Heroes of the 4th Fighter Wing: Colonel Don Blakeslee

  • Published
  • By Dr. Roy Heidicker
  • 4th Fighter Wing Historian

If pressed to choose the single individual who stands alone as THE greatest hero of the 4th Fighter Wing, my choice is clear. There is one person whose monumental achievements and contributions to the wing separate him from the rest of the pack. In fact, I will go so far as to say that without this particular individual's boldness, leadership, and guiding hand, the entire history of the 4th Fighter Wing would be dramatically different. This person is of course the incomparable Col. Don Blakeslee, the greatest hero of the 4th Fighter Wing and the greatest combat leader of all time.

Donald James Mathew Blakeslee was born Sept. 11, 1917, at Fairport Harbor, Ohio. In 1938, he joined the Army Air Corps Reserve but resigned in 1940 to join the Royal Canadian Air Force. Blakeslee was assigned to Number 401 Squadron May 1941 and shot down a German Me-109 that November. He was later assigned as commander of 133 RAF Eagle Squadron. When the Eagle Squadrons joined the USAAF in September 1942 he was assigned as the commander of 335th Fighter Squadron, 4th Fighter Group.

As the American Eighth Air Force was gearing up for war, it is well to remember the nature of the adversary. The German Luftwaffe and its pilots fought in the Spanish Civil War in the mid-1930s and had been fighting in World War II since 1939. The pilots were battle-hardened veterans and their fighter aircraft were first-rate. The Luftwaffe has helped Hitler conquer most of Europe and huge chunks of Russia. By war's end, the Luftwaffe had 116 aces with more than 100 victories, 13 aces with more than 200 victories, and two aces with more than 300 victories! (To put this in perspective, the greatest American ace of all time, Dick Bong, had 40 victories.) This was the enemy from whom the 4th Fighter Group had to take back the skies over Europe.

In January 1944, Blakeslee was given command of the 4th Fighter Group. He was the right man in the right job at the right time with the right tools. The right tools were the men and machines of the 4th Fighter Group. Before he was through Blakeslee would mold the organization into the most lethal and efficient fighter group in the history of the Air Force.

Blakeslee had been shooting down German planes since 1941. Whether protecting bombers, dueling fighters, or strafing targets, Blakeslee exhorted his men to "kill Germans!" Unlike high-ranking officers in the other services, an American fighter group commander led his men into battle and was face-to-face with the enemy, not some place behind enemy lines. Eighth Air Force fighter pilots were required to fly 250 hours as their tour of duty. It is conservatively estimated that Blakeslee flew more than 1,000 combat hours during World War II. Furthermore, it was rumored that a sergeant followed Blakeslee around with a clipboard, doctoring the records of his flying time so that some flights appeared to be training sessions rather than combat missions.

In no time at all, Blakeslee's reputation was such that he led other fighter groups on their initial combat missions. During one of these missions, Blakeslee flew the P-51 Mustang. Having flown Spitfires in the Eagle Squadrons, Blakeslee could never get used to flying the P-47 Thunderbolt, known as "the jug." He convinced the commander of the Eighth Air Force Fighters to let the 4th Fighter Group switch to Mustangs. He accomplished this by promising that the group did not need to be pulled out of combat in order to make the transition. As a result, some of Blakeslee's pilots flew into combat with less than one hour flying time in their Mustangs.

By his own admission, Blakeslee was a lousy shot and got right up on his adversary before he opened fire. He is credited with seventeen victories, an excellent score for a group commander. However in the melee of aerial combat, multiple pilots sometimes claimed the same aircraft shot down. Whenever that happened and he was one of the pilots claiming victory, Blakeslee allowed the other pilot the credit. Because of that, it is likely Blakeslee actually had more than 30 victories.

The following is an excerpt from the book 1,000 Destroyed by Grover C. Hall, Jr. "Blakeslee's worth lay in his matchless capacities as an air leader. He was everywhere in the battle, twisting and climbing, bellowing and blaspheming, warning and exhorting. His ability to keep things taped in a fight with 40 or 50 planes skinning and turning at 400 miles an hour was a source of wonder. On one Berlin attack Blakeslee was chosen to direct all the fighter planes in the Eighth Air Force, the magnitude of which assignment is understood when one considers that even No. 1s and 2s had difficulty in staying together in combat. That was 800 planes. Taking a group as a regiment, Blakeslee was commanding 15 regiments – an army!"

On the Russian Shuttle Mission the 4th Fighter Group escorted B-17 Flying Fortresses from England, across Europe to the Soviet Union. The bombers then flew to Italy, bombing an oil refinery on the way. They were accompanied by Blakeslee's fighters as far as the Yugoslav coast where P-51s from the Fifteenth Air Force, based in Italy, took over. Again escorted by the Fourth the B-17s made their way home to England bombing railroad yards in France en route. The operational diary of Blakeslee's Group shows that the entire Shuttle mission covered 6,000 miles, 10 countries and more than 29 hours of operational flying. This extremely complicated operation was successful largely to Blakeslee's leadership.

Don Blakeslee's physical stamina, courage, leadership, and determination forged the 4th Fighter Group into the greatest American fighter group of all time. By the end of World War II they had destroyed an astounding 1,016 enemy aircraft. No American group has ever, or will ever, match this total. The 4th Fighter Group under the guidance of Colonel Don Blakeslee was a key element in breaking the back of Hitler's Luftwaffe. By beating the most powerful air force the world had ever known, they became the greatest air force in history.

Colonel Donald J.M. Blakeslee set the standard for the 4th Fighter Wing. The drive to be the best and the will to overcome all obstacles were products of Blakeslee's leadership. His accomplishments make him the greatest air combat leader of all time. The greatest air combat leader of all time is the single greatest hero in the long and distinguished history of the 4th Fighter Wing. Blakeslee's legacy of patriotism, achievement of excellence, and overcoming evil is apparent in the selfless dedication of the men and women of today's "Fourth But First."

Don Blakeslee passed away on Sept. 3, 2008. When his ashes were interred at Arlington Cemetery the ceremony was attended by a number of 4th Fighter Group veterans. Despite their physical abilities being diminished with age, they traveled far to say good bye to their old boss. The level of their devotion to the man who had led them to victory over the Luftwaffe was the truest testament to the fallen leader. The 4th Fighter Wing had lost its greatest leader. He will never be forgotten.

Editor's Note: This article is part of a series celebrating the 4th Fighter Wing's 75th Anniversary and the great heroes associated with the unit.