As South Dakotans join others across the nation in preparation to celebrate Veterans Day, the telling of Blair’s Army Air Corps service in the Pacific Theater reminds everyone how the skill, bravery and sometimes luck of this veteran contributed to victory against Axis forces. Part of the 16 million men and women who served in uniform during that war, Blair also is symbolic of the countless veterans who returned to civilian life to marry, raise a family, be successful in a career and continue to serve, in Blair’s case with four terms in the South Dakota House of Representatives.
George Blair, Sturgis, South Dakota B-25 bomber pilot in World War II, lands in the South China Sea
Writing in a long-ago declassified report, an officer from Sturgis rancher George Blair’s World War II Air Corps Squadron described enemy response as “…meager inaccurate to accurate fire…”
On March 28, 74 years ago, Japanese machine gunners were “accurate” enough to cripple Blair’s B-25J medium bomber, put the 10-ton airplane into ocean off Indo China (today’s Vietnam) and compel Blair to generate a vision of his girlfriend that prevented him from drowning.
But let me start from the beginning. George Blair was born in 1921 in Pleasant Valley, six miles south and east of Sturgis. Learning in a one-room school, graduation from Sturgis High School in 1939 and work on a busy family cattle ranch were predictable milestones in his life until the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. From that point, Blair wanted to support the war effort as a pilot. However, to be accepted as a flying cadet during the start of the war, at least two years of college had to be part of a volunteer’s academic resume, something Blair lacked.
So Blair traveled to Spearfish and talked with already legendary aviator Clyde Ice. The largely self-taught barnstormer, air transporter and flight instructor advised Blair to ignore the two-year college requirement because the military would soon be unable to recruit enough pre-qualified potential pilots. To enhance his eligibility for selection, Ice recommended immediate enrollment in classes at Black Hills Teachers College plus simultaneous evening courses in ground school. Along with classroom instruction, Ice could provide flying lessons in his two-seat Aeronca. By March 1942, Blair was in class with nine other College Training Program students and in the air over the Black Hills and surrounding prairie. Blair also started a courtship with Viola Hays, a college algebra classmate.
Next came extensive physical, mental and psychological testing. In May, Blair was sworn into the Army Air Corps. Learning the rudiments of being a soldier-airman followed at Randolph Field, Texas, where Blair was accepted into flight training in October. His military flight school began at the dual controls of the Stearman Kaydet bi-plane, followed by a second phase in the more powerful and complex BT-13A, the Vulcan Valiant, also nicknamed “The Vibrator” for its ability to shake aviators’ bones plus the nuts and bolts that held everything together.
Commissioned as a 2nd Lt., and wearing hard-earned flight wings in August 1943, Blair wanted an assignment with the B-25 medium bomber in honor and respect for Lt. Col. “Jimmy” Doolittle, the leader of the nicknamed Raiders who completed a daring bombing mission over Japan in April of 1942, flying the versatile twin-engine plane from the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Hornet. Just 16 months after joining the military, one of the Air Corps’ newest pilots and former rancher got his wish. McClellan Army Airfield in northern California was Blair’s next duty station where he learned the fundamentals of operating the B-25, the winged workhorse that the nation’s aircraft industry eventually duplicated in several variants more than 9,800 times.
During night training missions, Blair and fellow students sometimes flew over Los Angeles where intense spotlights constantly scanned the skies. Blair still remembers getting “great advice” from instructors who cautioned the students to ignore the searing lights by looking down at the instrument panel and never outside.
Once qualified in the B-25, Blair was transferred across country to Columbia, S.C., for six months of additional flight training. By April 1944, Blair was cleared to join an operational bomber unit. He became part of three crews that flew shiny B-25s from a base in Savannah, Ga., back to his bomber starting point in California. The crews remained there for a week preparing for an island-hopping journey to Hawaii, Christmas Island, Guadalcanal and, eventually, a maintenance facility at Townsville, Australia, where the aircraft were painted in combat colors and retrofitted with newer machine guns. The first tactical duty station for the newly qualified aircrews became Biak, New Guinea, where Blair and his colleagues learned the fundamentals of in-theater operations and launched their first combat mission against a Japanese airfield.
All returned unscathed from their first taste of battle. Blair still can recall, “While we were dropping the bombs, I noticed some black spots occasionally appearing in front of me. It took a few seconds, and suddenly I realized they were shooting at me.” For nearly a year, he flew 46 more combat missions with the 501st “Black Panthers” Squadron of the 345th Bombardment Group, moving operational bases closer and closer toward Japan.
On March 28, 1945, Blair was part of a large mission that involved aircraft from all four of the Bomb Group’s squadrons. In his routine report, 1st Lt. Issac Baker, the squadron’s assistant intelligence officer, wrote the primary target for that day was to intercept a shipping convoy that had been sighted moving north in the Indo China Sea, with a secondary target of any land installation on the coast. By the time Group leaders got the formation over the anticipated ocean target area, no ships could be found.
They turned inland, with Black Panther aircraft assigned to sweep 60 miles of coastline from Phan Thiet to Phan Rang. Three flights of B-25Js found the My Thanh rail yard, dropping 27 bombs at maximum speed from very low altitudes and strafing the area with .50-caliber machine gun fire. Return fire from the defenders was not heavy, but it was enough to create a crippling oil leak in the starboard engine of Blair’s plane and pepper another Black Panther aircraft with holes.
Blair made a quick decision to shut down the 14-cylinder Wright Cyclone engine and “feather” its propeller to avoid further damage. Flying 15 more miles back to the mainland became a swiftly discarded option. If they landed safely, all would immediately become prisoners of war. Ditching at sea or landing on an unoccupied island were alternatives, with the more realistic hope that a U.S. submarine would be in the area to provide rescue.
Writing a summary of the attack the next day, Baker tersely described the few known details: “Plane 175 (Blair’s plane), hit by ack ack was forced to go on a single engine and when last seen was flying on a single engine at 1,230/I [altitude] 15 miles off Cape Faux Varella on a 102 degree course. Pilot radioed squadron leader that everything was under control and he was trying to make it to Two Island.” He then goes on to identify Blair and five additional crewmen as “missing.”
What Baker did not know or did not report was the tense radio traffic drama in the sky in the minutes after Blair’s bomber received enemy fire. The leader of a different Black Panther flight quickly learned that Blair’s aircraft was in trouble and radioed the surfaced submarine U.S.S. Guavina that was patrolling in the area. Blair started transmitting a “Blue Fish, this is Blue Flyer,” message to contact the sub. The Guavina’s signalman then provided its location to Blair on the radio frequency his crew was monitoring. Ditching at sea, as close to the 311 ft. vessel as possible, became Blair’s best option. “We never had any practice ditching an airplane,” the longtime rancher ironically recalls, a maneuver impossible to rehearse with a land-based aircraft.
As the bomber started skipping across the ocean waves, Blair hit his head on a gunsight and was knocked unconscious. The plane settled into the water and temporarily remained afloat, an unconventional landing that Blair says was, “more luck than skill.”
Within minutes, Blair regained consciousness and joined the other crewmen who were able to escape from the soon-to-sink aircraft. Blair was on the wing of the plane for a few moments before it went under, struggling to inflate both sides of his life jacket. Just half of the jacket filled, a perilous circumstance that nearly killed Blair as he fought “to get in sync” with the 10-foot swells that covered the airplane as it went to the floor of the Pacific Ocean. Tailgunner Staff Sgt. J.R. Richardson made it out of the fuselage but told a crewmate that he could not swim and was not seen again.
Wave after wave covered Blair’s half-supported body each time he tried to breathe. Exhausted, Blair remembers thinking, “just quit.” He laid in the water, ready to surrender, “when, I looked up in the sky and saw my girlfriend - in color - just her shoulder and her head. I thought, if I am ever going to see her again, I better start fighting for my life.”
Still struggling, Blair estimates no more than two minutes later, a crewman from the Navy sub was in the water next to him with rope that pulled them both to the safety of the boat. Others who survived included the co-pilot, navigator, engineer and radio operator. The sub buttoned up and headed east for San Marcelino, Philippines, the home base of the 345th Group where Blair continued to heal from the 13 stitches he received to close the gash on his head.
The attack on the rail yard became Blair’s last combat mission. By then he had exceeded the 100 points necessary for departure from the front lines of the war in the Pacific. Back home in Meade County, discharged from the Air Corps and married to his “vision” girlfriend Viola Marie. The couple soon was busy with post-war life, eventually raising nine children and managing the ranch. Viola passed away in 2002, just a few months before Blair was honored to receive a belated Purple Heart medal during a surprise, family arranged ceremony. Blair, now 97,
continues to live on his ranch in Pleasant Valley.
Story by Duke DoeringAs