- This is what a hero looks like: Jefferson DeBlanc, Sr., at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. (Lincoln Memorial in the background); family photo, via Washington Post
You can just see the kid trying to get the goat of the physics teacher:“Hey, Teach! What do you think 5Gs feel like when one of those fighter pilots pulls a real tight turn?”
And you can see the teacher at the chalkboard scribbling a formula the kid doesn’t want to know, and a smile creeping over his face.
“It’s nothing like hitting the shark-infested Pacific — salt water, and you’re wounded — and then being traded for a ten-pound sack of rice! That’ll get your gut more.”
And don’t you wonder, did the kids ever think to ask him his view of the campaign against the Japanese in the Solomon Islands, for help on their U.S. history exams? Did they ever think he might have some knowledge to share?
Jefferson DeBlanc would have shared wisdom certainly, though it’s uncertain he would have shared his war experiences as a fighter pilot. He died last Thursday in St. Martinville, Louisiana. He was 86. DeBlanc was the last surviving Medal of Honor winner from World War II in Louisiana. Col. Jefferson DeBlanc, Sr.
The incident that earned Jefferson the nation’s highest military honor took place Jan. 31, 1943, during operations against Japanese forces off Kolombangara Island in the Solomon Islands.
A Japanese fleet was spotted headed toward Guadalcanal. U.S. dive bombers were sent to attack the fleet, with fighter aircraft deployed to protect the bombers. In a one-man Grumman Wildcat fighter, DeBlanc led a section of six planes in Marine Fighting Squadron 112, according to the citation that accompanied his Medal of Honor.
At the rendezvous point, DeBlanc discovered that his plane, which was dubbed “The Impatient Virgin,” was running out of fuel. If DeBlanc battled the Japanese Zero fighter planes, he would not have enough fuel to return to base. Two of his comrades, whose planes malfunctioned, turned back, according to a 1999 article in the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
“We needed all the guns we could get up there to escort those bombers,” DeBlanc said in the Times-Picayune article. “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.”
DeBlanc and the other pilots waged fierce combat until, “picking up a call for assistance from the dive bombers, under attack by enemy float planes at 1,000 feet, he broke off his engagement with the Zeros, plunged into the formation of float planes and disrupted the savage attack, enabling our dive bombers and torpedo planes to complete their runs on the Japanese surface disposition and withdraw without further incident,” the citation says.
Ultimately, DeBlanc shot down two float planes and three of the fighters. But a bullet ripped through DeBlanc’s plane and hit his instrument panel, causing it to erupt into flames. DeBlanc “was forced to bail out at a perilously low altitude,” according to the citation.
“The guy who shot me down, he saw me bail out,” DeBlanc said in a 2001 article in the State-Times/Morning Advocate of Baton Rouge, La.. “He knew I was alive. I knew they (the Japanese) were looking for me. But I’m not a pessimist. I knew I could survive. I was raised in the swamps.”
A Louisiana kid raised in the swamps, a Tuba City, Arizona, kid raised in a hogan on a reservation, a kid from Fredericksburg, Texas, a kid from Abilene, Kansas, another kid from Columbus, Ohio, a West Point graduate with a corn-cob pipe — the reality of the people who fought the war looks like a hammy line-up for one of the post-war movies about them. Maybe, in this case, there was good reason for the stereotypes.
After his plane was shot down in 1943, DeBlanc swam to an island and slept in a hut until he was discovered by islanders and placed in a bamboo cage. The man who gave a sack of rice for him was Ati, an islander whom DeBlanc later called a guardian angel, responsible for orchestrating his rescue by a U.S. Navy boat.
DeBlanc served a second tour of overseas service in Marine Fighting Squadron 22 in the Marshall Islands. By the end of his service, he had shot down nine enemy planes.
On Dec. 6, 1946, President Truman awarded DeBlanc the Medal of Honor. His other honors include the Distinguished Flying Cross, several awards of the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart. In 1972, after serving six years as commander at Belle Chasse Naval Air Station, DeBlanc retired from the Marine Corps Reserve.
Then, as if to make the model for Tom Brokaw’s later book, DeBlanc went back home to mostly-rural Louisiana, and made the world a much better place.
At home, DeBlanc earned two masters’ degrees in education from Louisiana State University in 1951 and 1963, and a doctorate in education from McNeese State University in 1973. For years, he taught in St. Martin parish and supervised teachers.
Despite the illustrious awards, [daughter] Romero [DeBlanc] remembers a loving father first and dedicated educator second.
“I was very close to my father,” she said. “I could always talk to him. He taught me to drive. He taught school. He was very friendly with his students. He would come into the classroom and say, ‘I lost the test.’ Then he would look around and find it in the trash can. Of course he placed it in the trash can. He had a great sense of humor.”
Surely DeBlanc’s passing should have been worthy of note on national television news programs, and in the larger national print media. There was a note on the obituary page of the Dallas Morning News, and the Los Angeles Times obituary cited above. But DeBlanc has not yet gotten the recognition he probably deserved. A young cornerback for the Washington Redskins also died over the weekend.
No room for heroes in the news?
Resources for Teachers:
- Los Angeles Times death notice
- The Washington Post story, with photo
- Story of the interment and funeral, The Daily Iberian
- Death notice in The Daily Iberian
- Congressional Medal of Honor Society
- Medal of Honor.com
- Deblanc bio at Oohrah.net