By Vince Saunders
Shelby Foster Westbrook was born in Marked Tree, Arkansas on January 14, 1922, to Livingston and Lillian Westbrook. He was one of seven children – his siblings being Hubert, Adolphus, Lloyd, Addie, Margaret, and Mirion. When he was 12 years old his parents passed away, he moved to Toledo, Ohio to live with his older brother, Lloyd Dean. In Toledo, Shelby attended integrated Libby High School, where he graduated in 1939.
After Pearl Harbor, Shelby was intent on joining the nation’s first all-black air corps. Shelby recalled that entering the military was when he first became truly aware of the extent of racial injustice. His response was a determination to become the best pilot in the entire war–convinced that his actions will be the most eloquent testament to his right to equality.
Tuskegee Airman, WWII
In March 1943, shortly after he graduated from high school, Westbrook enrolled in aviation cadet training at Tuskegee Army Air Field. (He’d never been in an airplane, but he knew he didn’t want to be in the infantry). Shelby finished pilot training and was sent to Selfridge Air Field near Detroit, Michigan, for training in single-engine fighter planes like the P-39 Air Cobra.
On a strafing mission over Southern France, Westbrook witnessed fellow pilot Richard Macon crash into a building near Montpellier. Because it happened so quickly, the U.S. had no record of it. More than fifty years later, First Lieutenant Westbrook was able to confirm this happened as he was doing research with French-language materials. Macon had crashed into a German command outpost with more than 40 officers inside. During one R&R Leave opportunity, Westbrook traveled to Naples, Rome, and Vatican City. He met the Pope when his group visited the Sistine Chapel.
2nd Lt. Shelby Westbrook graduated from pilot training at Tuskegee Army Airfield on February 8, 1944 (class 44-B) and was attached to the 99th Fighter Squadron, which had the distinction of being one of the first all-Black units formed by the Army Air Corps. Promoted to 1st Lt., he served in the 332nd Fighter Group from July 1944 to May 1945. Total service: 4 years active, 6 years in reserve.
Highly Decorated Veteran
He served as a United States Air Force fighter pilot in the European theater where he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with 5 Clusters, the Presidential Unit Citation, the 15th Air Force Certificate of Valor, and five Battle Stars. During the war, Lt. Shelby flew many combat missions over 12 different countries on the European continent including one where he was shot down over enemy territory in Czechoslovakia. With the assistance of local Partisans, he was able to evade capture for 30 days, at which point he returned to England where he was assigned another Mustang P-51 and resumed his military career.
Racism Back Home, Pivoting to Electronics
After the war, unable to get a job as a commercial pilot, Shelby obtained a Bachelor of Science Degree in Electronics and was employed as an Electrical Engineer at W.R. Grace & Co., a major manufacturing facility that made packaging machines. There, Shelby designed and patented various types of electronic control circuits and is listed as the co-inventor of a revolutionary processing system that utilized a controlled vacuum as the primary packaging system that is still in use today. As an entrepreneur, Shelby also operated a small electronics business in Chicago for many years.
Life in Chicago
In 1952, Shelby moved to Chicago to marry the love of his life, Lulu Belle Leonard, who preceded him in death 10 years ago. They bought a home on Chicago’s South Side which they shared with Belle’s mother until her death, and where they lived for more than 50 years. The couple never had children, but Shelby and Belle became a much-loved uncle and aunt to Belle’s numerous nieces and nephews as well as the many nieces and nephews he so adored from his sisters and brothers.
Author and Public Speaker
He was active in the Chicago “DODO” Chapter of Tuskegee Airmen and co-authored two books regarding the Tuskegee Airmen (Tuskegee Airmen 1941-1945 and Bolo Pacha: A Forgotten Story about Men & Women Who Made History in Wwi). He was frequently asked to perform speaking engagements at colleges and corporate functions. Shelby remained active and intellectually engaged well into his 90s. An avid reader and amateur historian, he loved discussing current events and politics with his family and an array of associates, often using his deep historical knowledge to shed new light on old assumptions.
Honors and Awards
Though racism denied him many opportunities that his intellect, experience, and accomplishments should have allowed, the world eventually took note of his achievements. He took a trip in 2007 to Washington, DC to accept a Congressional Medal from the United States Government. In 2009, he appeared on a segment on The History Channel called: “World War II in HD.” In November 2013, he was also honored by the government of France at the French Consulate in Chicago where he was awarded the French Legion of Honor medal- Ordre National de la Legion d’honneur.
At 94, Shelby Westbrook passed away peacefully in Chicago on August 17, 2016, surrounded by a few of his loving family members.