Bob Bates —
Toward the end of World War II in the turbulent skies over France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany, thousands of rounds of German ground artillery exploded around American P-47s of the 406th Fighter Group’s 514th Squadron. Flying close support in a grouping of twelve surrounding an American B-26 heavy bomber, Lieutenant Warren Webster in his red-nosed P-47 Thunderbolt often found himself and his fellow pilots amidst, as he phrased it, “flak so thick you could get out and walk on it.”
Despite flying 50 missions, two in planes with wings and fuselage riddled by German ground fire, each requiring deft piloting skills to maneuver away and later crash land, Warren survived aerial combat unscathed. Then 29, Lt. Webster after Germany’s surrender came home to Madison, Wisconsin and lived another 74 years, active until the final weeks of his life. Warren died 17 June 2018 at age 103.
Born on April 25, 1915, growing up in south central Wisconsin and graduating from Madison East High in 1933, young Warren learned to have a positive attitude and to persevere in hard times. Despite the Great Depression, he found work and followed a personal dream to fly, scraping up money to take lessons in his mid-20s at southeast Madison’s Four Lakes Aviation. Recalled Warren, “It’s next to nothing nowadays, but back then $9 an hour with a training pilot or $6 soloing was hard to come by” on his $80 a month salary as a bank bookkeeper-cashier.
Yearning for action beyond piloting a bank desk, in late 1939 Warren tried to join the US Air Force, but he lacked the then-required two years of college. Replies to his letters to the Royal Canadian Air Force said come on up, so in April 1941 Warren crossed the northern border to be inducted. The RCAF recognized his already advanced flying skills, so within a short time trained him as a flying instructor. For a year he trained Canadian pilots in Ontario before being promoted to “visiting test officer” at various bases around Canada, as well as instructing out of the central flying school, extending into early 1944. “Every pilot in the RCAF had to have a test flight at least once a year, and I was one of four who’d evaluate their skills,” noted Warren. “From out in the field even chief flying officers were brought back to our central flying school and we’d give them the latest techniques. I was a 1st lieutenant, but some of the first students I had were majors and lieutenant colonels. In the air, they’d respond to me ‘yes sir, no sir,’ but on the ground I saluted them,” he chuckled. Warren acknowledged that by 1944 his own rank could have been higher, but “I got reprimanded a bit for a little aerobatics one time, so I wasn’t getting promoted very fast.”
In 1942 Warren and Mary Hyland, an accomplished Madison golfer, got married. During the processing of Warren’s transfer into the US Air Force in spring of 1944, Mary delivered their first child, Mary. (Another daughter, Susan, would enter the post-war world in 1946.) Following six months of stateside USAF training for active wartime piloting of P-47s and going through gunnery and bombing instruction, Warren was shipped overseas to an air Base in France. By then, winter had set in with bitter cold. Plus, the base was close to the front and reachable by German bombers. Warren laughingly recalled, “We had outside privies in the open. You didn’t want to spend much time in them reading the Sears Roebuck catalog!”
In assessing the P-47 Thunderbolt (produced from 1941-45), Warren had nothing but praise. “It was a beautiful plane. The finest aircraft of WWII.” Its air-cooled engine was not as vulnerable to crippling from enemy fire as were fluid-cooled engines, so it was “reliable to get you back—a great airplane.”
The P-47 sturdy fighter-bomber weighed up to eight tons fully loaded, was capable of carrying two tons of bombs, and with 4-on-a-side .50 caliber machine guns was a deadly force at close range. With its powerful engine the Thunderbolt had flexibility for both high altitude combat as well as fast dive-bombing for low level attacks. Typically, three groups of four P-47s flew high altitude close support for the B-26 heavy bomber. Squadrons of twelve P-47s would go aloft into holding patterns anticipating rendezvous in the air with their designated B-26s, which took off from their own bases at separate locations. P-47s in the air for more than a couple-hour mission would risk fuel depletion and make it iffy getting back to their squadron base. With both admiration and frustration, Warren said,”We would get angry if we had to circle and wait for them, because we knew we were going to have to come back on fumes. Plus, the B-26 was one hot airplane—very fast. We really had to suck fuel to keep up with them on a run.”
Reminiscing further, Warren recounted, “Occasionally we’d carry one or two 1000-pound bombs,” a load that was hard to clear the runway with. “On takeoff, you staggered for a while,” he laughed. But, “What I really didn’t like to carry were frag bombs. They’d explode on contact, and sometimes they’d rattle off as you were going down the runway. Then you lost your tail because they were instantaneous” in their fragmentary explosion. These, plus napalm bombs were designed to be dropped in low level and dive-bombing missions.
Operating close to the front during the December 1944 to January ’45 Battle of the Bulge, the 406th provided what Warren described as “mostly close support for [General George] Patton’s [Third Army] infantry troops. In fact, one of book on WWII, Patton affectionately described us as ‘my red-nosed bastards—the 4-0-6 fighter group.’ Twice he sent us back a truckload of champagne as appreciation. Several times we were attacking within a hundred yards of [Patton’s)]front line troops” with dive-bombing and strafing. The Battle of the Bulge became the largest and bloodiest battle in Europe, often conducted in bitter cold, exhaustingly sloppy snow and rain, and thickly forested and muddy terrain.
Most action was “dive-bombing with .50 calibers blazing. We took out the roads, the bridges, the planes, and the railroads” as well as attacking munitions dumps and deployment areas. “Some said we fighter-bombers did more good and more damage than the heavies did.” These forays exposed the squadron to heavy up close ground fire. Twice Warren’s plane was shot up so badly that he had to resort to perilous rough landings, one after strafing a 42-car German train, with return fire riddling his wings and damaging his engine, necessitating limping back to an emergency base for a choppy set down. Worse was negotiating a severely damaged engine, pistons joltingly misfiring; coughing, sputtering, and shaking, the plane went down behind enemy lines. Fortunately, French underground spotters guided him to a safe area to clatter down and, after harboring him for several days, aided his return to squadron base—where they had concluded he had been killed. Amazingly, Warren was never wounded in action or injured during a landing. From his 50 missions, he earned four Air Medals and one Belgian war cross, signifying distinguished meritorious achievements.
After European hostilities ended, Warren was able to overfly regions of Germany and view the destruction. Parts of Berlin had been heavily targeted by Allied bombing and artillery assaults. Vast areas, Warren observed, were “unbelievably terrible, just totally flattened. There was nothing there,” total destruction. He also flew officers and soldiers to England, Paris, and the south of France for “military vacations” in the months following German surrender. A transfer to the Pacific Theater as a fighter-bomber pilot was in the works for Warren, but the August A-bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought Japanese surrender. “Believe you me, we celebrated!” erupted Warren. His military discharge came through in December 1945, and it was off to peacetime civilian life.
During the next 40 years, taking over for his father, who had a heart attack (and would die at age 64), Warren ran Webster’s Battery and Automotive on the east side of Madison. He retired in 1985 at age 70.
Athletically, in and around Madison, Warren and Mary played a lot of tennis in the summer and loved ice skating during winters, as well as playing handball at the Y. Warren pitched fastpitch softball for three area teams for years, lasting into his mid-50s when, as he noted, “For me as a batter, they kept moving 1st base farther away!” He continued playing a strong game of tennis, becoming in the 1990s a founding member of the informal drop-in-and-play Monona retirees group, a very competitive three-times-a-week gathering which has grown over the decades from an original eight guys to now as many as 30+ showing up, often with women comprising more than a third.
Warren played regularly into his mid-90s, despite quintuple heart bypass surgery at age 79 and knee replacements at 89 and 90. Though his mobility became more limited, his strength, reflexes, coordination, and shot-making precision remained intact. The “Winners Court” #1 at Monona’s Ahuska Park is still known among his tennis-playing buddies as “WARREN’S WORLD.” These last 4-5 years Warren finally began slowing down, but continued to play intermittently at the John Powless Tennis Center on Madison’s west side. By then he had truly achieved Legend In His Own Time status and, to all who have had the pleasure of knowing him, was an enduring, inspirational exemplary-by-many-measures remarkable human being.
Remarkably, Warren lived independently his entire life, and continued to drive until last year, extending a flawless on-the-road record since getting his initial driver’s permit at 14 years of age—88 years behind the wheel!
Warren Webster loved life, enjoyed people, looked forward to each new day, and remained straightforwardly humble all his life. Our world has become a better place from Warren’s active presence and duty as a citizen who believed in putting forth one’s best effort whatever the circumstances. May his 103 years of life be appreciated and honored.