Hope and freedom

  • Published
  • By Dr. Roy Heidicker
  • 4th Fighter Wing Historian
Being a historian often means having the past insert itself into the present. This happens in particular when dealing with a crisis or a tragedy. Such is the case with the loss of Capt. Thomas J. Gramith and Capt. Mark R. McDowell of the 336th Fighter Squadron "Rocketeers." Their loss in Afghanistan has brought the harsh realities of war to our wing, base and the Goldsboro community.

While learning more about this sad event I could not help being reminded of another day, another tragedy that took place during World War II to the 133rd Eagle Squadron which became the 336th Fighter Squadron after America entered the war.

On Sept 26, 1942, just three days before the Eagle Squadrons became the 4th Fighter Group, the Morlaix tragedy occurred. That day, all 12 Spitfires of the 133rd Squadron took off on what was supposed to be a routine mission escorting B-17 bombers to destroy railway yards and a Focke-Wulf factory in Morlaix, France. Don Gentile, an Eagle Squadron pilot in the 133rd, was "bumped" from the mission at the last minute. The routine mission instead turned into a disaster. Extremely adverse weather, navigation problems and the German Luftwaffe destroyed 11 planes. Four pilots were killed and seven captured. One Spitfire crashed in England and the pilot survived.

All the planes in the squadron and all the pilots, save one, were lost. Gentile learned of the disaster listening to a Nazi propaganda broadcast on the radio. "Gentle" overcame his sorrow and went on to become one of the greatest aces in the 4th Fighter Group and was called by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower a "one man Air Force."

Immediately thereafter, James "Goody" Goodson, who would also become one of the great aces of the 4th, was transferred to the 133rd. Years later, Goodson recalled, "The first time the war really came home to me was when I walked into the terribly silent barracks in 133rd Squadron after the tragedy of Morlaix. There were all these little things lying around. I'll never forget seeing the half-written letter from someone to his mother and the rooms waiting for someone to return."

Soon after, upon meeting Goodson and another pilot, Capt. Don Blakeslee, the newly appointed commander of the 133rd Squadron simply stated, "You pilots? I'm Don Blakeslee." He then proceeded to rebuild the devastated squadron. Blakeslee gathered his new Spitfires on the airfield and his new pilots at the bar. After buying drinks until around 1:00 a.m., he announced all pilots were to be prepared for take-off at 6:00 a.m. At the pre-flight brief Blakeslee ordered the entire squadron to take off simultaneously, as a single unit. This was a drastic departure from the normal procedures of Spitfires taking off only in pairs.

Trepidation and disbelief among the pilots quickly turned to confidence and hope. The squadron formation soared over the heads of the other Eagle Squadrons, the 71st and the 121st, who looked up in admiration. The 133rd, future 336th Fighter Squadron, returned and landed in formation. Don Blakeslee, soon Col. Blakeslee, became the commander of the 4th Fighter Group. Under his inspired leadership the 4th destroyed 1,016 German aircraft, a record that will never be equaled by any group or wing. Thus began the legend of the "Fourth But First." Col. Blakeslee is considered by many to be the greatest air combat leader of all time.

Colonel Mark D. Kelly, 4th Fighter Wing commander, when speaking of the loss of Captains Gramith and McDowell, stated that America's two greatest exports are hope and freedom. I would submit that the "exporters" of hope and freedom, our young men and women in uniform, provide these precious gifts through their dedication and sacrifice. Certainly training, skill and expertise are essential, but dedication and sacrifice are the keys. Colonel Kelly has stated that young girls in Afghanistan now have the freedom to go to school and the hope to have a rich and rewarding life through the absolutely incredible dedication and sacrifice of young Americans.

Captain Gramith and Captain McDowell have reminded us that the willingness to endure "the last full measure of devotion" is what differentiates these true heroes from those who merely observe the actions of others. The 336th Fighter Squadron Rocketeers are in the fight, confronting evil, defending America and exporting hope and freedom. All of our men and women in uniform - serving, fighting, having fought or entering the fray - bring this extraordinary sense of dedication and sacrifice to the struggle. They are easily the equal of our greatest generation because they are so few and have fought for so long for a nation that can never fully understand the extent and depth of their sacrifice.

Through all of our wars since and including World War II, the Rocketeers and the 4th Fighter Wing have been the tip of the sword. Their achievements can only be believed because they actually accomplished them. The tragedy at Morlaix is part of their story, their legacy, their sacrifice and their honor. Our squadrons, Rockets, Chiefs, Eagles, Lancers and the entire wing are the best of who we are as Americans. The lives they live are such that most people could only aspire to live lives with such purpose and meaning. Captain Gramith and Captain McDowell are now part of the heritage and the collective memory of this storied wing.

More than 50 years ago Don Gentile died serving his nation when his aircraft went down. Don Blakeslee passed away only last year. I believe their bonds of brotherhood grant them membership in an exclusive and immortal fraternity of warriors. I also believe when McDowell and Gramith arrived at their destination, they were met by Gentile and Blakeslee. Blakeslee greeted them and asked, "You two from the 4th? I'm Don Blakeslee. Welcome home."