Donald J.M. Blakeslee and Battle of Germany, 1944.
"The Fourth Fighter
Group is going to be the top Fighter Group in the Eighth Air
Force. We are here to fight. To those who don't believe me I would
suggest transferring to another group. I'm going to fly the arse off
each one of you. Those who keep up with me, good; those who don't, I
don't want them anyway." Don Blakeslee, upon assuming command January
To understand the Fourth Fighter
Group , how it went from a middling-successful unit with a
reputation bigger than its accomplishment, to the top-scoring American
fighter group of history; from a score of 150 on January 1, 1944 to a
score of 650 on May 1, 1944, is to confront the phonomenon that was
Donald James Matthew Blakeslee, called by one who knew him, "George S.
Patton Jr. in a P-51."
Don Blakeslee was born in 1918 in Fairport Harbor,
Ohio, to a family who were among the original pioneers of the Ohio
River Territory in the late 18th Century. As a teenager, he went wild
over airplanes at the National Air Races held every year in Cleveland.
In 1939 he and a friend bought a Piper Cub, which the friend then
crashed. Blakeslee went to Canada in 1940 and joined the RCAF. He
relieved his mother's anxiety by telling her he would always be an
instructor, and maintained the illusion even after he had shot down his
first German plane.
Blakeslee arrived in England 15 May 1941, where he
was assigned to a squadron at Biggin Hill. By the summer of 1942, he
was a flight leader who had completed his first tour of 200 hours with
3 victories. When told he would become the instructor he had promised
his mother, he finally volunteered to be sent to 133 Eagle Squadron,
which was the only way he could stay on combat status. Blakeslee had
studiously avoided being part of the Eagles, claiming "they played
sister in making their claims." When the Eagles transferred
to the USAAF, Peterson, Daymond and others with less combat experience
than Blakeslee were commissioned as Majors, while he was commissioned a
Captain, an event that soured him even more on the unit.
EISENHOWER VISITS DEBDEN. (l. to
r.)General Eisenhower, C.G., SHAEF Capt. Don Gentile, Col. Don
Blakeslee. Award of the Distinguished Flying Cross, April 1944.
In his autobiography, "Tumult In The Clouds," James
A. Goodson, the top-scoring ace of the 4th Fighter Group, remembered
Don Blakeslee: "While no one questioned his talent in the air, many in
the top command had less confidence in his behavior on the ground. He
had established his reputation at the time of transfer, by choosing the
very night before General Hunter's visit to entertain two female WAAF
officers in his barrack room. The General started his tour early the
next morning. Warned of the approaching danger, the two WAAFs just had
time to cover some of their embarassment and scramble out the barracks
window right into the path of the General and his staff. Told that
Blakeslee would be demoted and transferred, General Hunter remarked,
'For one, maybe; but for two! He should be promoted!'"
COL. HUBERT "HUB" ZEMKE C.O., 56th
Blakeslee would eventually be recognized as one of
the two finest combat fighter commanders in the history of the United
States Air Force, the other being Col. Hubert "Hub" Zemke, Commanding
Officer of the 56th Fighter Group, "The Wolfpack." The two were as
different as night and day. Blakeslee was the great exponent of the
P-51 Mustang, while Zemke was the man who tamed the P-47 Thunderbolt.
Pilots saw one or the other as greater according to which one he had
flown with, which makes it a case of honor for all. Zemke died in 1994,
but to this day the two men are the center of awe, respect and
affection among those still alive who flew with them out of England
over Germany during the great daylight air battles in 1943 and 1944
that determined whether the Allies would be able to mount the
cross-Channel invasion that led to the liberation of Nazi-occupied
Both Zemke and Blakeslee were aces themselves, but
they commanded men with higher scores. Zemke was stiff as a pilot,
Blakeslee couldn't hit the broad side of a barn from 50 feet with a
full burst from his P-51's six 50-caliber machine guns. He used to
laugh at the other aces that, "you dead-eye shots take all the fun out
of it. When a guy like me is motoring along and has to start hosing
them down to see where the bullets are going, that's when it's fun."
Both shared the uncommon knack of leadership in combat. Blakeslee was
the only fighter leader who could actually maintain control of the unit
once a melee began. He might not have been a good shot, but he was
capable of playing championship three-dimensional chess at speeds of
400 m.p.h. He was rapacious, explosive, easy to drink and jest with,
but difficult to understand. Where Zemke was a student of tactics,
Blakeslee played by ear.
SIX ACES BLAKESLEE COMMANDED. (Clockwise
from lower left) Lt. Col. Duane Beeson, CO, 334th FS; Capt. Nick
"Cowboy" Megura; 1st Lt. John T. Godfrey; Maj. James A. Goodson, CO,
336th FS; (center) Capt. Don Gentile. Between them, they scored over
As much as Zemke loved the Thunderbolt, Blakeslee
hated it, despite being the first American fighter pilot to score a
victory while flying the P-47, when he shot down a FW-190 off the coast
of France on April 15, 1943. Blakeslee dove on three Focke-Wulfs,
catching one which tried to outdive him, only to explode under the
combined impacts of 8 50-caliber machine guns 500 feet over Ostend,
Belgium. When he was congratulated for proving that the Thunderbolt
could out-dive the Focke-Wulf, Blakeslee replied, "By God it ought to
dive, it certainly won't climb!"
The normal tour for a fighter pilot in the ETO was
250 combat hours. No one really knows how many hours Blakeslee finally
totalled, because he would log the time when he led another group on
their initial combat operations as "training," and would "forget" to
enter missions in his logbook where nothing happened. The best estimate
is that between his first operation on 15 May 1941 and his last combat
flight on 11 October 1944, Don Blakeslee flew approximately 1,200
combat hours, the American record.
THE BRASS VISIT DEBDEN. (l.to r.)Gen.
Eisenhower; Gen. Carl Spaatz; Gen. Jimmy Doolittle, CO 8th Air Force;
Gen. William Kepner, CO, 8th AF Fighter Command, Col. Don Blakeslee.
Most fighter pilots played to the crowd, crushing
their hats in the "50 mission look," putting their girl's name on the
nose of their plane beneath their scores. Blakeslee did none of this.
His hat was "G.I.," and so were his airplanes, none of which ever wore
a personal name or carried a "victory" cross under the cockpit. His
official score is 15, but those who flew with him think it should be
In recent years, many aviation artists have done
paintings of a particular ace's "finest moment," usually something
having to do with air combat. The only painting Don Blakeslee has ever
officially approved is one that shows him standing in front of his P-51
pointing to his watch as he speaks to a Russian officer. The moment
commemorates June 21, 1944, the day Don Blakeslee led the Fourth Fighter
Group from Debden, England, to Poltava, Ukraine, flying across
Germany and Eastern Europe by dead-reckoning, using only his watch and
a map on his knee, to land at exactly his ETA. This story tells all one
needs to know of the kind of man Don Blakeslee is.
RETURN FROM RUSSIA. Gen. William Kepner,
CO 8th Fighter Command weclomes Col. Blakeslee on his return to Debden
from the Russia shuttle mission. July 1944.
Blakeslee found his Bucephalus the day he led the
354th Fighter Group on their first mission, a sweep over Northern
France, in early December 1943. The 354th, a unit assigned to the
tactical Ninth Air Force, was the first fighter group to take the
Merlin-powered P-51B Mustang into combat. Blakeslee led the group on
two more "practice" missions, and became convinced he had found the
plane the Fourth had sought since being turned out of their Spitfires a
year previous. On January 1, 1944, two months shy of his 26th birthday,
Blakeslee took command of the Fourth and made it his job to get them
the Mustang at the first opportunity.
By February, 1944, the 8th Air Force had enough
bomber groups that it was ready to make the large-scale sustained raids
necessary to confront the Luftwaffe and create air superiority over
Continental Europe. Famed aviation pioneer James A. "Jimmy" Doolittle
had assumed command of the 8th AF in January, with the directive that
he was to initiate "Operation Pointblank," the destruction of the
Luftwaffe through bombing of aircraft factories and destruction of
German aircraft in combat in the air and on the ground.
BRIEFING FOR A MISSION. Blakeslee Briefs
His Pilots Leading Group Ace James A. Goodson is lower left.
The Luftwaffe had badly bloodied the Eighth during
the unescorted deep penetration daylight raids of 1943, to the point
the USAAF had been forced to call off further raids following "Bloody
Thursday," the Schweinfurt Raid of October 14, 1943, in which 60 of 290
bombers were shot down by defending German fighters, while so many were
damaged that the Americans were left with fewer than 100 bombers able
to take to the air the next morning.
The magnitude of this defeat has never been
publicly admitted by the American Air Force, inasmuch as they were
"saved" by the weather over Germany, which prevented large-scale
deep-penetration raids until December 17, 1943, by which time the first
group of Mustangs was ready to support the bombers over the target.
THE COST. A B-17 Goes Down Over Germany.
None of the 10 Crewmen Got Out.
The maximum-effort raids of February 1944 are known
to history as "The Big Week," though in fact they stretched over every
clear day during the month. With the P-47s now equipped with two drop
tanks instead of one - effectively doubling their range - and with the
357th Fighter Group transferred with its Mustangs from 9th to 8th Air
Force, and more groups ready to convert to the P-51 from the P-47, the
Americans began the battle of attrition over Germany that would result
in not one serious German air attack on the beaches of Normandy four
months later. In this series of air battles, the Luftwaffe began to
hemorrhage the "old hares" - the experienced veterans - as they
suffered more pilot losses in this month than in the entire of the
daylight raids of 1943 combined.
The Fourth put in such a good performance during
"Big Week" that Blakeslee was able to argue that the group should be
given higher priority for re-equipment with the Mustang, inasmuch as
his ex-RAF pilots had so much experience with Merlin-powered Spitfires.
"I'll have them operational in 24 hours," he promised General Kepner.
On February 24, the first four Mustangs arrived at Debden, with the 46
others arriving over the next 48 hours. When the group flew its first
mission 24 hours later, the pilots had on average one hour and ten
minutes' familiarization time in their aircraft.
GROUND CREW. Don Gentile's Crew Chief,
Sgt. Tony Cardella note acute angle of machine guns.
The P-51B of this period was not the Mustang that
has come down in history. It was not fully-developed and was
mechanically unreliable. Most important, the four guns were set in the
wings at an acute angle, which made them prone to jamming under any
level of g-force in maneuvering; often a pilot was reduced to only one
weapon within moments of opening fire. Additionally, the extreme cold
at high altitude froze the oil in the weapons. So far as the Merlin
engine was concerned, the U.S.-produced version - the Packard-Merlin -
had problems operating with the poor-quality British aviation gasoline
until the groups managed to scrounge British spark plugs. In fact,
during the great battles of March and April, 1944, more P-51s were lost
to mechanical failure than to enemy action. Despite this, the Mustang
changed the tide of the air battle. Luftwaffe commander Hermann
Goering, interviewed after the war, related that when he looked up on
March 6, 1944, and saw Mustangs escorting the B-17s and B-24s in the
first daylight raid on Berlin, "I knew the jig was up."
The Fourth Fighter Group began "Big Week" with a
score of 150, which included 100 victories gained when the squadrons
were in the RAF. By mid-March, 1944, the group had scored its 400th
victory, and by the end of March, its 500th. In mid-April, 1944,
Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower came to Debden to
award Col. Don Blakeslee and Capt. Don S. Gentile the Distinguished
Flying Cross for their efforts in what was now seen as "The Battle of
LAST BUZZ JOB.
For Blakeslee, Eisenhower's visit and the award
were bittersweet. 8th AF, in an ttempt to gain publicity for the
"Little Friends," had instituted an "ace race" to see which fighter
pilot in the ETO would be the first to equal Captain Eddie
Rickenbacker's score. The emphasis on individual acheivement was
detrimental to the team spirit Blakeslee believed in. Don Gentile
became the leading contender, then controversy surrounded his score
because of "ground kills" recognized only by 8th AF. When Gentile
buzzed Debden on his last mission and crashed, he violated Blakeslee's
one standing order: "He who prangs his kite goes home." The Brass
weren't going to send their leading ace home in disgrace, and Blakeslee
lost the first of many political battles he would lose in a 30 year
By mid-April, the Fourth was closing on 600 ground
and air victories. This achievement did not come without a price. Of
the men who sat in the pilots' briefing room to hear Blakeslee on the
first morning of "Big Week," half would be dead or Prisoners of War in
Germany within six weeks, including two-thirds of the group's aces. The
majority of these losses came in ground strafing missions against
German airfields, after the Luftwaffe stopped coming up in force to
oppose the raids following catastrophic losses in the series of Berlin
raids and others in March. At one point, losses in the group were so
heavy that replacement pilots at a depot refused orders to report to
BLAKESLEE IN REPOSE. Even in a quiet
moment, a coiled spring.
By September, 1944, the Allies had achieved air
superiority over Germany, and were on their way to achieving air
supremacy. With its fuel supplies hit hard by the bombers, and with its
experienced core either dead or so badly wounded they could never fly
again, the Luftwaffe could not meet the American fighters head-on in
the daily raids. Blakeslee's days were numbered. On September 30, 1944,
Hub Zemke was lost over Germany in bad weather and became a POW. On
October 11, Blakeslee led the Fouth on an uneventful escort. General
Kepner, C.O. of 8th Air Force Fighter Command, was waiting when
Blakeslee returned to Debden. Blakeslee couldn't believe it when he
heard Kepner say, "You're grounded. I can't afford to lose both of
A few days later, Blakeslee went flying, alone. He
returned to the field, his mind obviously elsewhere, and landed
gear-up. The man whose only rule for his pilots was, "He who prangs his
kite goes home!" followed his own order, though it was actually a
promotion to the Fighter Command staff.
Don Blakeslee remained on active duty and spent
thirty years in the U.S. Air Force. He never rose above the rank of
Colonel, not being the kind of officer who could play "politics." He
led the 27th Fighter Wing and took the F-84 Thunderjet to Korea and
served in the Vietnam War before he retired to Florida in 1972, where
he has lived since in self-ordained obscurity.
On the way to Russia. Col. Blakeslee, in his P-51
WD-C (left) leads 4th Fighter Group shuttle mission to Russia, June 21,