NPR/NGS Radio Expeditions
16 Jul 2002
Show: Jeff Deblanc Interview
Log of DAT #: 1
Date: July 16, 2002
World War II Pacific Theater; Guadalcanal
JD = Jefferson J. DeBlanc
NC = Neal Conan
Tell me about..what did Henderson field look like as you arriving the first time you saw it.
Well it was.. I got a glimpse of it when I stepped off of dc three as we were shoveled in there as replacement pilots as others lost their lives.. And we opened our doors to a junk pile of aircraft that had been beaten up. The runway had metal spits to hold the weight of the aircraft dc 3, but the fighter strip, fighter 1, which was adjacent to Henderson field, was a muddy pasture. We called it the cow pasture
Give me a little more description of it, muddy, when it rained? How quickly did it turn to dust when it didn¿t rain?
That is a good question, it was close, adjacent to, not water lined¿ parallel to Henderson field, the cow pasture, because they could not build a runway conducive enough to handle the heavy planes.. So only light fighters landed there, which means the wildcat, the p40s, the p39s, the p400s, we were a mixture of pilots and within I would say, 48 hours once we had a heavy downpour we had a runway that was having dust, which was a very bad thing for us, for this reason, when we were scrambling to meet the Japanese fighters planes escorting the bombers, we kicked up a lot of dust off of fighter one, when we kicked up a lot of dust from fighter one which was a perfect target for pistol pete to zero in with their artillery. The first people off the deck were great, they were the ones with more rank than we were. .. the 2nd lts, my we were always the low man on the totem pole and the last to take off when they scrambled and they got all of the rounds they missed from zeroing in and correcting to us so they could hit the fighter one strip.. When it was raining it was an awful thing you had a slipper outfit and you slid with the wheels almost locked for about ten feet before you could get traction to get the wheels to going and enough power with the flaps down to get you off the deck and to clear the coconut trees at the end of the runway which is close to the ilu river, which was called the alligator river.
so it was not exactly a fun place to fly in and out of?
negative, as a matter of fact it was a horrible place, for the simple reason, that potholes was very detrimental to the wildcat. Although the wildcat, although it was a flying brick, it was one put well together, the midwing and the square wingtip, which was a good wing to shoot from¿
Henderson field, fighter 1, prefer?
Always were locked in.. we never landed on Henderson field, we were the fighters who escorted the bombers, on the b 17s and the commercial aircraft, the dc ¿ 3 because they were heavier, they could not land on anything other than metal strips over Henderson field which is coral reef. The reason why we were flyer lucky about it we would use the old carrier takeoff, full flaps, full power, and let her go. There must be a distinction between Henderson field an fighter wone, they are not synonymous. We had fighter 2 that came up in the latter part of December, fighter 2 was another field that they built but it was much more stable than fighter wone, it was not a cow pasture.
Where were you living at that point when you arrived at Guadalcanal?
We were quartered right off of fighter one, between fighter one and the beach; we were bivouacked right at that particular point. Actually it was a nice place to be because we controlled the air during in the daytime and the Japanese controlled the sea at night, and they could come around to shell us, and they would come in at one o clock in the morning but before they would have a scout plane over there to drop flashers so they could see the field from the shorelines. They had cruisers the destroyers¿. They would go ahead an shell the airfield with 14 inch shells and.. so we had to hit the foxholes, and that was a real danger - but we weren¿t scared of the shells the problem was the mosquitoes an we had water tend in the foxholes and the ones would jump in there first and the others would pile there on him¿
It was a pretty .. I¿m not trying to be a.. you know add on to it, they tend to say I¿m in my 80s now and as you get older the war stories get better. This is straight fact, I remember very well. Sticks with you
What were your rations like? What were you eating?
It was very very terrible.. in other words the food was not readily available at the beginning, I¿m speaking in terms, I¿ll put it in context, in 1942 in October and November of 42.. and consequently they would give us beans. You don¿t eat beans and go up to 30000 feet in a unpressurized cabin. It¿s pretty hectic. What we had was what we called coffee, and ¿Spam¿ was mostly what we had to eat. This was not on a regular basis.
When you got there, can you describe what it was like to some degree the Japanese air raids were almost scheduled, they would take off more or less the same time from ruvall and head down.... could you describe how that worked as a fighter pilot?
It didn¿t take us long to get the hang of what was happening, the japs would send from kehala, which is is bouganville - betty bombers, and they would reach about 11 to 12 o clock every day, so we could set our clocks buy it. They were escorted by zeroes. It would give us a chance about the coastwatchers, but when they would pass Vella Lavella, they could not deviate from that path too much because they would run out of gas or petrol on the way back. So they had to stick to the island chain that we called the slot. The coastwatcher would stand on a 40 meter rig and would yell two words, or a few words, ¿25 bombers heading yours and shut it down ¿¿ That¿s to avoid a fix they could get by a plane flying and a Japanese destroying in the pacific destroying in the pacific ocean which is adjacent to the island.
So by the time that gave us enough time, at least 40 minutes, to scramble out of fighter one and go to 30, to 35 thousand feet and (hit mic) meet the japs 60 miles away from Guadalcanal and that¿ what would shoot most down and have our dogfights with the zeroes before they hit Henderson field¿ they weren¿t using us as the targets, they wanted the airfield. and this is a daily affair, and it didn¿t take us 2lts realize the RHIP, ¿rank has it¿s privileges¿.. all the caps and majors got the noon flight, the action fight, and 2lts and 1lts got the dawn, the dusk patrol. But I was lucky I went in piecemeal and joined joe force¿s outfit, and I got in it with joe foss for a good 3 or 4 weeks and flew in his squadron for a while. I really got in quite a bit of the action with his group.
Joe forge¿ see we were a bunch of college kids, we never learned form history, in 1936 with the Spanish civil war, Germany and the Russians proved their aircraft would be really used mostly in the next wars, and we did not, so there¿s a shortage of pilots in 1939 when the war in Europe¿ not that there's anything against the branches of service, I don¿t know that way, so they chose college students first, and getting gowns into the Solomon islands that¿s a factor that uh.. gave the guys the insight of what was going on and how to handle it but it worked at that particular point
So if you without the word from the coast watcher, could you have managed to keep that bombers away from Guadalcanal
Without advance warning w would have always been taken by surprise and not be
But where was one man besides foss that we looked forward too, lot., col., bower, and he would come in and say how to fight the zero and he brought it down, head on to zero pilot is a dead man. And he knew the ramifications, and al the zero had as firepower, which was like a rifle bullet, and one canon in each wing which It is low-muzzle velocity. Without armor plating you are ¿..
What if he¿s on my tail? On no, you have armor plating go by you, and it¿ll hit the armor plating.. and he¿s going to
You skid.. go off at a tangent, and those cannons are all low level velocity.. he put us at ease and we worshipped him..
So tell me a little bit about what happened on Jan 31st 1943
I¿ll ever forget the day, we weren¿t wining the war 100% in 1942 ¿ let¿s put it in context.. by the time we got to the end of January were were all members of the cactus air force, in other words new Zealand pilots, army pilots, even the navy every now and then. .. we were sent to there was a Japanese fleet supposedly coming in around vella lavella and kolombangara, and we thought ¿ our intelligence thought - they wanted to hit us again at Guadalcanal an push us of into the sea, but the reverse was true. they wanted to evacuate Guadalcanal at that particular time, and of course this set.. I was in to flight on standby on the afternoon of the the 31st, eight fighter pilots on standby and they got 12 dive bombers, sbds loaded them with 50lb. bomb and set us to hit the jap fleet on vella lavella. It wasn¿t much of a fleet, really. and we went ahead to escort him, and we took off at 1500 hours, 3 in the afternoon, and on the way two of the fighter pilots had trouble with their engines and they turned back which left six of us to act as support for 12 dive bombers and some torpedo bombers that were coming later on to hit this supposed fleet, but when we got into the kolombangara area, in gizo and vella lavella island where jfk¿s pt109 went down, they had a ship called the Toa Maru that entered first and of course they had the rest of the stuff in back of him and we decided to hit it because there was no fighter action right of the bat but there were float planes right around the area because when the dive bomber drops his dive bomber load and try to rendezvous and return to base, they were very vulnerable to the float plans who have a rear gunner and they can shoot them down ¿ they had been shooting the dive bombers down readily. And that¿ when I was leading the group going over there, not the whole group but we were just six planes, two of them ¿ jack moss ¿ hello, can you hear me? Ok.. jack moss and joe lynch too the high cover, we, Seacrest and I, Fallerton, and Lynch, to the low cover ¿ the four to make the six planes. And the dive bombers missed on e of the targets and Seacrest and lynch were pretty frustrated about that and went to strafe the ship and set it afire and they did, the cargo caught on fire and we didn¿t know that until 1989 when that came through from a scuba diving outfit. But anyhow, that¿s when the zeroes hit us, right off the waters, and that¿s not the place to be in a dogfight, but it was in this dogfight that I managed to shoot down 5 airplanes before they shot me down. And I was shot down between the past Vella gulf there between kolombangara and vella lavella out towards the sea. It took me about six hours because of the current, and at nighttime, but by that time it was 1800 hundred hours, about o¿clock, and it took a while.. I didn¿t have a rubber boat in those days, I had but I had t scramble out in a hurry and I couldn¿t inflate it, all I had was my vest to inflate to help me in but one side of it was ruptured so I only had one side of it to support my weight. I¿ve always like the good vision I had I had 20/10 vision, and I felt that when I bailed out after the guy who shot me down I figured that he¿d shoot me in the parachute, cause they did¿ I played dead played opossum, well it¿s apiece of cake, the sun was setting, I¿ll drop out of the chute so the canopy doesn¿t drown me. Well that¿s where I made my mistake, when I.. I don¿t worry about the manual of how to bail out ¿ to let my feet touch the water- I thought I¿d look at what I thought was ten feet and then I¿ll let go. Well what I thought was ten feet with what supposedly was good eye sight was over 50 feet, it and it was an eternity before I hit the water, which was why I didn¿t take my rubber boat with me which is still attached to the chute, but I had my medical kit attached to my back from the pack¿ and that¿s what I swam to shore with and of course I was picked up by the natives, and it was a long story but I was 12 days with them before the coastwatchers got me back to Guadalcanal. They not hid Guadalcanal but evacuated the island..
it was a long story you experience after¿being with the Solomon islanders, but there was one moment when you found out exactly what your life was worth?..
yes, that¿s quite an instance. Really it changed my whole set of values..I wasn¿t a cocky fighter pilot or anything else, but it took me a long time to swim in and I was exhausted and the nest morning I woke up and it was raining, and the undergrowth was really thick the rainforest, in other words, I couldn¿t penetrate it, and I was born and reared here in the chavalar basin so I was very comfortable with the bird life, and what ¿. In terms of their singing, and survival I knew I could do it, but all this was enemy territory so I knew I had to hide or either try to find a zero to take off from Vella field which what was I was hoping to do if I ever got close to that field¿ I probably would have been shot down by my own men if not the Japanese, but anyhow, the second night I decided to sleep in the trees because of the animal life was all over the place, the tracks, and while I was up in the trees I noticed a path going down, and I said the next morning I would go ahead on this path, and sure enough I dropped own and went through the rainforest close to adjacent to the sea, and a hill came upon a little coconut grove.
Close to the sea¿ and hill came upon a coconut grove with a native hut in the center adjacent to a little stream, this is completely enemy territory, now we didn¿t have it. the only thing we had was Henderson Field and Guadalcanal, and we were 250 miles from that place and what was around was strictly Japanese., and they were looking for me because we bailed out and my wingman, he was shot down also, because he bailed out, so when I saw the hut I didn¿t rush in to that. I just stopped down a while and I heard the birds. If the birds are singing, everything is okay, but if they¿re not you¿re in trouble. So when I stopped out form behind the trees and from behind the huts and the birds stopped singing, because they spotted me. And I dug back into the coconut stuff again and they started singing again so I knew, I figured rather, that no one was in the hut. And sure enough there wasn¿t so I went on in, and there was a nice mat to sleep on in the little hut and it was like a little outpost. So I decided to stay there a few days to get to eat coconut and get my strength back, because I had been wounded but just by the shrapnel.. from the 20mm that hit the dashboard, and I discarded all the bandages. The backpack of any soldier at.. at sea rather is material that could be put in any first class operating room, because you have all the facilities.. well not antibiotics those days, but self¿ everything to it.
So I would bandage myself and drop the bandage like .. the debris all over the jungle floor and didn¿t think a thing about it, and the coconuts I didn¿t know too well how to open it up, so I just dipped into that coconut and went away.. well on the 3rd morning the birds were singing so I knew I was all right. But on the 4th morning I woke up and the birds were not singing and I knew I was in trouble, and I looked out the hut there was a native and he was looking at me he wasn¿t nothing but about 5, 5-2and he was alone and he was smiling, grinning, and he has a machete.. well I¿m 5¿9 so I knew I had a knife, but if he gave me trouble, could easily hope I could throw the knife at him but there was a broken tip.. but he was grinning and that doesn¿t look good, and when I stepped out I knew why he was grinning, it was because there were five of them in back of me on the other side of the hut. They didn¿t ruffle me up, I thought they were head-hunters, and to this day is still think they were head-hunters. We couldn¿t speak, they didn¿t speak pidgin English, and I didn¿t understand pidgin English, well I knew a little about it with the islanders. They went ahead, and I was stripped to the waist when I swam in, just my trousers, everything else was exposed to the sun for a couple of days, I had sunburn. They begin to poke me with their fingers, I¿m not giving you anything dramatic, that¿s exactly what happened ¿ I could see myself in the pot! What they were doing, I found later from the coast watchers, that they were just marvel at the whiteness that went around the redness when they poke ya. So they put me in a twelve man canoe, and there were about 5 of ¿em.. and they paddle d me for hours going down towards where the y found the jfk pt109, I¿m not trying to get in the reflexive door, this is 6 months later ¿ we cut into a stream what went in towards the volcano that was in the center of the island. And there was the village at night, and there were no women and children, and they took two clubs and they hit on a drum, just a hollow log with a slit at the top, and when they tattooed cold the women came out of the jungle with the kids, and I found out later that there was a reason for that, the Japanese had taken most of their garden and they had resented that and the children and the ladies sent them out to the another part of the island.
So they put in me in the little hut there, I¿d like to say a cage and they¿d put two guys to guard me. We¿re in another village, the next morning I found out there comes an islander that was really sharp, I could tell by the way he walked that he was a young fellow with authority, and he knew what he was doing. and he had a 10 pound sack of rice to the feet of the two guards, and they let me go. And I¿m looking at it from my opinion, this is what I saw. Actually I¿m sure he brought it as a friendly gesture to them for having picked me up. But in my mind, you know you can¿t price out in dollars and cents ¿ right now, at your desk, your exact worth in dollars and cents. But I know exactly how much I¿m worth. Ten pound sack of rice. And I do mean that sincerely because it changed my whole set of values when I left that place. He handled himself so beautifully, the way he ordered people around and the way they listened to him..
I knew I was in safe hands, I know that the other natives would have taken me to the Japanese and sold me, for a price, and I¿m sure they would have. That¿s just my conjecture, but anyhow, from then on out it was clear sailing from Gizo, and from there they brought me to a missionary Sylvester. And this is where... but before we got the messenger, we went to another village, and there was a native guy, looked like a chief to me, and I had my marine corps buckle. And he looked at it, pointed to it, and grabbed it. when he grabbed it ¿ the said that if the natives took something from you you take something from them, it¿s like protocol. So when he grabbed that I grabbed his spear. And that 9ft spear, basket weave and flying fox bon, that¿s a fruit bat, it stands in my room today I brought it all the way back from the pacific. But he took this particular part and from then on out I held on to the spear, and we past this little barge that I thought was the Toa Maru and we went on board, and I knew the Japanese didn¿t know the Geneva convention..
So whatever I did I did out of just plain stupidity, but maybe I saved my life, but I didn¿t have much of a uniform left with the buckle, just hanging pants. I went aboard with them from this burning ship there, and they took a lot of guns, the islanders, and I needed some clothes and I took a Japanese uniform fro a lockers. I put it on and it fit, I¿m not a very big man, tall man, so I figured a jap uniform would be ideal, for the simple reason, they were looking for me, and maybe from a distance with field glasses it¿d be one of their own, because of sunken ships and everything else they were bringing to their men rather than the coast watchers ¿ and I worked under those premises that a Japanese uniform was not bad to wear, being in Japanese territory¿
This circle the canoe, and every time the circle the canoe they stand up and wave and I got a little apprehensive about my situation, and I figured they¿d ¿. And not worry about the islanders because they knew they were bringing somebody, and when I tried to move I felt a .. to stop me from moving, I was vey apprehensive about it, we have another name in the corps..
By the time we hit the island, we met a white man, lt. J.J. DeBlanc, in French, and not make an error and what he was doing here, and he was a missionary Sylvester, c.o.e., and I stayed with him for one day, and we¿re going to have a mass there¿
And they set me up to the coastwatchers¿
The sack of rice and having met the coast watcher is forever etched on my mind. People say he¿s getting senile, that kind of stuff, but we do remember what we ate for breakfast two weeks ago. The early part really is implanted to where you will remember things like price¿ things you really as you think abut them your reactions are such that these are the things that were part of the life that you would not be here today. I take my hat off to the islanders, and the islanders, without their loyalties, the Japanese would have washed us all out in to the sea form Henderson field.
If you knew you were getting warning, you didn¿t know about the coast watchers then? How did you think that they were getting advanced word?
I¿m a slow learner in that manner. I thought maybe it was done by the native islanders, some click on the far side of Guadalcanal It gave us enough time to scramble so they had to shave some system, and I thought maybe the navy the submarine patrols or some sort of idea like that I was looking like that kind of transportation combination like that, but I didn¿t piece the coast watchers together putting together this information. No doubt we would have lost to Guadalcanal¿
Tell us what it was like¿ you described the nights when the battleships came and dropped big shells¿ what was that like?
That was very very scary, I was skipper when the shells would stat, we were tired, we hit the sac in our cots and put our mosquito net up, sound like 10000 of them outside hitting your screen. About 1 or 2 we were used to a plane coming over and this would keep us awake. A twin-engine plane coming over and the engines were not synchronized, washing machine Charlie ¿ oh washing machine Charlie is back, the engines are not synchronized.. there must be a raid coming down¿. We expected that because we know we had the air supremacy because we were shooting the planes down ¿ and we knew that they had the sea supremacy because we didn¿t have our carriers, and the navy left with their carriers and no protection for us and I¿m not blaming the navy, because we were down to a few carriers at the beginning of Guadalcanal because of the coral sea battle. So consequently we had to preserve that type of ship so when they would come, it was very scary I had never been through a shelling ¿ and I always thought that I never want to show fear. So consequently when the 14 & 16in shell from the cruisers offshore open up ¿ they were pretty smart in other words they¿d open up with the heavy stuff and stop and we¿d think it was over and get out and then they¿d open up with the lights stuff and destroy us. So we¿d have to stay in the foxhole, but
The first time they hit us during November the big battle of November the 12 at nighttime, five of us ran into the foxholes an get into the foxholes all together and I didn¿t want to be close to anybody because I didn¿t want anyone to sense that I was shaking, I was just shaking ¿. Legs and arms, shaking, and I didn¿t¿ want them to feel or touch me they¿d wonder if Deblanc is scared, scared to death. Inadvertently I touched the other guy and he was shaking worse than I was shaking! It was universal, they ere all afraid. So if any fighter pilot said he wasn¿t afraid of the shelling at night, I¿d really question that. But anyway, you could hear them whistling actually, they¿d come over there like a freight train, so it wasn¿t going the speed of sound, but close to it.
so there¿s a ripping sound as it came down?
yes, a whistling sound.. a trajectory.. and hit, of course.. after the first you would not hear the others, just a 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 rounds rather and they would hit so quickly it was all one deal.
After .. we went in on nov. 1st and the 10th, and by the time Christmas came around we didn¿t have any shelling at night.
Without the marine corps protecting the perimeter around Henderson field, the ilu river, mt. Austin, this is protected by the edsons raiders and also carolson¿s raiders, and I sure take my hat of to the ground troops who protected us at Henderson field. Look at what it did to col. Ichiki, with his famous troops and they slaughtered him on the beaches of Guadalcanal, and edsons¿ ridge¿ and a friend of major bill fisher who is the leader of the battle of Guadalcanal Solomon Islands foundation.. the islanders help ed carry machine guns to