Marine Corps Heroes
"...To this day I would recognize his face," De Blanc said. "He came up close and we looked at each other from out cockpits. We were right adjacent to each other, flying wingtip to wingtip. I'd like to say he knew he was a dead man, but I won't say that..."
Jeffery J. "Jeff" De Blanc
- Branch of Service: USMC
- Unit: VMF 112
- Dates: 1941 - 1945
- Location: Pacific Theater
- Rank: Pilot, Capt., Congressional Medal of Honor
- Birth Year: 1921
- Entered Service: St. Martinville, LA
Working as a fighter instructor in El Toro, Calif., De Blanc was training student officers for combat when he struck a pose in front of this Corsair fighter. "As a pilot, you only fight for a few minutes at a time," he told his brother. "A fellow on the ground, he fights 24 hours a day. It's two different breeds of men."
Photo Courtesy of Jeff De Blanc
ABOVE AND BEYOND
Flying ace Jeff De Blanc, Louisiana's last
surviving World War II Medal of Honor
winner, has an extraordinary tale to tell. In
a ferocious dogfight over the Pacific Ocean,
he shot down six Japanese fighters in 30
minutes before bailing out of a burning
plane. Then the real adventure began.
By Elizabeth Mullener
It was a cloudy day in December 1946 when Jefferson Joseph De Blanc stood solemnly in the Oval Office of the White House as President Harry Truman placed the Congressional Medal of Honor around his neck.
De Blanc had dusted off his Marine Corps uniform for the event, with its olive green jacket, khaki shirt and snug-fitting cap. His wife, Louise, wore the new suit and the black hat she had bought at Abdall's department store in New Iberia. His father was there, and his two sisters, as well as his boss at the sawmill back home in Acadiana, who had provided the Ford sedan they drove across the country. The commmandant of the Marine Corps was there, too. It was a memorable occasion.
"I'd rather have that medal than be president of the United States," Truman told De Blan c as he shook his hand.
An undergraduate at the University of Southwestern Loisiana, De Blanc was just 25 and newly married to his highschool sweetheart. The telegram notifying him of his selection had come about a month earlier, as a complete surprise.
With his wife, Louise, by his side, Capt. Jeff De Blanc received the Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation's highest distinction, from President Harry Truman in 1946.
Photo Courtesy of Jeff De Blanc
COURAGE in the SOLOMON SEA
"It was nice," he said. "But I'm not one to get excited over anything. I was honored ot get it, don't get me wrong. But I've know too many people who deserved it who are dead. I lost some good friends I think should have had it."
Nevertheless, when the moment came, it felt Poignant.
"I was thinking about my friends." he said. "I felt like I received it for them. O with them."
When he got back home from Washington, De Blanc had another surprise waiting: The people of St. Martinville had taken up a collection to buy him a watch, all chrome, with a 24 hour dial. It was something he treasured.
"I don't look at myself as a hero," he said. "I think anybody who had been in my shoes at that time whould have done the same thing under those circumstances."
But then again, the circumstances of De Blanc's heroism were utterly extraordinary, so his modest assertion is not likely to be put to the test.
Jeff De Blanc, had to fish around in a china cabinet to find his Medal of Honor, which was awarded "for conspicuous gallantry and intrepedity, at the risk of his life, above and beyond the call of duty." He is the last of Louisiana's Medal of Honor winners from World War II. Behind him, on the wall in his den, is an oil painting of the Corsair, one of the fighters he flew in the Pacific theater.
Staff Photo by Andrew Boyd
Doing his duty
If the day he was awarded the Medal of Honor was sweet and ceremonious, the day he earned it was anything but.
De Blanc is animated as he tells the story, sitting at a table in his unpretentious home in St. Martinville, his cornflower-blue eyes intense, his language inflected with the rythms of Acadiana. He still marvels at some of the details; he still appreciates his youthfull enduranceds; he still shakes his head at the adventures that came his way. And he still feels a deep sense of gratitude to the man he says saved his life -- the man with whom he is prepared to rendezvous soon halfway around the world.
His story starts on Jan. 31, 1943, in the Solomon Islands, a long chain of tropical, jungle-ridden spots on the map of the South Pacific.
It was 3 p.m., and he was playing acey-deucey with his buddies when orders came down for eight figher pilots to escort a group of 12 dive-bombers on a mission. There had been reports that a Japanese fleet had been spotted making its way towards Guadalcanal. The dive-bombers were dispatched to attack the fleet; the fighters were dispatched to protect the bombers and dispel any enemy planes that were trying to do them harm.
De Blanc drew a plane named "Impatient Virgin" that afternoon with a curvaceous blond painted on its side. A Grumman Wildcat, it was a one-man plane equipped with six .50-caliber machine-guns and an armored plate in its rear. The fabled Japanese Zero, its opposite number, was unquestionably superior in its maneuverability. De Blanc says, but with only two small machine guns and two cannons, it was weak in armament and at a definite disadvantage when it was on a Wildcat's tail or in a nose-to-nose encounter.
"The Zero could run circles around us," De Blanc said, "But head-on, he's a dead man."
It was 5 p.m. befoe the bombers and he Wildcats hit their mark in the sky, De Blanc already knew he was in trouble: His gas gauge was dropping fast and he was approaching the point whee he wouldn't have enough fuel for the return trip. He grabbed his slide-rule and did some figuring. then he weakened his gas mixture. Soon he weakened it some more. Still the gauge was quivering and dropping mysteriously.
"I had drawn a lemon," he said. "A gas guzzler."
De Blanc would have been justified in turning around and heading back to base at that point. Two of his comrades already had. Nevertheless, he forged ahead.
"I'm not heroic," he said, "but I'm going to do my duty."
"We needed all the guns we could get up there to escort those dive bombers. I figured if I run out of gas, I run out of gas. I figured I could survive a bailout. I had confidence in my will to survive.
"You've got to live with your conscience. And my conscience told me to go ahead."
By this time, the pilots had spotted the Japanese fleet below. The dive-bombers began bombarding their targets. And the Japanese started retaliating with anti-aircraft fire.
Image is entitled: Lost and Found and is a map depicting the events as detailed in the story.
Staff Grahic by Charles Chauff
Point of no return
An ace is a pilot who has shot down five enemy planes in the course of his career. De Blanc shot down five -- and probably six -- in the next 30 minutes.
The first two were float planes -- small biplanes that fly low, usually patrolling for enemy submarines, with pontoons for landing on water. They were racing in to knock out the American bombers. De Blanc went into action. The first float plane he hit went into a firey tailspin. The second exploded with a flash. De Blanc says, that matched the setting sun.
"There were two of them going after one of our dive-bombers. They would have nailed him. No way they could have missed. I burned them both," he said.
Moments later, De Blanc heard a comrade shout one loud, short, frantic word over his radio.
"ZEROS!" the man said.
And there they wee -- 10 or 12 of them, De Blanc still isn't sure -- heading straight for him as he hovered just 50 feet over the water without enough room to maneuver.
Miraculously, the Zeros didn't see De Blanc since he was flying so low, and that gave him a chance to fire first.
He is sure he got the leader, although he was never able to verify it because nobody saw him splash. That was his third hit. Then he got the leader's wing man, locking onto his tail and following him into a slow roll upward. That was a fourth.
"He was looking around, trying to figure out what was happening," De Blanc said. "I nailed him."
Meanwhile, the American dive bombers were going afer one of he ships in the Japanese fleet -- the Toa Maru, which was carrying tanks and ammunition to Guadalcanal. But they couldn't get a hit. Frustrated, De Blanc and his fellow pilots strafed the ship with incendiary shells and set fire to the cargo inside the hold. When the Japanese couldn't put the fire out, they scuttled the ship.
And then the action intensified.
"We had the biggest dogfight you've ever seen," De Blanc said.
Zeros came from all directions. De Blanc and his buddies flew a scissors maneuver to cover each other's tail and evade the enemy. but ultimately his buddy got picked off and the Zeros inflicted some minor damage on De Blanc's Wilcat.
For a few moments, the sky cleared, De Blanc took a glimpse at his gas gauge and saw that it was dangerously low, way beyond the point of no return. He also spotted tow Zeros closing in on him from behind.
He had a decision to make. If he engaged the Zeros in combat, he surely would run out of gas, but he could divert them from attacking the bombers. If he didn't engage, he could seek safety in the company of the bombers, which already were beginning to organize for the trip back to base and could report his whereabouts if he had to bail out.
He tried his luck and took on the Zeros.
It was getting dark by thn, and the tracers from the enemy planes looked like a pair of rail road tracks coming at him out of the twilight, he says. He fired a shot an one of the Zeros burst into flames.
But it kept coming at him.
"He was going to ram me!" De Blanc said, "Kamikaze style.
"I was really frightened then. So I just held the tgrigger down and he blew up into pieces and I flew through the pieces."
The other Zero was close behind, coming down on De Blanc from above. But the Japanese pilot was too eager for the kill. De Blanc says, coming too fast. De Blanc pulled his throttle back, popped his flaps and threw his plane into a skid to slow it down, causing the Zero to overshoot him.
"To this day I would recognize his face," De Blanc said. "He came up close and we looked at each other from out cockpits. We were right adjacent to each other, flying wingtip to wingtip. I'd like to say he knew he was a dead man, but I won't say that."
But, in fact, he was. When the Zero went past the Wildcat, De Blanc pulled the trigger and took it down.
And that's when Jeff De Blanc's luck ran out.
"Right after he went down I should have looked around to see if ther were others," De Blanc said. "I didn't. I looked at my watch. I made a mistake."
It was a costly mistake. Moments after De Blanc looked at it, the watch was shot off his arm by a bullet that came tearing through the cabin, hit the instrument panel and set his plane on fire.
He took the only option left ot him: He jumped.
Although the fire in his cockpit had struck terror in him, sailing through the air unencumbered brought him an etheral calm.
"Once I left the aircraft, I wasn't scared at all. It felt wonderful," he said. "Piece of cake. You see everything around oou and you don't have any sense of falling."
His landing, in the Pacific Ocan, was somewhat rough because the wate was calm and glassy, which caused him to miscalculate the distance and abandon his parachute too early. As a result, he plunged deep into the water and had to pop his life vest to help him reach the surface.
Meanwhile, when he landed, he realized for the first time that he was injured, as the sea salt stung his wounds and his blood colored the water. His first thought was of sharks, but they didn't come -- at least not right away.
De Blanc landed between two islands in the Solomons, took stock of the situation and chose to aim for Kolombangara, entertaining a far fetched notion that he could escape by stealing a Zero from the Japanese airfield he knew was there. Sure of his stamina, he set out on the 9-mile sim against a stiff current and arrived about six hours later, after a close encounter with a very large fish just before he reached land.
"I hope it wasn't a shark," he said with a shiver. "You talk about getting ou fo there loke a tall dog! I was all legs! I was walking on water."
Kolombangara, like the islands around it, wa a Japanese outpost. Covered with thick jungle growth -- menacing mangrove trees, heavy strands of bamboo and dense groves of coconut palms -- it had treacherous ravines and a volcanic crater in the center that rose 5,000 feet above the ocean.
Afer dressing his wounds with the bandages in his first-aid kit -- they were minor, it turned out -- De Blanc succumbed to exhaustion and slept that night on a pile of branches on the jungle floor.
When he awoke the next day, he ate the only food he had -- a chocolate bar -- and drank from the flask of fresh water in his parachute pack. Then he started walking. If he couldn't steal a Zero, he figured, he cold employ his boyhood skills from the swamps of Louisiana and wait it out on the island until the Allies took the Solomons, which seemed imminent.
After an uncomfortable day in the jungle, with animal tracks everywhere and undergrowth so intense that passage was tough, De Blanc fashioned a bed between two heavy branches 40 feet up in a tree. That's where he spent his second night.
When the sun came up the next morning, De Blanc spotted a trail through the jungle from his vantage point in the trees. He followed it to a clearing, and there he saw the first evidence of human life on the island: a hut made out of dried palm fronds, about 8 feet in diameter. He was cautious.
"Hey, I'm not stupid," he said. "I stopped and I listened."
"Now if the birds are singing, you know there's nobody around. But if the birds are not singing, you're in trouble."
"When I came up, they stopped singing. So I stayed quiet for awhile and they began to sing again. That's how I knew there was no activity in the hut."
He gathered some coconuts and fruit that day and looked forward to a hearty meal. But his clumsy efforts to open the coconut with the shark knife from his surivial kit didn't work, and eventually, when the blade broke off, he discarded the whole mess. He spent the next two nights sleeping on a bamboo mat in the hut.
Even before he opened his eyes on his fifth day in the jungle, De Blanc was wary because he couldn't hear the birds singing. Instantly alert, he grabbed what was left of his shark knife and looked out the door of the hut.
That's when he discovered he wasn't alone.
Standing in front of him was an islander, about 5 feet tall with dark skin, a shock of busy red-dish hair and a bone through his nose. He carried a machete and wore a loin cloth.
"But he was grinning at me," De Blanc said. "I didn't know how to interpret that. It didn't seem right. He was too confident."
De Blanc suspected the man had companions and, in fact, he was correct. There were five other natives hidden in the bushes. They had him surrounded.
As they walked towards him, they threw at his feet everything he had discarded since he had landed on the island: his bandages, the broken knife blade, the unopened coconut.
Then they began to poke at his skin. De Blanc's adventures of the past few days hd left him sunburned, and they marveled at the way his skin turned white when they poked it and then turned red again.
"I could see myself in the pot," he said.
At this point, De Blanc feared for his fate. He was on Japanese territory and he had no idea whose side the islanders were on. He knew only that the Japanese were not kind to American pilots they captured -- particularly not pilots who had taken down a passel of their planes. What's more, he had been apprised by his fellow Marines that some of the island natives were head-hunters. And he had not yet heard of the Coastwatchers.
Communicating in an ad-hoc sign language, the natives took De Blanc to a waiting outrigger canoe, then paddled to another inlet and led him to a village deep in the jungle. There the islanders put De Blanc in a bamboo cage with two guards outside it to keep watch.
That night, the jungle was loud with the sound of drums -- huge drums made from hollow logs -- beating out messages like a Morse code.
"The natives," De Blanc concluded, "sent word with the drums that they had picked me up and wanted to know what to do with me."
Soon the answer appeared -- in the form of a native man named
Ace fighter pilot planning to reunite with 'guardian angel' "I got traded for a sack of rice! I know exactly how much I'm worth." JEFF DE BLANC
Ati, who arrived at the bamboo cage and threw down a 5-pound sack of rice. When he did, the cage was opened and De Blanc was transferred to Ati's custody.
"I got traded for a sack of rice!" De Blanc said, uproariously. "I know exactly how much I'm worth."
A guardian angel
For the next five days, Ati and his men guided De Blanc on a tortuous expedition. A young man powerfully built, Ati had an easy laugh and a cheerful nature, and De Blanc quickly grew to trust him.
Early on, Ati explained in pidgin English tha the was affiliated with the Coastwatchers -- a clandestine group of Austraian and Englishmen strung out through the Solomon Islands who were collaborating futerivly with the Allies.
Mostly merchantgs, missionaries and traders who had lived on the islands before the war, the Coastwatchers knew the teritory well. So they went into hiding and worked as resident spies, tracking the Japanese and notifying the Allies of their movements -- and occasionally keeping watch over U. S. pilots who fell out of the sky.
Many of the natives, already hostile to the Japanese who had taken over their islands, were loyal to the Coastwatchers and provided crucial support on their missions. Ati was one of them.
"There were two of them going after one of our dive-bombers. They would have nailed him. No way they could have missed. I burned both of them." Jeff De Blanc
For the first time since he had landed on Kolombangara, De Blanc felt safe. he didn't have to worry about being turned over to the Japanese; he didn't have to worry about his destiny at t he hands of the islanders.
"It was a relief," he said. "I knew somebody wsas watching over me. I'm a religous man. Ati seemed like my gardian angel."
The logistics of the situation were daunting -- transportating an American pilot over rough terrain through enemy territory -- but day after day, things fell into place, thanks to the vast and mysterious network of Coastwatchers.
Moving stealthily, mostly under cover of darkness, they trekked first through the jungle of Kolombangara, with a detour onto a beached Japanese barge, where De Blanc wound up with a Japanese officer's uniform that he used to replace his own, which was by then in tatters. At the coast, another outrigger was waiting, along with a fresh crew of natives, who rowed all night in pitch darkness through a rainstorm to the island of Gizo.
On Gizo, a guide met De Blanc and led him along a path to still another outrigger with still another creew, who covered De Blanc in palm fronds and ordered him to lie flat in the center of the boat as they paddled. Still rowing at daybreak, the natives smiled and waved in mock-friendly fashion at the Japanese pilots who flew float planes overhead. When De Blanc wiggled in the boat, they pressed a knife to his back.
Once they arrived at the island of Vella Lavella, the palm fronds were removed and De Blanc finally sat up. He was astounded to be greeted by an Englishman, who walked up to him and addressed him by name and rank.
The Englishman, who was a missionary, sheltered De Blanc for the next few days, watching over him in style, with afternoon tea and Anglican church services. When they got word that a Japanese patrol was in the area, they transferred him to a mountain hideout for safe-keeping.
On Feb. 12, 1943, three days before his 22nd birthday and 13 days after he had been shot down, De Blanc's journey came to an end. He walked down from the mountaintop, hid in the bush and waited for the U. S. Navy to come to his rescue. Just as the sun was setting, a PBY flying boat touched down on the water, accompanied by 28 escort planes, 10 of them providing high cover, 18 hovering low for protection.
Clever and capable to the end, Ati -- who had masterminded the entire rescue effort, along with the Coastwatchers -- was waiting in the canoe near the shore pretending to fish. He scopped up De Blanc an rowed him out to the flying boat. De Blanc ran on board and the plane took off. A doctor handed him a bottle of brandy.
"I felt like a million bucks," he said.
It was all over.
De Blanc found a Japanese officer's uniform on a beached barge on the shores of Kolombangara Island and exchanged it for his own, which wa in tatters. When De Blanc was rescued, the Marine Corps took this picture for its historical records.
Photo Courtesy of Jeff De Blanc
Today, at 78, De Blanc is a robust man -- cheerful, trim, sharp, energetic and accomplished. He has five children, eight grandchildren, one great-grandchild and the wife he married 54 years ago. His skin is bronzed and weathered, his hair is thick and white, his voice is deep and sonorous.
With a doctorate in education from McNeese State University, he spent most of his career teaching high-school math and phsics, and still teaches minicourses in the St. Martin Parish public schools. In his spare time, he participates regularly in athletic competitions -- broad jumping, high-jumping, polevaulting, tennis -- and wins dozens of them.
De Blanc is one of oly three Medal of Honor winners left in Lousisiana and the only one surviving from World War II. He keeps the medal in a china cabinet in his den, whose walls are festooned with maps, memorabilia and family photos. Upon request, he roots deep in the cabinet -- fingering his way past the coffee mugs and sunglasses, the calculator and the tiny American flag -- and pulls it out, still in its original box, a five-pointed star on a sky-blue gros-grain ribbon. It has brought him a lifetime of distinction, various privileges, a certain celebrity and some degree of bother, as well as the opportunity to set an example of the satisfactions of self-sacrifice.
Since the day he left Kolombangara, De Blanc has not seen Ati. But recently the two have rediscovered each other through intermediaries interested in memorializing the Pacific battlefields, and the two men hope to stage a reunion before the end of the year in the Solomon Islands.
"My life is worth more than a sack of rice now," De Blanc sad.
He feels a need to repay the man who led him to safety 56 years ago.
"I think I would not have been rescued had it not bee for Ati," he said. "I think he was involved from the inception. I think it's possible he sent the people out to capture me.
"If it hadn't been for Ati, I wouldn't be here and my grandchilden wouldn't be here. I feel obligated to him. Before I check out, I want to pay my debt. Simple as that. And I can only do it face-to-face."
The story and graphics above ran in the New Orleans Times Picayune on Sunday, July 25, 1999. They were run in Section A, A-1, A-10 and A-11. The story was written by Staff Writer Elizabeth Mullener.
Mr. Jefferson J. DeBanc, Sr.
22 November 2007
Entered Service: St. Martinville, LA
MFS 122, M/A Group 11
World War II Veteran
United States Marine Corps
Rita Kinter Boehm Mader
A childhood friend of Jeff De Blanc living in New Orleans during the war tells her story of her experiences during the war years. She fondly recalls Jeff De Blanc as childhood friends in St. Martinville. You can read her story by clicking on the link below:
Memories of the War Years: Rita Kinter Boehm Mader
Congressional Medal of Honor Receiptant:
Jefferson J. "Jeff" DeBlanc
There are a number of web pages that have referrences to World War II Marine pilot Jefferson "Jeff" DeBlanc. If interested in reading more about the Congressional Medal of Honor receiptant, Jeff DeBlanc, click on the links below and check them out.
Medal of Honor Winner Recalls South Pacific Saga
Above and Beyond
Aces Against Japan
Cactus Air Force: the Men
Japan's Fiesty Float Plane
Guadalcanal 60th Anniversary Photo Gallery
NCF Show: Guadalcanal
A Hero Comes Full Circle
Updated on 20 February 2012...0839:05 CST
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