P-38 LIGHTNING PILOT
94th Fighter Squadron / 1st Fighter Group
Robert standing proudly in front of a 94th Fighter Squadron P-38 Lightning, after he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for extraordinary achievement while participating in a P-38 type aircraft. Escorting B-26s over Italy on 30 August 1943, Lieutenant Vrilakas formation was attacked by 25 enemy fighters. Becoming separated from the formation, Lieutenant Vrilakas was attempting to overtake two P-38s when he sighted two Me-109s diving on them from above. Unable to warn his comrades, Lieutenant Vrilakas engaged these two enemy fighters, breaking up their attack upon his fellow pilots. While again trying to rejoin the formation he was attacked by three Me-109s. With his P-38 severely damaged by cannon and machine gun fire, Lieutenant Vrilakas gallantly fought this superior number of enemy fighters, forcing them to break off the engagement. Rejoining the main body of P-38s the formation was attacked by 75 to 100 enemy aircraft. Sighting a Mc-202 about to fire on another P-38, lieutenant Vrilakas left the safety of his formation and attacked and destroyed this Mc-202, thereby saving his comrade. During the encounter, his right engine was completely disabled by 20-millimeter cannon fire and his canopy shot away. Barely able to control his crippled aircraft, Lieutenant Vrilakas through sheer determination, kept his plane in the air until he had reached Sicily.
Robert Anton Vrilakas was born in Proberta, Calif., Oct. 28, 1918, to George Vrilakas (Vrilakis), of Rethymno, Crete, Greece, and May Topping, of Delevan, Wis. He attended Red Bluff Union High School and Sacramento Junior College. After graduation, the looming storm of WWII thrust him onto an unexpected course. He was drafted into the Army and soon found himself piloting the top fighter airplane of the time, the P-38 Lightning, in the famed 94th 'Hat in the Ring' Fighter Squadron of the 1st Fighter Group. He flew 51 missions in the Mediterranean Theater flying over North Africa, Italy, and France, as well as over Central Europe, specifically Austria and Germany. He destroyed two enemy fighters, one probably destroyed and three more damaged. He also destroyed one on the ground. While flying over Italy, JG 77 Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves and Diamonds ace holder, Johannes Steinhoff's, aircraft, was slightly damaged by Vrilakas during a head to head confrontation, during Roberts return leg to his base, after the attack on the Foggia airfield in August 1943. Steinhoff claimed also 4 kills (159-162) on the returning Lightnings. He also saw action over Athens, Greece, stating that:
"I had relatives in Athens that I'd never met and it seemed strange to be part of a force to do damage there."
In Portland after the war, he met Jane Ann Good, and they were married on July 6, 1946. They would enjoy 68 years of marriage before Jane's passing in 2014. She and his family were the love of his life, but flying a P-38 came in a very close second, followed by a game of golf (he played his last game at age 97), and a dry martini. He made the Air Force a career after being recalled to service during the Korean Conflict. In 30 years of his career, he piloted many types of planes all over the world, and had tours of duty in Korea, Okinawa, Colorado, Germany, Delaware, California, Florida, Virginia, and Vietnam, flying P-51s and C-154s. He retired from service as a full colonel in 1973, by which time he had earned the Distinguished Flying Cross, two Presidential Unit Citations, nine Air Medals, three campaign ribbons, and two Bronze Stars. He settled in the Portland area (now Happy Valley). He opened a machine shop, Driveline Service of Portland, with his two sons in 1974. In 1980, he turned the successful business over to his sons. Never one who could be idle, when he retired from the Driveline shop, he wrote a critically and popularly acclaimed book, "Look, Mom, I Can Fly: Memoirs of a WWII P-38 Fighter Pilot". Before writing his book he already trusted his memoirs to the Greeks in Foreign Cockpits authors in order to be presented to the first volume of their research. Robert will always be remembered by Dimitris Vassilopoulos as he was the one who inspired him to write about Hellenic parentage pilots during WW2.
Further details can be found on Volume A' of 'GREEKS IN FOREIGN COCKPITS'