COMMAND
by Tom Blackburn with Eric Hammel

Copyright © 1992 by James Blackburn and Eric Hammel



John Thomas Blackburn, the son and brother of professional Navy officers, graduated from Annapolis in 1933, grudgingly served his obligatory two years in the surface fleet, and, at the first opportunity,volunteered for flight training. He was a fighter pilot all the way--by choice and temperament.

When war broke out, Lieutenant Blackburn was teaching tactics to novice fighter pilots at the Navy's new fighter-training center at Opa-Locka, Florida. He asked to be returned to a carrier squadron, was refused, but eventually wangled orders to form and command Carrier Escort Fighter Squadron (VGF) 29, and he led it during the first day of the invasion of North Africa (during which he was forced to ditch after a radio failure left him far from the fleet without fuel). On returning to the United States, Lieutenant Commander Blackburn was ordered to form and command VF-17, the Navy's first Vought F4U Corsair squadron, for duty aboard the new fleet carrier Bunker Hill. The Corsair needed to be tamed for carrier duty, and Blackburn and his crew of youngsters did that, but the Hellcat was coming on strong and it
was decided to put VF-17 ashore in the Solomons to avoid the hassle of keeping the Corsairs maintained from a supply line otherwise dedicated to Grumman F6F Hellcats.

VF-17's first tour was in mid and late 1944, out of one of Munda's satellite fields. In covering the Torokina landings and associated operations, Tommy Blackburn destroyed four Japanese aircraft, including three fighters. Even more important, his command hit the victory columns in a big way. After a break in Australia, VF-17 was reassigned to one of the new Bougainville fighter strips to cover Rabaul-bound bombers. Thereafter, VF-17 racked up kills with chilling regularity, and the innovative Blackburn oversaw the development of quite brilliant new fighter tactics. By January 31, his own score stood at seven, all fighters but one. VF-17 and Tommy Blackburn were riding high with nearly 150 aerial victories at the expense of just nine of its number lost.


§

I led off twenty of our Corsairs on February 4. Once again, our charges were B-24s, this time bound for Tobera Field. I had a newly arrived lieutenant on my wing, a solid-seeming senior pilot I wanted to check out before moving him up to lead a section, or even a division.

Only twenty Zeros and ten Tonys appeared to challenge us. On the approach, however, Ensign Percy Divenny, who had joined us in Espiritu but who already had two kills under his belt, made a really dumb mistake. Instead of opening the valve that released CO2 into the Corsair's wing-purging system, he opened the adjacent valve, which actuated his emergency landing-gear system. Once down by this means, there was no way to get the wheels back up while in flight. We were by then too close to the target to allow Perce to abort, so, as soon as I saw the reason why he was dropping back, I radioed to tell him to tuck in beneath the heavy bombers. If Perce understood and did exactly what he was told--and stayed put--he would have it made; the Zekes would never be able to get at him.

We were virtually retiring from the bomb-drop point when, to my utter horror, I saw Divenny's Corsair slowly dropping behind the B-24s. We could never figure out what happened; Perce was a cool hand, so the only theory that held water was that his Corsair suffered some sort of engine-power loss. In any case, by this time, the Zeros were nipping at our flanks, looking for an opening so they could get at the Liberators or bounce exposed fighters. Our job was to protect the B-24s, and we all had our hands full doing that, so I made the brutal decision to withhold cover for Divenny. Naturally, the Zeros--at least eight of them--pounced on Perce. As they started in, Lieutenant (jg) Earl May broke from his position in the bomber cover and led his wingman, Ensign Wilbert "Beads" Popp, to the rescue. The two got to Divenny's lagging fighter, and they did get their talons into one of the Zekes. Earl got credit for an assist and Beads got full credit for the kill. However, the rest of the Zeros bore down on them, and May and Popp had to dive to safety. A Zeke came down on Perce's tail and hammered him into a fatal dive.

As the retiring bombers were clearing the coast, six Zekes hit the formation from 500 feet above the low-cover flight. Attacking from the rear, these Zekes put in a series of aggressive high-side runs. The rear division, under Lieutenant (jg) Paul Cordray, turned back to take on the Zekes, and the Zekes broke contact. However, when Paul turned again to rejoin the bombers, two Zekes slipped in and set up a firing pass at the rear element, Lieutenant (jg) Hal Jackson followed by Lieutenant (jg) Don Malone. Jackson was well behind Cordray and his wingman, and Malone was lagging even farther behind Jackson.

Cordray gave a frantic "Close up" zooming signal, and Jackson promptly moved in. Malone, who had a long history of lagging in formation, did not respond to the unmistakable series of short dives and zooms, nor even to "Don! Don! Close up! Close up," which Paul frantically broadcast by radio. When the Zekes pulled up at the conclusion of their single firing run, Malone's Corsair was burning and falling away. Attracted by Cordray's vain warning, several of us saw Don's chute blossom. We hoped he would get down safely, but we had to leave. No one ever saw Don again.

As soon as we landed, I confronted Earl May at the ready room and let him have my fury. I had been literally sick to my stomach when I saw Divenny going down, but I had made the painful decision to carry out our responsibility to defend the bombers. I had determined that we could not do that and cover Divenny, too. It was, in my mind, a tough fact of life that Perce had been lost because he had been unable to stay under the heavy bombers. The only thing that kept me from grounding Earl was the lucky fact that no enemy fighters had attacked through the hole his departure had left in our formation.

"Get this straight, Earl. Nobody has ever questioned your courage. You don't have to prove yourself like some show-off schoolboy. You had no goddamn business breaking out of your cover position with Beads to take on all those Japs. For what? Sure, you and Beads flamed one, but you damn sure didn't help Divenny. You were lucky as hell you and Beads didn't get it, too. You know that if the enemy hadn't muffed their chance they'd have had three easy kills instead of just the one. Worse than that, you exposed the rest of us and the bombers. Our job is to get those klunkers in and out in one piece. I'm proud that we haven't lost one yet. They depend on us. This is a team operation. There's no place for some wild-ass who shoves off to be the heroic White Knight riding to the rescue. I will not tolerate this kind of shit. Is that clear?"

Earl was angry with me--his body language said as much--but he was wrong and I was right, and he knew it. I got a sheepish,

"I understand, Skipper."

"If you weren't such a good man who's always done a top job before, I'd throw your ass out. As it is, you're no longer a division leader. You'll fly wing, where I can keep my eye on you."

I was so obviously angry for the rest of the day that no one got within ten feet of me if he could help it. My overall reaction and anger over the two losses might seem unreasonable, but both were firmly grounded in my life-long perception of how duty must come before my personal feelings for my subordinates, strong as they were. All hands--even late arrivals like Perce Divenny--knew that our responsibility was to guard the bombers at all costs.

In part, however, the display of anger was a mask for my profound grief. The two unnecessary losses were almost more than I could bear. I privately judged myself at least a little culpable in both cases. With respect to Perce's fatal lapse, I had allowed the wing-purging and emergency landing-gear CO2 bottles to remain side by side even though I easily could have gotten Vought or even our own mechanics to relocate one safely away from the other. The potential for error was so obvious! Amazingly, Divenny's gaffe had been the first of its sort in hundreds of combat sorties.

Malone's loss was a little different, and I bore more direct responsibility. All hands knew that Don had a marked propensity to lag. Maybe I should have ridden him harder, or moved him forward from the definitively vulnerable tail-end slot. We knew that the Imperial pilots, like us, were quick to spot and nail a laggard. Worst of all was my conviction that I had seen both situations developing. I had certainly seen Divenny fall behind, and I am sure I had seen Malone do so earlier in the mission. In Divenny's case, I could have taken the chance and gone back or have sent help, but I deliberately chose not to. In Malone's, Cordray could have gone to help, but Paul knew--and accepted--my thinking, so he did not dangerously expose his division and put others at risk, as May had done.

These were two more painful examples of the loneliness of command. I found, after a long search through my soul, that I would not have acted differently in either case. But I had contributed to Malone's death by being too lenient; I should have grounded him when his inability to correct a long-apparent problem. It was a bomb that had ticked away--that I had heard ticking--until it blew up in Don's face.

§

Two days later, over Rabaul, Tommy Blackburn raised his score to eleven confirmed victories and five probables. And shortly thereafter, Rabaul caved. In the end, VF-17 returned home and was decommissined. In its day, it was the Navy's top-scoring squadron, with 154 confirmed victories.

The end of the war found Commander Tommy Blackburn whipping a new carrier air group into shape for duty in the Pacific. He remained in the Navy--in aviation, of course--until 1962, when he retired as a captain. He passed away in 1994.