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 Fighter Group
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 Europe.
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 100 victories.
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 doubled.
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 Germany."
GENTILE'S 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 career.
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 Debden.
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 you."
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, 1944.