50 states, 50 heroes: Cajun ace

Published 7:01 am Saturday, May 2, 2020

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Born on Feb. 15, 1921, in Lockport, Louisiana, Jefferson Joseph DeBlanc developed a fascination with aviation when he was young after a pilot was forced to make an emergency landing near his home and allowed him to get in the cockpit. When the federal government began offering the Civilian Pilot Training Program, DeBlanc was working as a bench chemist for the sugarcane industry. DeBlanc successfully completed the program, then joined the Naval Aviation Cadet Reserve program in July 1941. Upon completion, he was discharged from the Navy and commissioned a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps as a fighter pilot.

In October 1942, DeBlanc was assigned to Marine Fighter Squadron 112 (VMF-112) as a Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat pilot, despite having only 10 hours of training on that particular aircraft. On Nov. 2, DeBlanc arrived at Guadalcanal. On Nov. 13, VMF-112 attacked a group of Japanese G4M bombers, known as “Bettys,” attempting to torpedo Allied ships. DeBlanc shot down three during the ensuing fight. He was promoted to first lieutenant on Dec. 19 and made a section leader of six fighter planes.

On Jan. 29, 1943, DeBlanc was forced to ditch his Wildcat into the water of Iron Bottom Sound, a stretch of water located near Guadalcanal and Savo and Florida Islands known as such because of the number of ships sunk there. Fortunately, he landed in the wake of an American Destroyer and was immediately picked up.

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It was not the last time he would have to ditch his fighter.

On Jan. 31, 1943, DeBlanc led his pilots on an escort flight for American dive-bombers and torpedo planes bent on attacking Japanese ships off Kolombangra Island. Two planes had to turn back because of mechanical failure and DeBlanc’s own auxiliary fuel tank was leaking, meaning he would not have enough fuel to get back from the mission. Despite this, DeBlanc chose to proceed, notifying the base of the leak and telling them to have rescuers ready.

As they came close to Kolombangra Island, the American planes were attacked by a large group of Japanese A6M Zero fighters flying above their formation. DeBlanc and his men engaged and drove the Zeros away, but Japanese F1M float planes attacked the American dive-bombers. DeBlanc turned his attention to them, shooting down two float planes and allowing the dive-bombers to complete their attack.

As they turned for home, the American Wildcats were attacked by 12 Zeroes. As the Wildcats gained altitude, DeBlanc shot down one Zero, then lined up and shot at another, flying through the debris as it exploded. Another Zero got behind DeBlanc, but he managed to slow his plane enough for the Zero to fly by, allowing him to shoot it down.

DeBlanc scored all five kills in less than five minutes.

Suddenly, his plane was riddled with bullets; one got so close in the cockpit that it tore off his wristwatch. With the Wildcat badly damaged and dangerously low on fuel, DeBlanc was forced to bail out, landing off the shore of Kolombangra Island. Having heard stories of native islanders bringing downed U.S. Airmen to the Japanese for execution, DeBlanc opted to survive on his own, figuring he had a good chance having grown up in the Louisiana swamps.

DeBlanc spent two nights on the island. On the first night, he slept in a tree. On the second night, he came across a native hut. He heard birds singing, a sign that meant no one was nearby, and slept in the hut. The next morning, five islanders with machetes outside the hut captured him and traded him to another islander for a 10-pound sack of rice. Fortunately, the islander had been working with the Australian coastwatchers in the South Pacific and was able to get him back to his unit.

Promoted to captain, DeBlanc spent over a year serving stateside as a flight instructor before returning to the Pacific in November 1944. He served with Marine Fighter Squadron 422 during the Marshall Islands Campaign, then with Marine Fighter Squadron 212 during the Okinawa Campaign, where he scored his ninth kill, a Japanese kamikaze.

On Dec. 6, 1946, President Harry Truman presented DeBlanc with the Medal of Honor for his actions on Jan. 31, 1943.

After leaving active duty, DeBlanc remained in the Marine Corps Reserves until 1972, when he retired with the rank of colonel. Along with the Medal of Honor, he received the Distinguished Flying Cross, five Air Medals and a Presidential Unit Citation.

When he passed away on Nov. 22, 2007, in St. Martinville, Louisiana, at age 86, he was the last surviving World War II Medal of Honor recipient from Louisiana. He is buried in St. Michael Cemetery in St. Martinville.

His story was depicted in a 2006 episode of the History Channel’s “Dogfights.”