Among the forty men who had the honor to command the USS Midway, one of the most distinguished, and controversial, was John Thomas Blackburn. The son of a Naval Academy graduate, Blackburn had an older brother in the Academy when he entered in 1929. The Great Depression plaguing the nation also affected the Navy and only the upper half of the Class of 1933 received their commissions upon graduation. Blackburn took obligatory battleship duty before being accepted for flight training two years after being designated a naval aviator in 1937.
Blackburn joined fleet aviation at a time of dramatic transition from biplanes to all-metal monoplanes and a palpable improvement in combat performance.
Flying both dive bombers and fighters from the USS Lexington, his proven proficiency saw him posted to advanced flight instructor duty at Naval Air Station Miami in early 1941. With war on the horizon, naval aviation expanded at an accelerated clip, and newly-minted pilots were sent on to advanced flight training to learn how to operate combat aircraft tactically before reporting to a fleet squadron.
After war arrived, Blackburn repeatedly applied for a combat assignment and in June 1942 received orders to form a fighter squadron for the newly-converted escort carrier Santee, VFG-29 (fighter squadrons intended for these small carriers used this designator until 1943). Dissatisfied with established administrative training procedures, Blackburn took his raw squadron away from scrutiny at Norfolk to an auxiliary field in marshy terrain at Pungo, Virginia. Employing a strict regimen that emphasized teamwork and tactics, he brought his F4F Wildcat squadron aboard the Santee in time for the invasion of French North Africa, Operation Torch, in November.
Tasked with a strafing mission, Blackburn led a flight over Morocco, but extremely poor weather thwarted the effort, and a damaged homing beacon aboard the Santee prevented the Wildcats’ safe return. After many hours aloft, the fighters were forced to ditch, Blackburn’s F4F being the first down. He survived the impact to spend the next sixty hours adrift before a destroyer found his tiny raft. Reporting back to Norfolk, Blackburn next received orders to form another fighter squadron intended for the new fleet carrier Bunker Hill. On January 1, 1943, he assumed command of VF-17, equipped with the hottest aircraft in the fleet, Vought’s new F4U Corsair.
Blackburn’s new command was only the second fleet squadron to receive the Corsair, and the big, bent-wing fighter was teeming with technical bugs. A remarkably complex design for its time, the F4U was a nightmare of hydraulic lines, a leaking fuel system, and a powerful engine with teething problems, the R-2800 Twin Wasp. Worse, the addition of a fuel tank between the engine and cockpit gave the Corsair its second distinctive feature, an extraordinarily long nose.
Yet, Blackburn saw potential in the new fighter and turned with a will to master it. Applying his own intensive flight training regimen, and working closely with Vought technical representatives, he had his pilots and planes ready for service in the summer of 1943.
The new Bunker Hill took her air group aboard and conducted shakedown trials in the Caribbean in July. Blackburn’s demanding training program caused no mishaps in interpreting the Landing Signal Officer, but the F4U Corsair’s landing gear tended to bounce the airframe on impact with the deck, causing hook skips and slamming. Fortunately, no crashes resulted, so the problematic F4U stayed with the ship during the transition to the Pacific. However, it was not long before orders arrived to remove VF-17 from the carrier as the Corsair was posing landing problems for other new squadrons in the fleet. Grumman’s contemporary fighter, the F6F Hellcat, had no such reputation, and fleet logistics planners did not want to complicate supply chains trying to sustain two different fighter types with the carriers. In the meantime, the Marines had enjoyed early success with the F4U from shore bases, so VF-17 was transferred to duty in the South Pacific.
Ironically, despite VF-17’s proven ability to handle the Corsair at sea, it took the example of the Royal Navy routinely operating their Corsairs from carriers, and the urgent need for the F4U’s superior performance in the face of the kamikaze threat, to bring the Vought fighter back to U.S. flight decks by 1945.
Arriving at Guadalcanal in October 1943, Blackburn’s command, now known as the “Jolly Rogers,” got acclimated to the tropics, and settled into the business of fighting in the Solomons. Assigned to the central Solomons, the Jolly Rogers were paired with a veteran Marine Corsair unit, VMF-215, who had been flying missions since the summer. The inter-service camaraderie paid dividends, particularly in the challenging jungle maintenance environment. Over the ensuing months, which saw the aerial noose steadily tighten around the Japanese bastion of Rabaul, VF-17 set a standard for other fighter units, rapidly becoming known as a squadron of aces, with Blackburn having eleven himself.
A tactical innovator, Blackburn reveled in the extreme environment of combat in the South Pacific, but he was also harsh with sub-par performers and tossed reluctant pilots out of his squadron. His rough-and-ready approach also shone through when he was about to lead a flight back to their forward base from an overhaul interval in the rear area. Since creature comforts were virtually non-existent at the front, extraordinary efforts were sought to bring bottles of beer forward. A maintenance officer discerned that loading only a third of the F4U Corsair’s .50 caliber ammunition left enough room in the ammunition tray to insert several bottles of brew into each wing. Within hours of setting off on the return flight, the rest of the squadron and their Marine neighbors were treated to beer, rendered cold by the high altitude!
The combat seen by the Jolly Rogers was often fierce, and even skilled pilots failed to return. But, by the spring of 1944, the South Pacific had become a strategic backwater and orders arrived in May to stand down the squadron, and bring home the pilots for rest and reassignment. Blackburn’s achievements with the Corsair not only resulted in the awarding of the Navy Cross, but a desk assignment in Washington to oversee fleet fighter requirements. Nevertheless, Blackburn wrangled a ride with the Third Fleet in time to witness the Battle of Leyte Gulf as an observer. With the war closing in on Japan itself, he received a new combat command, leading the fleet’s largest air group aboard the new battle carrier, USS Midway, then completing in Newport News.
With the advent of the atomic bomb, the Second World War ended in August 1945, as Blackburn was still organizing Air Group 74. Nevertheless, when the Midway joined the new peacetime fleet, he had the honor to make the ship’s first trap with an F4U Corsair in October 1945.
Just under a year later, Blackburn returned to Washington in time to participate in the transition to jet power.
While the Korean War raged, he served as an Executive Officer aboard the light carrier Saipan in the Atlantic. In 1956, while commanding Heavy Attack Wing One, Blackburn led two of the large Douglas A3D Skywarrior nuclear bombers on a demonstration flight from the carrier Shangri-La off the West Coast, to an overflight appearance at the National Air Show in Oklahoma City, before landing non-stop in Florida. A stretch of staff duty preceded his new orders to assume command of the carrier Midway in June 1958.
The Midway was fresh from an extensive reconstruction that gave her an angled deck. Tensions were increasing between Red China and Taiwan, so the Midway was heading into a potential combat deployment. During the workups for this deployment, Blackburn wanted to try out Vought’s newest hot product, the supersonic F8U Crusader. Despite not being checked out on the new fighter, Blackburn took the sleek fighter into the sky and threw her about the atmosphere. His maneuvers were too extreme, and he barely brought his mount back aboard safely. He suffered traumatic head injuries, but the forty-six-year-old resumed his post in the Captain’s chair on the bridge, sporting burst blood vessels, and blackened eyes.
Although praised for his outgoing concern for the welfare of his crew, Blackburn also exercised a reputation as a tough taskmaster, just as in his wartime years, and could vent his anger in ways that could damage careers. He aimed his fire carefully, though, taking into account an officer’s penchant for attentive performance and potential for further service. Yet, his stormy side could spill over into public displays that would cause him embarrassment. Over time, this produced a love-hate duality among his officers.
The Taiwan situation threatened to boil over into war as artillery fire fell among Taiwanese installations on offshore islands. This cut short a scheduled stay at Pearl Harbor for the Midway and she deployed directly for the troubled region. Knowing he was leading his men into a potential nuclear war, Blackburn bluntly stated the facts and expressed his confidence in his crew for whatever came, over the 1MC. The Midway remained on station for thirty-seven days. International tensions did indeed abate, and the Midway returned on schedule to Alameda in March 1959
Captain Blackburn’s next assignment, oddly, was as chief of staff for Rear Admiral J. D. Welsh, Commander of Carrier Division Five, while still aboard the Midway. Blackburn’s incandescent presence contrasted with new Captain James Mini’s more subdued personality aboard the Midway. When a special hangar deck dinner hosted by Mini was interrupted by pranksters who activated part of the sprinkler system, Blackburn roared with laughter in front of the ashen Mini and praised the unruly junior officers.
In a time when a great many colorful unit commanders from the Second World War were selected for flag rank as the 1960s unfolded, there was widespread surprise that a supposed luminary like Tommy Blackburn was passed over for admiral.
It turned out that the hard-drinking, cigar-chomping former fighter pilot was perhaps not the ideal material for high command in the Cold War era of nuclear brinksmanship. Possibly, Blackburn also signed too many career officers on his way up. At any rate, Tommy Blackburn retired in 1962 as a Captain and took up grape growing in Napa, while exerting his competitive instincts in breeding champion golden retrievers. Later, he moved to Florida and passed away in 1994.
Launch em’… until next time,
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