By Lucas Bernard
One evening I was visiting my great uncle, watching the History Channel’s Dogfights with him. It was an excellent show, with interviews of wistful old veterans recounting their time as knights of the air while computer-generated planes reenacted their exploits to bring their stories to life. That particular episode recounted the feats of the brave Marine aviators of Guadalcanal. An old man appeared on the screen to begin his story. Once he opened his mouth to speak, I instantly became glued to the screen. An unmistakable Cajun patois flowed from his mouth and I might as well have been amongst my father’s side of the family. Sure enough, he was from St. Martinville, Louisiana, the same place where my family settled in 1761. After the episode was over, I called my great aunt as she is the Bernard family’s repository of ancestral lore.
“Nanny, do you know a Lt. Col. Jefferson DeBlanc?”
Her response was immediate: “Mais yeah cher! He lives right behind the Barras.”
On January 31, 1943, Jefferson DeBlanc was leading a section of F4F Wildcats, escorting dive bombers to attack Japanese vessels off Kolombangara Island in the Solomons. Enroute to the target area, he discovered his plane had developed a major fuel leak. He reported back to base, but continued on. He had bombers to protect. Observing a couple Japanese planes attacking his bombers, he dove to engage. While effortlessly evading fire from their tail gunners, he shot down both. The bombers completed their mission, but DeBlanc wasn’t finished, he circled the target area to ensure their safe retreat. Climbing back to elevation, night began to fall. He spotted a squadron of Japanese fighters. Pulling up from under them, he shot one down, forcing them to engage the Wildcats. After exploding a Japanese fighter head on, he discovered another right behind him. DeBlanc drastically reduced his speed, causing the Japanese pilot to overshoot him, and shot him down as well. Suddenly, rounds began to strike his aircraft, ripping off his watch, destroying his instrument panel, and setting his engine on fire. It was time to bail out. Landing in the ocean, DeBlanc realized he had been significantly wounded. Nonetheless, dying wasn’t an option. He swam six hours to shore and subsisted on coconuts for three days. Eventually he was found by an indigenous tribe who traded him to another with ties to Allied forces. This commerce forced a certain amount of self-reflection upon DeBlanc, who remarked about the occasion, “Many men go through d’ere entire lives not knowing what dey worth. Me, I know exactly what I’m worth, a ten-pound sack of rice.” On February 12, he was paddled out via canoe to an American plane to be flown back to his countrymen.
On December 6, 1946, DeBlanc was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Harry Truman. After the war, he achieved a B.S. in Physics and Math, and a Masters of Education in both disciplines. He taught my aunts, my uncle, and my father these classes, living a quiet life amongst his people. When my aunt married, I took the opportunity to go visit him, although he was bedridden and unable to speak much. Still, it was an honor to be in the presence of the “Old Warrior.”
A few years ago, I took my wife and my grandmother to New Orleans for beignets and the National World War II Museum. It is a beautiful and moving facility, taking up multiple blocks of the city. In the aviation pavilion, amongst planes of the era suspended from wires, sat a small old man with a display of his time in the great crusade of his youth. He was a Marine aviator at Guadalcanal. I asked him if he knew Jefferson DeBlanc. His eyes lit up with times long gone. “He was my good friend. That man could fly the box the plane came in.” Whenever I go to my family reunion, I drive along a road dedicated to him. He typified the American fighting man of his era. A common man called upon by uncommon times to do extraordinary deeds. He did his duty and returned to continue service to his community. He didn’t start a t-shirt company, he taught high school. I am blessed to have met him, and the world is better for him having lived in it. Every time I eat rice, which is often due to my cultural heritage, I am reminded that a man’s worth can be measured in a variety of ways.