A taciturn old gent, Donald James Matthew Blakeslee was. But by the time he died at 90 in Miami, he had a lot he could have talked about. For he'd accumulated a chestful of medals in what for a certain generation is still referred to as The War, as if there hadn't been and wouldn't be another. By the time it ended, Col. Blakeslee had flown more missions and rung up more combat hours than any American fighter pilot in the Second World War: nearly 500 missions and some 1,000 hours in combat.
It took a while for the country to learn of the colonel's death because, out of respect for his lifelong reluctance to talk about his exploits, his daughter made no public announcement when he died back in September. She'd learned from her father, and he'd had more publicity than he'd ever wanted in this life.
All the old boy had sought since the time he was a teenager watching the Cleveland air races was to fly, fly, fly. Not talk about it. Once asked the secret of aerial warfare, the colonel responded: "Either you get on Jerry's tail or he gets on yours." End of quote. He was not a man to elaborate. He just got on with the job.
Col. Blakeslee's actions spoke louder than any words. By war's end, the Fourth Fighter Group he commanded, aka the scourge of the Luftwaffe, had destroyed a total of 1,020 German aircraft, shooting down 550 and destroying another 470 on the ground.
By 1943, his fighter group of three squadrons was being equipped, at his insistence, with the still new P-51 Mustangs. No one who's ever seen one of those babies up close and personal is likely to forget the sight. They seem all engine. The rest of the aircraft cockpit, fuselage, cross-firing machine guns and all was apparently just an afterthought.
Graceful the P-51s may not have been, especially when compared to the twin-bodied P-38 Lightning, but fast, formidable, brutally powerful, and efficient killing machines they most definitely were. A combination of American design and British mechanics the P-51 had a Rolls-Royce Merlin engine the plane was rolled into production in just 117 days, three days under a rushed wartime deadline in 1943.
The colonel got the new planes assigned to his command on condition that they be put into action immediately on delivery, leading him to tell his pilots to "learn how to fly them on the way to the target." Known for its high number of kills, his fighter group's aggressive style was a tribute to his daring, and his talent for command. He led by example.
Colonel Blakeslee's outfit would become the first to fly above the fleets of B-17s and B-24s over Berlin, swooping down on the swarms of German fighter planes out to intercept the bombers. In June of 1944, by when it was possible for American aircraft to overfly German territory, his group would escort the first flight of American shuttle bombers to land at Soviet bases, then return, bombing both ways. The trip took seven hours to cover more than 1,470 miles. If completed.
To quote Walter Boyne, a former director of the Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian, such a mission "required, particularly on the part of the fighters, great endurance and navigational abilities," straining both aircraft and pilot. It was all in a day's work for Col. Blakeslee, who would go on to pick up more Flying Crosses and Air Medals a decade later in Korea. The only thing that ever seemed to make him nervous was having to appear before the press.
Donald Blakeslee started his military career as a young volunteer flying Spitfires with the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1940, before the United States formally entered the war, then fought with the Royal Air Force, and transferred to the Army Air Forces in 1942. He may have fought in different uniforms and under different flags in his time, but always in the cause of freedom.
Who'd have thought a World War II fighter pilot destined to see so much action would die peacefully in his bed at a ripe old age? Somebody up there must have liked him.