Blakeslee interment,4th FG reunion experience memorable

  • Published
  • By Dr. Roy Heidicker
  • 4th Fighter Wing historian
On Sept. 18 at 11 a.m., the ashes of Col. Don Blakeslee and his wife Leola were laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. More than 100 people attended the ceremony including family members, veterans of the 4th Fighter Group, members of the Group Association and people who came to honor the memory of Colonel Blakeslee and his wife. Dawn Blakeslee, Don and Leola's daughter, with a minister by her side, followed the stately horse-drawn casket as it proceeded to the mausoleum. Regal in her bearing, Dawn's parents would be proud of the dignity she gave to the occasion.

Following Dawn was the procession of well wishers, colleagues and friends of Colonel Blakeslee. Most of the old warriors walked with canes or pushed a loved one in a wheel chair, but, like Dawn, their dignity and bearing revealed the respect and affection they all felt for the great man and his wife on this sad, but proud, day. Many, despite advancing years and declining health, travelled from across the continent to be there. This was a true testament to the devotion they felt to the greatest air combat leader of all time.

Following the interment, a reception was held at nearby Fort Myer. There I had the privilege of giving Dawn Blakeslee a personal letter from the current 4th Fighter Wing commander, Col. Mark Kelly. Dawn was leaving directly from Arlington but, because of the outpouring of support for her parents, changed her plans and decided to attend the Saturday reunion banquet.

After the interment the veterans and association members gathered at the Sheraton National Hotel in Arlington. In the "ready room" they looked at old photos and swapped war stories. My trusty camera person/wife Judine and I spirited away the four 4th FG veterans who had not attended the previous reunion so had not been interviewed. Then we had the distinct pleasure of hearing about the lives and deeds of these old warriors. Three pilots, one whom endured the hardships of being a prisoner of war, and an Air Service Squadron mechanic, filled the following hours with tales of high adventure, devotion to duty and comrades, and lives well lived.

Saturday morning the group took a tour of Washington, D.C. We drove past the majestic Air Force Memorial, with its three stainless steel spires that soar 270 feet into the air. It is a breathtaking sight as well as a marvelous tribute to the men and women of the Air Force. The highlight of the tour was the stop at the World War II Memorial on the Mall.

That evening the reunion banquet was attended by approximately 70 people. I would like to tell you our guest speaker was a great hero of World War II or one of our Wing's many aces. But it was only me. Although experienced and comfortable at public speaking, I felt like a little kid standing in front of class for the first time. I have never spoken to a group of people for whom I have so much respect.

I began by saying that I had been to the World War II Memorial before and intend to return again, but if I visit it 50 times I will never again experience the profound sense of awe I felt walking the grounds with our 4th FG veterans. Being in their presence as they viewed the statues and inscriptions confirmed that these people are our greatest generation. Their accomplishments in rescuing the world from the evils of fascism and totalitarianism may be equaled but will never be surpassed.

Then I read a letter from Colonel Kelly to the 4th Fighter Group veterans. Hearing that the current commander of the 4th FW fully understands and appreciates the legacy of Colonel Blakeslee and the mighty 4th FG let the assembled members know their deeds are appreciated by today's warriors. I think for many this was the best part of their evening.

My purpose in delivering my speech was to celebrate the triumphs of Colonel Blakeslee and the men he led. As Blakeslee and all the men who served in the group are such heroes of mine, the only difficulty I had in writing the speech was the frequent use of a thesaurus as I was running out of superlatives. The bottom line is that I was speaking to the greatest fighter group ever to take to the skies. This was a humbling experience to say the least.

I closed my talk with excerpts from an article published in the Wright Times several weeks ago. I recounted how I believe Captain Gramith and Captain McDowell, the 336th Fighter Squadron Rocketeers who were lost in Afghanistan in July, were met at their final destination by Don Blakeslee and 4th FG ace Don Gentile. In the story they are identified by Blakeslee and Gentile as members of the 4th FW and they are welcomed home.

Thanks to my good friend and colleague, Tom Lowery, who has spent many years documenting the 4th FG, I was able to provide an ending more fitting to the men who served with Colonel Blakeslee. In my speech I stated that McDowell and Gramith were met by Gentile and Blakeslee. In this version however, Blakeslee states, "You guys from the 4th FW? I'm Don Blakeslee. Come on in and have a beer. You're buying!"

In ancient Greek mythology it was important to provide the deceased a coin to pay the boatmen to cross the River Styx. The river formed the boundary between the Earth and the Underworld. In 4th FW mythology, when they are heading towards their final destination, I think it is prudent for our men and women who served to carry a few bucks, or perhaps an RMO (round metal object), which they can use to have a beer with the immortal Don Blakeslee.

For those of you reading this who might be saddened because you could not spend the weekend with our great veterans of World War II, I offer this consolation. Spend some time with any of the men and women in today's 4th FW. These modern warriors are made of exactly the same stuff as the heroes who came before.