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MEMORIAL DAY IN BELGIUM: WEEKEND OF 25-30 MAY 2017

FIRST LIEUTENANT DONALD WEST  

United States Army Air Force, Serving on Detached Service to the 57th Royal Air Squadron

First Lieutenant Donald West was born on Wednesday, 14 August 1918.  He was the son of Floyd and Maybelle West, and the brother of Floyd Junior.  His family called him Don and they lived at 1433 Vagrdes Avenue in Fresno, California. Don West joined the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) on 27 August 1941.  At the time, America had not yet entered the war.  Western Europe was occupied, and Great Britain stood alone in the West in "her finest hour.” 

Like thousands of other young American citizens, Don went to Canada and joined the Canadian military in order to fight the Nazis while his own country remained neutral.  (See the section of this web site dedicated to Americans who served in British and Commonwealth armed forces.)

Don became a pilot, and he was assigned to the 57 Squadron of the Royal Air Force, which was based at East Kirkby by the summer of 1943. While he flew for the RCAF, Don logged 560 hours of flying time. 

On 7 September 1943, Don transferred to the US Army Air Force (USAAF.)  Since he was a trained pilot with experience in flying Lancaster bombers, the USAAF simply left him at his post at East Kirkby when he changed services.  The USAAF listed him as being on "Detached Service” with the 57 Squadron of the Royal Air Force.   

Don was an active and lively young man.  He was a regular at both the Officer’s Mess and the American Red Cross Jules Club.  He owned a beat-up 1926/27 eight-horsepower Ford sedan.  He kept a diary.  He played tennis, danced, drank, and enjoyed life. One of his best friends was Jim Elliott of the Royal Air Force.  Elliott was a member of Don’s aircrew, and the two bunked together side-by-side.   

On 3 November 1943, West was piloting a Lancaster bomber with serial number W4822.  The aircraft was old, and it was on its last operational flight.  The crew consisted of:              

  • Pilot:            First Lieutenant Donald West
  • Second Pilot:  Flight Lieutenant Robert Sinclair Clements
  • Flight Engineer:  Sergeant William Frederick Neill
  • Navigator:  Pilot Officer Norman F. Buggey
  • Bomb Aimer (Bombardier):  Flying Officer James McPhail Elliott
  • Wireless Operator:  Sergeant Harry Francis McKernin
  • Mid-Upper Gunner:  Sergeant Francis Heaton
  • Rear Gunner:  Sergeant John Edmunds    

West and his crew took off from East Kirkby at 17.22 on that fateful evening for a bombing mission to Dusseldorf.  The moon was in the first quarter and there was a 40% low cloud cover over most of the route.  The Lancaster ascended slowly to 19,000 feet, and followed a level course.  It crossed the Channel and traversed Holland.  Shortly after it entered northern Belgium, the rear gunner spotted a twin-engine aircraft below them to starboard flying on a slightly converging course.  West carried out two banking searches, while the rear gunner kept an eye on the unidentified aircraft, which was out-of-range.  The unidentified aircraft disappeared into a cloudbank, and West straightened up the bomber.   

About thirty seconds later, the Lancaster was attacked without warning, dead astern from underneath with a burst of cannon fire from its front to its rear.  The attack set the Lancaster ablaze and killed the two gunners, Heaton and Edmunds.  The aircraft filled with acrid smoke.  Clements opened the cockpit windows for air, while West brought the plane down below 10000 feet so that everyone could breath easier without supplementary oxygen.  Elliott (the bombardier) saw that the payload was threatening to explode, and he jettisoned the whole bomb load.  However, the smoke was increasing and Elliott could see fire in the aft of the bomb bay, close to the chutes for the flares.  Although the bombs were gone, there were still many dangerous combustibles on board.  Time was of the essence. 

West ordered McKernin and Neill to go to the rear to try to put out the fire.  They grabbed the four fire extinguishers in the front of the aircraft and moved toward the center fuselage.  In order to get there, they had to cross the giant wing spar that separated the front from the center fuselage.  Even on the ground, this wing spar was a legendary obstacle to cross over.  In a burning aircraft filled with smoke and carrying fire extinguishers, it must have seemed like a mountain to traverse. 

With West’s permission, the second pilot Clements went back to assess the situation.  He returned and reported that the gunners’ ammunition, the flares and photo-flash bomb were going to catch on fire and would probably explode.  At about the same time, McKernin reported on the intercom that all of the fire extinguishers were exhausted.  The fire could not be controlled.  West gave the order to bail out. 

The emergency hatch for bailouts was located close to the bombardier.  So, Elliott opened the hatch, and being the closest, bailed out first.  Clements picked up a parachute, and placed it on West’s lap.  He then put on his own, went down to the emergency hatch, and bailed out.  After Buggey put on his parachute, he went back to see if he could help McKernin and Neill who were not wearing their parachutes.  In the presence of the fire, smoke, and the obstacle of that wing spar, he could not reach them.  He went to the emergency hatch and bailed out after Clements.   

At this point, West would have been fully within his rights to bail out of the aircraft.  Given that Buggey could not reach them, the chances of McKernin and Neill making it out of the burning, smoke-filled center fuselage and across the wing spar to the front were very, very small.  It was also probable that Neill was already dead since he was not responding on the intercom.  However, Don West remained at the controls in order to give McKernin and Neill at least a chance to bail out.  

As Buggey fell to the earth, the photo-flash bomb ignited.  Buggey saw the bomber explode in mid-air, with West, McKernin, and (perhaps) Neill still alive on board.  The plane broke into two sections and crashed to the ground 3 ½ kilometers north of the village of Hechtel, just to the left of the main road to Eindhoven.  

Both the Germans and the Belgian Resistance saw the Lancaster explode in the sky and they rushed to the scene to search for survivors.  Buggey broke his leg in the jump and was captured by the Germans.  He spent the rest of the war in the Prisoner of War Stalag L3 in Sagan and Belaria.  Elliott and Clements were recovered by the Belgian Resistance and eventually returned to the United Kingdom via the Comet Line.  (For information on the Comet Line, see the biography of Robert Garrett.) 

When the Germans arrived at the burning wreckage, they found that the remains of four of the crew were so badly burnt, mutilated, and intermingled that separate identification of the bodies was impossible.  In fact, the Germans thought they had found only three sets of remains intermingled together.  The Germans buried these unidentified remains in a collective grave in their cemetery for Allied airmen at their airbase at Brusthem Airfield near St. Truiden.  The Germans found the remains of Sgt. Heaton some distance from the scene of the crash, and buried him with the unknowns.   

Following the war, the British and Americans excavated the Brusthem Airfield cemetery.  Although Heaton was identifiable, the remains of the other four were difficult to identify, not least because the Germans thought they had buried only three sets of unidentified remains in the collective grave.  The remains from that collective grave at Brusthem were transferred to a collective grave at the newly established Heverlee Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery, near Leuven.  After exhaustive investigations, British and American authorities concluded that at least portions of the remains of Edmunds, McKernin, Neill, and West were buried together with Heaton in that collective grave.   

Although Maybelle West wanted her son to have a proper burial, she understood that the recovery of Don’s remains was impossible.  She at least knew that her that her son was a hero.  The navigator, Norman Buggey, who had safely parachuted from the plane but had been captured by the Germans, wrote this after the war:   

"The complete calm and self possession of Don West, the pilot, and his refusal to leave the controls while there was still remote possibility of saving some of the crew, was superb.  I am afraid his action cost him his life."

After he returned to England, but with the war still in progress, Don’s friend and bombardier Jim Elliott wrote to Don’s parents and said:     

"Even on that terrible night, when we were under the maximum of strain with both gunners dead and Don at the controls of a burning plane, there was no panic because the skipper was calm.  In his quiet tone he told two of the crew to go back with extinguishers and try to control the fire.  Without hesitation or question they did so, and worked heroically amid the smoke and exploding ammunition, but all in vain, using all of the extinguishers without controlling it.  Then came the order from Don to abandon the aircraft.  As bombardier and nearest the bomb hatch, I went first, so from then on my information ceased… Don had his parachute on, Mr. and Mrs. West, but knowing him as I did, I’m certain he would wait until everyone had left before moving.  It grieves me to say it, but I’m afraid Don, your son, and my pal, made the supreme sacrifice, for our united cause that night.  In a vain attempt to save the remainder of the crew (one other member was left) he hadn’t left himself enough time to get out before the crash came."

Jim Elliot and Maybelle West continued to correspond after the war, and Maybelle West visited Elliott in Scotland in September of 1953.   For his actions that evening, Donald West was posthumously awarded the British Distinguished Flying Cross, and the California Air Medal.    


Jerome Sheridan wrote the story above, drawing on the following sources:

  • The IDPF of First Lieutenant Donald West 
  • The Lancaster Manual, Crown Copyright, 1942 (London:  Greenhill Books, 2003.)  

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