Jefferson DeBlanc, teacher, Medal of Honor winner

Jefferson DeBlanc, Sr, at the WWII Memorial - Medal of Honor Winner

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.

What a story!

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.

Just a normal guy to his kids, neighbors and students:

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:

Medal of Honor citation

Mr. DeBlanc passed away on November 22, 2007.

Rank and Organization: Captain, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, Marine Fighting Squadron 112. Place and date: Off Kolombangara Island in the Solomons group, 31 January 1943. Entered service at: Louisiana. Born: 15 February 1921, Lockport, La. Citation: For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as leader of a section of 6 fighter planes in Marine Fighting Squadron 112, during aerial operations against enemy Japanese forces off Kolombangara Island in the Solomons group, 31 January 1943. Taking off with his section as escort for a strike force of dive bombers and torpedo planes ordered to attack Japanese surface vessels, 1st Lt. DeBlanc led his flight directly to the target area where, at 14,000 feet, our strike force encountered a large number of Japanese Zeros protecting the enemy’s surface craft. In company with the other fighters, 1st Lt. DeBlanc instantly engaged the hostile planes and aggressively countered their repeated attempts to drive off our bombers, persevering in his efforts to protect the diving planes and waging 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. Although his escort mission was fulfilled upon the safe retirement of the bombers, 1st Lt. DeBlanc courageously remained on the scene despite a rapidly diminishing fuel supply and, boldly challenging the enemy’s superior number of float planes, fought a valiant battle against terrific odds, seizing the tactical advantage and striking repeatedly to destroy 3 of the hostile aircraft and to disperse the remainder. Prepared to maneuver his damaged plane back to base, he had climbed aloft and set his course when he discovered 2 Zeros closing in behind. Undaunted, he opened fire and blasted both Zeros from the sky in a short, bitterly fought action which resulted in such hopeless damage to his own plane that he was forced to bail out at a perilously low altitude atop the trees on enemy-held Kolombangara. A gallant officer, a superb airman, and an indomitable fighter, 1st Lt. DeBlanc had rendered decisive assistance during a critical stage of operations, and his unwavering fortitude in the face of overwhelming opposition reflects the highest credit upon himself and adds new luster to the traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.

5 Responses to Jefferson DeBlanc, teacher, Medal of Honor winner

  1. Captain Fred Paradie says:

    Mr. Deblanc was my Physics teacher when my father, a Canadian Air Force member was stationed at AFCENT, Brunsum, the Netherlands in the 1980s. I am a huge military history geek, but it was not until my fourth year in High School that we discovered his story in a history book. I remember bugging him to tell me more and he was nice enough to do that. Since then, I became a Canadian Air Force officer and it is because of real heroes like Colonel Deblanc that I am proud to be part of the military.

    Now that I am older, I try to collect military aviation items and I have managed to get a Robert Taylor print signed by him and several other famous Marine aviators. I wish I had learned more about Colonel Deblanc at the time, but what an honour it is to have been taught by a genuinely humble hero! Truly sad to hear that he had passed away but at least I had the opportunity to meet him. Per Ardua Ad Astra.


  2. Ed Darrell says:

    Jon, I hope your father has told his story, too — and I hope you or someone in your family has recorded it.

    Tell your father thanks, please.


  3. Jon Gauthier says:

    I grew up in DeBlanc’s home town of St. Martinville, Louisiana, and as a kid I only knew him in passing. But my father served in the Marines in WWII and was a friend of his. He told me over Christmas how privileged he felt to be part of the Marine Honor Guard at his funeral.

    He will be missed…


  4. bernarda says:

    It wasn’t until 1997 that Black Americans received the Medal of Honor when Bill Clinton recognized them.

    “Characterizing Baker and the six deceased recipients as “among the bravest of the brave,” Clinton said no black soldier who deserved the medal during World War II received it until now. But now, history has been made whole by the nation bestowing honor on those who have long deserved it, he said.

    Clinton noted 52 years ago, President Truman awarded 28 Medals of Honor to veterans of World War II in the largest such ceremony ever held. Truman described the recipients as a great cross section of the United States. Clinton called Truman one of the nation’s greatest presidents, and said he didn’t have a shred of discrimination in his bones. “But that day,” Clinton noted, “something was missing from his cross section of America. No African American who deserved the Medal of Honor for his service in World War II received it. Today, we fill the gap in that picture and give a group of heroes who also loved peace but adapted themselves to war the tribute that has always been their due.”

    No Black Americans from WWI have received such awards, except from the French.

    “Originally known as the 15th New York National Guard, The New York National Guard 369th Infantry regiment is one of the most under-appreciated contributors to World War I within this country. Only in France did they receive proper recognition; 500 of its members received the French “Croix de Guerre,” or “War Cross.” This regiment gained the nickname “The Harlem Hellfighters” by the Germans, who were surprised to see an entirely Black regiment fight so well. ”

    There are some astonishing statements by Pershing in this article.

    The first two Americans to receive the Croix de Guerre were Black, Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts. 171 Black American soldiers received the Legion of Honor.

    It is little wonder that many Black Americans went to live in France.


  5. Crudely Wrott says:

    Thank you for mentioning this valiant man, this common man.

    I had read of his WWII exploits many years ago. His actions, and those of so many others are a deep part of my idea of what makes a hero and helps to flesh out my notion of what an American is.

    He, and all those others are quite simply the reason that we are all here today doing all the the things that we do. To them all I offer my humble salute and say, “Thank you for your service.”

    I have never held to the fiction of “my country, right or wrong” since it is obvious nonsense. But these guys, who fought against a threat to all civilized people and won, they were really something. Yup. They were regular guys, but they did magnificent things.


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