Col. Jefferson J. DeBlanc Sr.; WWII Ace Won Medal of Honor

Jefferson J. DeBlanc Sr. downed five Japanese planes before being shot down himself during a World War II mission.
Jefferson J. DeBlanc Sr. downed five Japanese planes before being shot down himself during a World War II mission. (Family Photo)
By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 26, 2007

Col. Jefferson J. DeBlanc Sr., 86, a retired Marine Corps fighter pilot who received the Medal of Honor after shooting down five Japanese warplanes during a World War II mission over the Pacific, died Nov. 22 of complications from pneumonia at Lafayette General Medical Center in Lafayette, La. A resident of St. Martinville, La., he was the state's last World War II Medal of Honor recipient.

On Jan. 31, 1943, then-Lt. DeBlanc took off from Henderson Field on Guadalcanal, leading a six-plane escort for a strike force of dive bombers that was to attack Japanese ships off Kolombagara Island in the Solomons. Two of the F4F-3 Wildcat fighters were crippled by mechanical problems shortly after takeoff, and the 21-year-old lieutenant, who already had three kills to his credit, was in trouble because of a malfunctioning auxiliary fuel tank. Although he knew he was too low on fuel to complete the mission and get back to Henderson Field, Lt. DeBlanc radioed his fellow pilots that he wasn't turning back.

As the American planes reached their rendezvous point, Japanese Zeros swarmed to intercept. The American pilots drove them away, but when Lt. DeBlanc saw that Japanese float planes had intercepted U.S. dive bombers beginning their attack, he descended and shot down two of them.

As the four remaining Wildcats headed home, a dozen Zeros emerged from the sun's glare. Lt. DeBlanc shot down one and destroyed another; he watched it explode directly in front of his plane. Flying through the debris, he shot down yet another, his fifth of the day, seconds before bullets shattered his cockpit. He said in a 1998 interview that he had just glanced at his watch when his instrument panel exploded in his face and the watch flew off his wrist.

Lt. DeBlanc bailed out into shark-infested waters and then had to decide whether to swim to Plum Island or try to make it to the larger Kolombagara Island. Supported by his life jacket but with salt water burning shrapnel wounds in his back, arms and legs, he swam to the larger island eight miles away. It took him all night.

For three days, he subsisted on coconuts until a group of indigenous people found him and bartered him to another tribe for a sack of rice. "Most people live their entire lives without knowing exactly what they're worth. I know exactly what I'm worth -- a 10-pound sack of rice," he said in a History Channel documentary that aired this year.

The second tribe hid him, cared for his wounds and then took him by outrigger canoe to the home of an Anglican missionary. The missionary contacted Allied authorities, who arranged for a Navy patrol bomber to land just off the island; tribal members paddled Lt. DeBlanc to the plane in a canoe. He made it back to the hospital at Henderson Field three days before his 22nd birthday.

Lt. DeBlanc saw action in several other campaigns. He shot down another enemy plane, a kamikaze, during the Battle of Okinawa, giving him a total of nine Japanese aircraft in two tours of duty. President Harry S. Truman awarded then-Capt. DeBlanc the Medal of Honor at a White House ceremony on Dec. 6, 1946. He also received the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Purple Heart and numerous other citations.

Jefferson Joseph DeBlanc Sr. was born in Lockport, La., on Feb. 15, 1921, and grew up in St. Martinville. As a boy, he became fascinated by aviation when a pilot made a forced landing near his home and allowed him to climb into the cockpit.

While a student at Southwestern Louisiana Institute (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette), he signed up for the Civilian Pilot Training program and learned to fly Piper Cubs. Entering the Naval Aviation Cadet Reserve program, he became a Marine fighter pilot and was sent to the Pacific in the fall of 1942.

After the war, Col. DeBlanc received his undergraduate degree from Southwestern Louisiana Institute in 1947, two master's degrees, in physics education in 1951 and mathematics education in 1963, from Louisiana State University and a doctorate in education from McNeese State University in 1973.

He was a math and science teacher in the St. Martinville schools, where he also served as supervisor of math and school transportation. After his retirement from full-time teaching, he taught physics in New Iberia, La., and was employed for several years by South Central Bell. After serving six years as commander of Marine Air Reserve Group 18 at Belle Chasse Naval Air Station, he retired from the Marine Corps Reserve in 1972.

Col. DeBlanc's wife, Louise B. DeBlanc, died in 2005.

Survivors include four sons, the Rev. Jefferson DeBlanc Jr. of Church Point, La., Richard DeBlanc of Coteau Holmes, La., Frank DeBlanc of St. Martinville and Michael DeBlanc of Parks, La.; a daughter, Barbara DeBlanc Romero of St. Martinville; seven grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

Rev. DeBlanc recalled accompanying his father to the Solomon Islands in 2002 for the Battle of Guadalcanal's 60th anniversary, which both American and Japanese veterans attended. "It was quite a moving experience," he recalled. "It was obvious that they were all acutely aware of the sacrifice that their comrades in arms had made."

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