Monday, May 11, 2015

A Fighter Pilot's Worth

So, There I was….* Retired from the Air Force, settled into my second career in IT for a school district in the Hill Country in Texas (AKA God’s country).  One of the main attractions in my little Burg is the National Museum of the Pacific War which is more popularly known as the Nimitz Museum.  The Museum is Smithsonian in quality for its exhibits and its recording of stories of visiting WWII veterans and presenting them as vignettes in the relevant exhibit.  They also had an outstanding series of symposiums. 

These symposiums would focus on some aspect of the Pacific War and then bring in speakers who had either studied that aspect extensively, and usually had a book or three under their belt, or were participants in the battle/campaign.  Participants came from both sides with many Japanese in attendance.

Obviously as time continues to wreak its toll, finding participants has become more difficult.  Which is a pity as these symposiums were very, very good but they've been scheduled less frequently of late.  I had gone to a few of them, and because they were held at the local High School, I’d been asked to help out on one. 

The subject of this symposium was the Guadalcanal Campaign and was moderated by Cliff Robertson.  I’d read a lot about this campaign as a kid so was very interested in attending.  By happenstance, Microsoft chose the same weekend this was being held to release their new game “CombatFlight Simulator 2: Pacific Theater”.  To further the release, they gave the Museum 5 pre-release copies to use during the symposium.

The Museum asked me to set up the computers in the foyer of the auditorium, install the game and help attendees fly in between speakers.  I asked my teenage son if he’d be interested in helping out.  “Play a new game before it’s released?  Ok, Dad if you insist.”  It’s hard to be that cool, but he pulls it off.

It’s early Saturday Morning, I've got the computers up and running and am conducting some heavy testing of the software to make sure that it will stand up to anything our guests have to offer.  (I’m flying a Wildcat in the program and getting my butt handed to me.) 

One of the things I’d read about Guadalcanal was the tale of a young (21 years old) Marine with very little time in the Wildcat taking off on a mission, shooting down 5 Japanese airplanes and receiving the Medal of Honor.  So I’m trying to replicate this mission.  I’m fairly deeply involved in the game when I sense someone standing behind me.  Without turning around, (I was closing on a bad guy), I asked him if he’d like to take over.  He said “No thanks.”  I continued on and shortly thereafter shot down my target.  At which point, he says, “That’s not quite how it was.”  I pause the game and turn around.

Standing there is an older gentleman, not very big, maybe 5’5” or so.  Dressed nicely in a suit and around his neck is a sky blue ribbon from which is hung a five pointed star.  He’s the guy I’d read about as a kid and was currently simulating one of his missions. Here he is in the flesh.  

We chat for a couple of minutes about flying fighters.  I wanted to talk about Wildcats, he wanted to talk about Eagles.  Way too soon, one of the handlers came up and grabbed him as the symposium was about to start.  He was a panelist.

I go in to the auditorium and unfortunately he doesn't have a very big speaking part.  I don’t get an opportunity to talk to him again.  But, a post a few weeks ago where I quoted Pappy Boyington, brought him back to mind, so with the wonders of the Internet and Google,  I researched his story.

Col Jefferson J. DeBlanc USMC (ret) (February 15, 1921-November 22, 2007)
Source Wikipedia

He enlisted in the Naval Reserve in July 1941 and received flight training in New Orleans.  Commissioned in May of 1942  and completed training in August.  With a whopping 10 hours of flight time in the Wildcat he joined VMF-112 and arrived on Guadalcanal on November 2nd.  Ten days later, he shot down 3 Bettys, a Japanese Bomber.  

Mitsubishi G4M Betty
Source: Wikipedia

On 29 January 1943, he’s forced to ditch a Wildcat and is picked up by a US destroyer.
Grumman F-4F Wildcat
Source: Wikipedia

2 days later, he’s flying in support of a flight of Dauntless Dive Bombers, who will be attacking shipping near Kolombangara Island.

SBD Dauntless
Source: Wikipedia

Enroute to the target, he realizes his aircraft is leaking fuel, and if he continues, he will not have enough gas to return to Guadalcanal.  Two other aircraft have already turned back for the same reason.  He knows that if he turns back , there will not be enough friendly fighters to protect the SBDs.  So he elects to continue.
DeBlanc's Mission went from Bottom Right to Top Left a distance of about 225 Miles.  Kolombangara is the roundish island at the top of the line.
Source: Google Earth

As they approach the target area, the SBDs are attacked by two float planes.  DeBlanc attacks them and shoots both down, making him an Ace.

Mitsubishi F1M

Source: Wikipedia

As the SBDs start to leave the target area, DeBlanc sees a flight of Nakajima KI-43 “Oscar” fighters making for them. 

  1. Nakajima Ki-43
  2. Source: Wikimedia

He attacks them, damaging one and shooting down another.  As he’s attempting to disengage, he’s attacked by two more Oscars.  He shoots down one in a head on attack, but the other gets behind him.  Pulling a stunt straight out of the Tom Cruise playbook, he throttles back, spits the other fighter out front and gets his fifth kill of the day.  But…

There’s always ONE more.

Deblanc takes hits in the cockpit and engine area.  With the Wildcat on fire, DeBlanc bails out a very low altitude.  Chute opens successfully, and he lands safely in the water.  

Wounded in the back, arms and legs, he manages to swim for 6 hours and reach shore.  He survives for 3 days ashore with untreated wounds before he’s spotted by natives on the island.  Eventually, he is traded to a missionary for a bag of rice and makes his way into the hands of Coastwatchers who arrange a PBY pickup for him.

Now, my take on that.  First, 5 kills in one mission.  Juvat take: Most Excellent.  Getting shot down and losing two airplanes in 3 days.  Juvat take:  Needs work.  Swimming for 6 hours (while bleeding and in shark infested waters).  Juvat take: The Force is strong in this one!  Survive for 3 days while wounded.  Juvat take:  Yes, Very strong indeed!
In all seriousness, that takes a lot of guts and willpower.  I’m glad I met him and would have loved to hear him tell his story.  And thanks to the wonder of YouTube.

He went on to a follow on assignment in 1944 with VMF-422 in the Marshall Islands then was transferred to VMF-212 for the Okinawa campaign.  He ended the war with a final tally of 9 confirmed kills.

Rest in Peace, Colonel, you earned it.

So, what is a fighter pilot worth?  In Colonel Deblanc's words ""I got traded for a sack of rice! I know exactly how much I'm worth."

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as Leader of a Section of Six Fighter Planes in Marine Fighting Squadron ONE HUNDRED TWELVE, during aerial operations against enemy Japanese forces off Kolombangara Island in the Solomons Group, 31 January 1943. Taking off with his section as escort for a strike force of dive bombers and torpedo planes ordered to attack Japanese surface vessels, First Lieutenant DeBlanc led his flight directly to the target area where, at 14,000 feet, our strike force encountered a large number Japanese Zeros protecting the enemy's surface craft. In company with the other fighters, First Lieutenant DeBlanc instantly engaged the hostile planes and aggressively countered their repeated attempts to drive off our bombers, persevering in his efforts to protect the diving planes and waging fierce combat until, picking up a call for assistance from the dive bombers under attack by enemy float planes at 1,000 feet, he broke off his engagement with the Zeros, plunged into the formation of float planes and disrupted the savage attack, enabling our dive bombers and torpedo planes to complete their runs on the Japanese surface disposition and to withdraw without further incident. Although his escort mission was fulfilled upon the safe retirement of the bombers, First Lieutenant DeBlanc courageously remained on the scene despite a rapidly diminishing fuel supply and, boldly challenging the enemy's superior number of float planes, fought a valiant battle against terrific odds, seizing the tactical advantage and striking repeatedly to destroy three of the hostile aircraft and to disperse the remainder. Prepared to maneuver his damaged plane back to base, he had climbed aloft and set his course when he discovered two Zeros closing in behind. Undaunted, he opened fire and blasted both Zeros from the sky in short, bitterly fought action which resulted in such hopeless damage to his plane that he was forced to bail out at a perilously low altitude atop the trees on enemy-held Kolombangara. A gallant officer, a superb airman and an indomitable fighter, First Lieutenant DeBlanc had rendered decisive assistance during a critical stage of operations, and his unwavering fortitude in the face of overwhelming opposition reflects the highest credit upon himself and adds new luster to the traditions of the United States Naval Service.

 Sources Wikipedia


  1. I didn't like CFS2 as much as CFS. Graphics didn't seem quite right to me. And they gave the Bettys the Death Star 20mm in the tail; get within 10nm of the backside of those things and you'd blow up. Had to be the software, couldn't have been technique! ;)

    What an amazing story. What an amazing time and place.

    Bet he was a hell of a physics teacher!

    1. 10 NM is a bit excessive, but you certainly didn't want to be stable behind a tail gun. You're running in to his bullets while he's running away from yours. As long as there was sufficient altitude below them, my preferred method of attack on B-52s was from directly over head aiming for the wing root. (That was a lot of fun, but they're so darn big, they filled the screen before you were in range.)
      I've met 3 Medal of Honor recipients, the thing that impressed me the most with them was how normal they appeared. I think I expected an Arnold Schwartzenegger type person, but all three were just regular folk. Col DeBlanc just seemed like a laid back Cajun, so I think you're right, he probably was an excellent physics (and math) teacher.

  2. The Force was definitely strong in this one! A great man and an excellent history lesson, thanks!!

  3. Great story Juvat. Too bad you didn't get more time with the good colonel, I can picture you two shooting your watches.

    Very well done!

    1. Thanks Sarge, hope the vacation is going well.

  4. Great story, most excellent re-telling, and now I'm jealous of your opportunity!

  5. Perhaps he would have agreed with an Audie Murphy quote.
    “I’ll tell you what bravery really is. Bravery is just the determination to do a
    job that you
    know has to be done.”

    1. Great quote! A variation on one of my favorites. “Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway.”
      ― John Wayne

  6. That had to be a special moment... And sadly we're down to the last few of those gents.

    1. Yes we are, but they're still willing to take on tyrants. Thankfully.

  7. I've known Generals, sports stars and millionairs, but you want my attention wear " a sky blue ribbon from which is hung a five pointed star". I will sit up and take notice of a REAL MAN. You are very lucky.

    1. I also know a few of those type people. Like all generalizations, this view will have its exceptions, but my impression is that they tend to be "all about me". The three Medal recipients I've met all had the attitude of "I wear this to honor the other guys". I respect that.

  8. Wow.

    What a story Juvat! One of the things that amaze me about military (and especially WW2) aviation is the very small hours one accrued before being thrown into the fight. You had B-29 captains - maybe 20 years old - with 300 hours. Learn or die trying.

    You have to wonder how many were killed in training - I am sure the number was significant because a lot of those planes - particularity the 1500-2000 hp fighters were the epitome of piston design and would command respect today. Too much throttle on take off and the P-factor would flip you on the runway.

    I got to meet Pappy Boyington at the Reno Air Races. Like a lot of things at the time, you don't really realize the memory it will make but I remember it 30 years later. He seemed small in stature and on the quiet side.

    If you read the current Smithsonian Air & Space, they quote a number of WW2 aviators. Couple of stories resonated with me - the new B-29 gunner who is brought to Saipan (or Tinian), goes into an assigned Quonset hut for his bunk, and tells the Sgt that they all look assigned and taken.

    "No, they are all dead" was his reply.

    A fighter pilot said that in today's Air Force, safety is #1. "In my Army Air Corps, safety was #3 or #4. Winning the war was #1"

    Ballsy guys, those veterans.

    As for your chance encounter with Col DeBlanc, what a lifetime memory. Too bad you couldn't have continued the conversation.

    As an aside one of your fellow Texans has written a wonderful trilogy of German settlement in the Texas Hill Country - look up Celia Hayes. Adm Nimitz was one of those descendents.

    1. Tuna's got an interesting statistic in his post today about Air Corps losses. I knew they were high, and that they were more than the Marines (not that that's a contest worth winning), but I didn't realize how many more there were. I suspect you are right that the accident rate was high. I've read stories of B-17 losses from mid-air collisions in clouds. They would take off and do a spiralling climb until on top. With an entire Bomb Wing taking off from one base, the big sky, little airplane theory of collision avoidance would be stretched pretty thin..
      I'll look into Ms Hayes. Thanks for the tip.

  9. William May/

    Most front-line WW II fighters had no "trainer" variants. Getting checked out in one fresh out of plt tng usually meant a few hours of gnd school and memorizing/studying the tech manual, then an IP would ride on the wing as one taxied up and down the runway a few times giving instructions about the handling characteristics as he leaned into the cockpit talking to the pilot, then he'd hop off and you were on your own--solo time in a P-47, P-51. 38, F6F--whatever. A helluva way to learn to fly high performance fighter aircraft. And certain bombers were no walk in the park. The B-26 Martin Marauder was so hard to master (being on the cutting edge of hi-performance aircraft design w. a very high wing loading) that it suffered so many losses at its tng base in Tampa that it caused the phrase "One a day in Tampa Bay" to come into being..

    1. The post I had a few weeks ago when the Collings Foundation came to town talked about the B-17 and B-24, but they also brought what I thought was a P-51C. In actuality, it was a TP-51C. A purpose built Trainer version of the Mustang with two seats and two sets of controls. I didn't realize the significance of that until just now, because VX you're right (as usual). Most single seat folks didn't fly with an IP any time after they got their wings.

      Going through UPT and then into the F-4, my first rides were always with an IP or IWSO, it wasn't until I had a comparatively long time in the aircraft that I flew with a regular WSO and even then he was a more experienced one. Transitioning to the AT-38 was the same way. Fly with an IP.

      It was disconcerting when I transitioned to the Eagle, that my first ride was in a single seat C model, on the wing of an IP. There was a bit of a "gulp" when I released brakes for the first time (the IP took off in trail), but I tamed that by thinking there are 2LTs with a lot less time than me doing the exact same thing. If they can do it and survive, so can I.


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