Colonel Don Blakeslee was a fighter pilot, who proved to be one of the finest American combat leaders of the Second World War.
Colonel Don Blakeslee served in the Royal Canadian Air Force and the RAF before transferring to the USAAF, where he was considered one of the finest combat fighter leaders of the Second World War.
On January 1 1944 Blakeslee was appointed to command the 4th Fighter Group based at Debden, Essex. The role of the Group was to escort the Eighth Air Force’s long-range bomber force deep into enemy territory. A forceful, no-nonsense man, Blakeslee left his pilots in no doubt of what he expected of them when he addressed them for the first time: “We are here to fight,” he began. “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.”
His Group was equipped with the P-47 Thunderbolt, a fighter he had little time for. He worked hard to be re-equipped with the P-51 Mustang, and when this was approved he was told that his pilots had to be operational within 24 hours of receiving them. He agreed, instructing his pilots to “learn how to fly them on the way to the target”.
In March 1944 Blakeslee led the first Mustangs over Berlin, escorting a daylight-bombing raid. In just four months his aggressive leadership led to the Group’s achieving its 500th “kill”. On June 21 he led his fighters (known to the bomber crews they escorted as their “little friends”) on the first “shuttle” bombing mission to Russia by Eighth Air Force Flying Fortresses, a flight of 1,470 miles. Blakeslee and his pilots landed in Ukraine after seven hours in their single-engine fighters.
By his own admission Blakeslee was not a very good shot, and he flew very close to his adversary before opening fire. He was credited with 15 and a half victories, but when there was a multiple claim he always allowed junior pilots the credit. Many believe that he destroyed at least 30 enemy aircraft.
His greatest asset was his outstanding ability as a leader in the air. One eminent aviation historian wrote: “He was everywhere in the battle, twisting and climbing, bellowing and blaspheming, warning and exhorting. His ability to keep things taped in a fight with 50 planes flying at 400mph was a source of wonder.” One of his pilots described Blakeslee as “George S Patton Jr in a P-51 Mustang”.
Blakeslee forged the 4th Fighter Group into one of the most formidable and successful USAAF fighter combat units — many claim it was the best. By the end of the war it had become the top-scoring American fighter Group. Having flown more than 400 operational sorties since transferring to the USAAF, he was finally grounded in September 1944.
Donald James Mathew Blakeslee was born on September 11 1917 at Fairport Harbour, Ohio. As a boy he watched the Cleveland National Air Races and became fascinated by flying. In 1939 he and a friend bought a light aircraft, but when his friend crashed it Don left Ohio, in October 1940, to join the RCAF.
After completing his training he arrived in England in May 1941, joining No 401 (RCAF) Squadron, flying Spitfires from Biggin Hill. Engaged on sweeps over northern France throughout 1941, he was credited with destroying a Messerschmitt Bf 109 and damaging others. He also destroyed two aircraft on the ground during strafing attacks.
He later transferred to No 133, one of the three American-manned “Eagle” squadrons of the RAF, and during the Dieppe operation in August 1942 he shot down a Dornier bomber, probably destroyed a Focke Wulf 190, and damaged two others. He was awarded a DFC after completing 120 operations.
In September the Eagle squadrons were transferred with their Spitfires to the USAAF’s 4th Fighter Group, and Blakeslee took command of the 335th Squadron. The unit was soon re-equipped with the P-47, and in April 1943 he achieved the aircraft’s first success when he shot down a FW 190, followed shortly afterwards by a second. In May he was promoted to lieutenant-colonel and became the Group’s executive officer, continuing to fly in combat. As one of the most experienced American fighter pilots in Europe, he was asked to lead the recently arrived 354th Fighter Group on its initial operations. This was the first unit to be equipped with the P-51 Mustang, and he was able to claim another victory on the type. His experience with the 354th convinced him that the Mustang was superior to his own unit’s P-47s. A few weeks later he was promoted to colonel to command the 4th Fighter Group.
After he was grounded, Blakeslee returned to the United States to command an airfield in Florida. He remained in the USAAF and commanded a fighter wing. His later assignments included two tours in Germany and one in Korea, at HQ Tactical Air Command.
He saw service in Vietnam and retired from the Air Force in 1972 , when he went to live in Florida.
Blakeslee was one of America’s most decorated pilots: he was twice awarded America’s Distinguished Service Cross, as well as a Silver Star and numerous other medals.
Most fighter pilots enjoyed playing the role, sporting artwork on the noses of their aircraft as well as the tally of their scores. But for all his aggression and flamboyance in the air, this was not Blakeslee’s style. His aircraft bore no artwork and no “victory” crosses beneath the cockpit.
In later years, many aviation artists chose to paint a particular ace’s finest moment, usually an event relating to one of their air combats. The only painting Blakeslee ever officially approved was one that shows him standing in front of his Mustang pointing to his watch as he stands alongside a Russian officer. It depicts his arrival in Ukraine after his unique flight in June 1944 when he led the 4th Fighter Group across Germany and Eastern Europe using only a map on his knee and a watch.
He was greatly admired in the American fighter pilot community, which recognised him as one of the two outstanding pilots in the European theatre, the other being Colonel “Hub” Zemke.
In retirement Blakeslee was a private man who shunned publicity; but in July 2001 he agreed to visit Duxford with three other American “aces” for the Flying Legends Show.
Don Blakeslee died on September 3 2008. He married his wife, Lee, on his return to the United States in 1944. She predeceased him, and he is survived by their daughter.” ()