Heroes of the 4th FW: Colonel Don Blakeslee

  • Published
  • By Dr. Roy Heidicker
  • 4th Fighter Wing historian
From the Army Air Corp's days of World War II up through today's Global War on Terror, the 4th Fighter Wing has provided many patriot heroes. 

If pressed to select the wing's greatest hero, my choice is clear. 

There is one person whose monumental achievements and contributions separate him from the pack. I will say that without this individual's boldness, leadership and guidance, the entire history of the wing would be dramatically different. This person is Col. Don Blakeslee, the wing's greatest combat leader of all time. 

Colonel Donald James Mathew Blakeslee was born in Fairport Harbor, Ohio, Sept. 11, 1917. He joined the Army Air Corps Reserve in 1938 but resigned just two years later to join the Royal Canadian Air Force. He was assigned to No. 401 Squadron May 1941 and shot down a German Me-109 that November. He was later assigned as commander of 133rd RAF Eagle Squadron. When the Eagle Squadrons joined the U.S. Army Air Force in September 1942, he was assigned as the commander of the 335th Fighter Squadron.
As the American 8th 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 helped Hitler conquer most of Europe and part of Russia. By war's end the Luftwaffe had 116 aces with over 100 victories, 13 aces with over 200 victories, and two aces with over 300 victories. This was the enemy from whom the 4th Fighter Group had to take back the skies over Europe. 

In January 1944, Colonel Blakeslee was given command of the group. He was the right man in the right job at the right time with the right tools - the group's Airmen and aircraft. Before he was through, he would mold the organization into the most lethal and efficient fighter group in the history of the Air Force. 

Colonel Blakeslee had been shooting down German planes since 1941. Whether protecting bombers, dueling fighters or strafing targets, he exhorted his wingmen to fight the enemy. 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. Eighth Air Force fighter pilots were required to fly 250 hours during their tour of duty. It is conservatively estimated that Colonel Blakeslee flew more than 1,000 combat hours during World War II. 

In no time at all Colonel Blakeslee's reputation was such that he led other fighter groups on their initial combat missions. During one of these missions, he flew the P-51 Mustang. Having flown Spitfires in the Eagle Squadrons, he could never get used to flying the P-47 Thunderbolt. He convinced the commander of the 8th Air Force Fighters to let the 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 his pilots flew into combat with less that one hour flying time in their Mustangs. 

By his own admission, Colonel Blakeslee was a lousy shot and got right up on his adversary before he opened fire. He is credited with 17 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, Colonel Blakeslee allowed the other pilot the credit. Because of that it is likely he actually had more than 30 victories. 

The following is an excerpt from the book "1,000 Destroyed" by Grover C. Hall, Jr. 

"Colonel 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 8th 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 a Russian shuttle mission, the group escorted B-17 Flying Fortresses from England to the Soviet Union. The bombers then bombed an oil refinery on their way to Italy. The B-17's were accompanied by Blakeslee's fighters as far as the Yugoslav coast where P-51's from the 15th Air Force, based in Italy, took over. The B-17's and Blakeslee's fighters 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 Colonel Blakeslee's leadership. 

Colonel 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 matched this total. The group 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 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 his leadership. The greatest air combat leader of all time is the single greatest hero in the wing's long and distinguished history. His legacy of patriotism and excellence is apparent in the selfless dedication of the men and women of today's "Fourth But First."