Col. Donald J. M. Blakeslee commanded the first U.S. fighter group to reach Berlin in World War II. It was one of the most successful fighter commands in the history of the Air Force, the first to log 500 aerial kills – its total was 550 – with another 470 destroyed on the ground. Col. Blakeslee was 90 when he died last month.
Blakeslee became commander of the 4th Fighter Group in the 8th Air Force Fighter Command on Jan. 1, 1944. On that day his message to his pilots was, simply, “We are here to destroy the Luftwaffe and that’s what we’re going to do,” according to 4th Fighter Group Historian Roy Heidicker. He and his pilots proceeded to do just that. Their 550 aerial kills remains the highest number in U.S. Air Force history.
Col. Blakeslee fell in love with airplanes as he watched them racing at Cleveland during the 1930s. He joined the Army Air Corps Reserve in 1938 but, eager to fight and with the United States still on the sidelines, he resigned to join the Royal Canadian Air Force. In November of 1941 he shot down his first German aircraft. Later, he commanded the justly-famous 133rd RAF Eagle Squadron.
When Blakeslee re-joined the U.S. Army Air Force in 1942 he became commander of the 355th Fighter Squadron. When he took command of the 4th Fighter Group in 1944 he was 26 years old.
“We are here to fight,” he told his pilots. “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 flew P-47 Thunderbolts, initially, but Blakeslee pushed for – and soon got – P-51 Mustangs.
Those Mustangs flew the first escort mission to Berlin, guarding a huge formation of B-17s and B-24s, each of which dropped some 4,000 pounds of bombs on the German capital. Col. Blakeslee led that daylight raid from out front.
Although he claimed that he wasn’t a very good shot, Col. Blakeslee was credited with 15-1/2 victories during the war, despite his reputation for maneuvering during dogfights so junior pilots got credit for kills he might have made. Some military historians believe he actually destroyed at least 30 German planes during more than 1,000 combat flight hours. “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,” wrote historian Grover C. Hall in “1,000 Destroyed: The Life and Times of the 4th Fighter Group.”
Col. Blakeslee led the 27th Fighter Wing during the Korean War and served in Vietnam before retiring in 1965. He shunned biographers and personal publicity over the years, according to his daughter and only survivor. She did not announce his death immediately after it occurred on Sept. 3 because he did not want attention called to his wartime heroism, she said.