished his combat tour in Italy with fifty-five missions and 280 combat hours. He scored thirteen and one half (one shared) enemy aircraft destroyed, three probably destroyed and two damaged. In recognition of his feats with the 15th Air Force he was awarded the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross with one oak leaf cluster and the Air Medal with twenty-one clusters. Brooks has deep gratitude for his Crew Chief, Staff Sergeant Dill Trest, who kept “January” and “February” in tiptop shape and battle ready at all times.
Accepting a regular commission after the war, he 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 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. He was one of the founders and first president of the Fighter Ace Association and is past president of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots.