Donald Blakeslee; World War II Combat Fighter Commander

Col. Donald Blakeslee receives the Distinguished Service Cross from President Dwight Eisenhower. Col. Blakeslee was commander of the first American fighter squadrons to reach Berlin during World War II.
Col. Donald Blakeslee receives the Distinguished Service Cross from President Dwight Eisenhower. Col. Blakeslee was commander of the first American fighter squadrons to reach Berlin during World War II. (Courtesy Of The Eighth Air Force Historical Society)
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By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 13, 2008

Donald J.M. Blakeslee, 90, commander of the first American fighter squadrons to reach Berlin during World War II and one of the most successful combat fighter commanders in the history of the Air Force, died Sept. 3 of congestive heart failure at his home in Miami.

Over the years, he shunned would-be biographers and publicity of any kind, said his daughter, Dawn Blakeslee of Miami, his only immediate survivor. She said she did not announce her father's death last month because of his reluctance to call attention to his wartime heroics.

On Jan. 1, 1944, the Ohio native was named commander of the 4th Fighter Group of the 8th Fighter Command. He assumed command at a time when the German Luftwaffe ruled the skies over Europe.

Roy Heidicker, the 4th Fighter Group historian, recalled that Col. Blakeslee's message to his pilots was simple and straightforward: "We are here to destroy the Luftwaffe and shoot the Germans out of the sky, and that's what we're going to do."

By May 1, 1944, the 4th had become the first in the European theater to record 500 kills, the most in American fighter group history. The group destroyed 207 German planes in one month alone. By the end of the war, Col. Blakeslee and his men had destroyed 1,020 enemy aircraft, 550 shot out of the air and 470 hit while on the ground.

"His courage, his leadership and his total, total dedication to the country and to the 4th Fighter Group make him the wing's greatest combat leader of all time," Heidicker said.

Donald James Matthew Blakeslee was born Sept. 11, 1917, in Fairport Harbor, Ohio. As a teenager, he fell in love with airplanes after watching them race every year at the National Air Races in Cleveland, and in 1938, he joined the Army Air Corps Reserve.

With Europe reeling from the Nazi onslaught, he was eager to fight, but the United States had not yet declared war. He resigned his reserve commission and joined the Royal Canadian Air Force. Assigned to a Canadian squadron in May 1941, he shot down a German plane that November.

He later became commander of the 133rd RAF Eagle Squadron, and when the Eagle Squadrons joined the U.S. Army Air Forces in September 1942, he became commander of the 335th Fighter Squadron. He became commander of the 4th Fighter Group on Jan. 1, 1944, at the age of 26.

"He was placed in charge of a bunch of prima donnas," said Col. Walter J. Boyne, former director of the National Air and Space Museum, in an interview with the Air Force Times.

"In the spring of 1944, his bosses instigated an 'ace race,' " Boyne said. "The emphasis was on a few pilots chalking up a lot of aerial victories. Blakeslee's challenge was to manage a bunch of swollen egos while accomplishing the real mission, which was to escort bombers."

Assuming command of the 4th Fighter Group, he told his pilots: "We are here to fight. To those who don't believe me, I 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."

His group was equipped with the P-47 Thunderbolt, but he pushed to replace the plane with the single-seat, single-engine P-51 Mustang, each equipped with six machine guns mounted in the wings. When the switch was approved, he told his pilots that they had to be ready within 24 hours of receiving them. "Learn how to fly them on the way to the target," he said.

On March 6, 1944, his Mustangs flew the first escort mission to Berlin, protecting a fleet of Boeing B-17s and Consolidated B-24s as they each dropped as much as 4,000 pounds of bombs on the German capital. Col. Blakeslee led the daylight raid from the front.

He admitted that he himself was not a very good shot. He had to be right on top of his adversary before he opened fire. He was credited with 15 1/2 victories during the war, although he invariably maneuvered his plane during dogfights so that junior pilots got credit for kills he could have gotten himself. Some military historians believe that he destroyed at least 30 German planes during more than 1,000 hours of combat flight.

His value lay in his leadership abilities. "He was everywhere in the battle, twisting and climbing, bellowing and blaspheming, warning and exhorting," historian Grover C. Hall Jr. wrote in his book "1000 Destroyed: The Life and Times of the 4th Fighter Group" (1978). "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."

Col. Blakeslee remained in the Air Force after the war. He led the 27th Fighter Wing in Korea and served in Vietnam before retiring to Florida in 1965.

His wife of 61 years, Leola Blakeslee, died in 2005.

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