John Thomas Blackburn

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John Thomas Blackburn
John Thomas Blackburn.jpg
John Blackburn as a student at the United States Naval Academy, c. 1933
Nickname(s) Tommy
Born (1912-01-24)January 24, 1912[1]
Annapolis, Maryland
Died March 21, 1994(1994-03-21) (aged 82)
Jacksonville, Florida
Buried Arlington National Cemetery
Allegiance United States
Service/branch United States Navy
Years of service 1929–1962
Rank Captain
Commands held VGF-29
VF-17 Jolly Rogers
Air Group-74
Heavy Attack Wing 1
USS Midway

World War II

Awards Navy Cross
Distinguished Flying Cross

John Thomas "Tommy" Blackburn (January 24, 1912 — March 21, 1994) was an American naval aviator, World War II flying ace,[2] and the first commanding officer of the famed F4U Corsair squadron VF-17 Jolly Rogers.

Early life[edit]

John Thomas Blackburn was born in Annapolis, Maryland, and raised in Washington D.C., and graduated from Western High School. His father and brother were naval officers.

Navy career[edit]

Blackburn graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1933,[3] became a Naval Aviator, and was a flight instructor in 1941 when the United States entered World War II.

Lieutenant Commander Blackburn was anxious to get into combat, but was relegated to flying the Brewster F2A Buffalo at Opa Locka Naval Air Station near Miami.

First command, VGF-29[edit]

After several requests for a combat assignment, he received orders in July 1942 to organize VGF-29 as commanding officer and report aboard the new escort carrier USS Santee. VGF-29 was equipped with the Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat. Blackburn assembled a ready room of mainly brand new ensigns fresh from winning their wings at advanced flying school at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi. Luckily he had the assistance of a combat veteran from the recent Battle of the Coral Sea, Lt.(jg) Harry "Brink" Bass who received the Navy Cross for his attack on the Japanese aircraft carrier Shōhō.

Blackburn set up operations at a remote field at Pungo well away from the brass and traffic at NAS Norfolk and was soon promoted to Lieutenant Commander. Pungo suited Blackburn fine as he wanted an undisturbed environment to get the squadron acquainted with the Wildcat and ready for deployment and the combat likely to follow.[1]

The squadron embarked aboard USS Santee in October 1942 to participate in Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa. Arriving in the waters off Morocco on November 6, VGF-29 flew first combat mission on 8 November but could not find their target, and poor weather and damaged homing equipment aboard Santee forced them to ditch or force-land their Wildcats. Blackburn floated adrift in a liferaft for 3 days before he was spotted by a destroyer and rescued. Thus ended VGF-29's inauspicious debut and Blackburn's first combat deployment. Shortly thereafter, Blackburn was ordered to stand up a new squadron.[1]

The Jolly Rogers, VF-17[edit]

Blackburn stood up VF-17 on January 1, 1943 at NAS Norfolk. It initially had a few North American SNJ trainers and F4F Wildcats awaiting delivery of the first Vought F4U Corsairs in February. It was the second Navy fighter squadron to receive the F4U-1 Corsair, the first to fly them in combat, and the most successful of them all during a combat tour in the Solomon Islands. Blackburn wanted to motivate his pilots with a squadron insignia which would live up to the Corsair name and chose the skull and crossbones and the name "The Jolly Rogers". Harry Hollmeyer, as squadron pilot conceived the original design, which was painted on the cowling of the Corsairs that were also known as "hogs."

This name was bestowed by "Dog Ears" Coleman, a young pilot in Jumpin' Joe Clifton's VF-12, the first Corsair squadron. Blackburn named his Corsair "Big Hog" and together with his executive officer, Roger Hedrick embarked on an intensive training program to get his squadron ready for the planned deployment to the Pacific in August 1943, and the combat that lay ahead. Again, he chose a remote field well away from Norfolk to operate as he saw fit and away from prying eyes of the senior leadership.[4]

The squadron deployed aboard USS Bunker Hill and worked hard to adapt the F4U Corsair to the carrier environment, which necessitated some design changes, resulting in the F4U-1A model.

The Jolly Rogers deployed to the Pacific, but upon arrival there the Navy decided to initially land base its Corsairs. The squadron flew to Guadalcanal on October 26 where it received orders to begin operating out of Ondongo (which means "Place of Death") on the island of New Georgia in the Solomon Islands. They arrived on the 27th, just in time to participate in providing air cover for the Landings at Cape Torokina, near Empress Augusta Bay on Bougainville Island on 1 November; this drew attention from the considerable Japanese presence at their bastion of Rabaul. Blackburn and his Jolly Rogers were assigned the high cover mission for the landings and ran into a wave of Japanese Aichi D3A "Val" dive bombers escorted by Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighters. Blackburn downed two and the squadron three more in their combat debut.

On November 8, 1943, The Jolly Rogers faced their biggest test to date when six Jolly Rogers faced an attack of 15 Japanese D3A "Val" dive bombers escorted by 24 A6M "Zeros". Hedrick launched with a flight of eight Corsairs, but lost two when they aborted. In the engagement, VF-17 downed three fighters and damaged four others with no losses. In its two tours of duty in the Solomon Islands, VF-17 had 152 aerial victories and produced 11 aces. Blackburn ranked third with 11 victories behind Hedrick with 12 and Ira Kepford who led the squadron with 17. VF-17 finished its last combat tour in the Solomons on May 10, 1944 and many pilots were reassigned.[1]

Cdr Blackburn led VF-17 (January 1943 – May 1944) to become the greatest fighter squadron with confirmed 154 enemy kills (an 8:1 loss ratio) plus 75 probable kills. They sank five transport ships and barges. No plane they escorted was ever shot down, not even in flights against Rabaul. In 76 days of combat they flew 8577 combat hours and produced 13 flying aces. Forty years later, his pilots publicly credited the squadron's skipper for its success; he taught them much and was successful in getting equipment and supplies they needed.[5] A series of interviews with former pilots and ground crew of VF-17, including Tommy Blackburn and fighter ace Ike Kepford, was held and videotaped at the Glenview Naval Air Station in Glenview, Il in 1984. That recording is still available on DVD from RDR Productions in Glenview.

Aerial victories[edit]

Date Credits Aircraft Types Claimed (location)
1 Nov 1943 2 A6M "Zeke" destr. (Empress Augusta Bay, Bougainville Island)
8 Nov 1943 1 Light Transport destr. (Buka aerodrome, Buka Island)
11 Nov 1943 1 Ki-61 "Tony" destr. (Battle of the Solomon Sea)
26 Jan 1944 1 A6M "Zeke" destr. (Rabaul, New Britain)
30 Jan 1944 2 A6M "Zeke" destr. (Rabaul, New Britain)
6 Feb 1944 4 A6M "Zeke" destr. (Rabaul, New Britain)


USS Midway[edit]

He was CAG (Commander Air Group-74) of Midway, shortly before V-J Day.[1] Later, he commanded the aircraft carrier USS Midway (CV-41) (1958–1959).[3]

Shore duty[edit]

After World War II he worked at the Pentagon.

Commander Blackburn was an early jet pilot in the Navy. He flew a Bell YP-59A Airacomet at Naval Air Test Center, Patuxent, on 13 May 1946, the 120th American naval aviator qualified to fly a jet airplane.[7]

While commanding HATWING-1, Captain Blackburn participated in a demonstration of carrier mobility. On 3 September 1956, he and his wingman each flew an Douglas A3D Skywarrior from the USS Shangri-La (CV-38), off the coast of Oregon, across a finish line at the National Air Show in Oklahoma City, and on to Jacksonville, Florida, without refueling.[8]


He retired from the Navy in 1962.

In mid-1962 Blackburn began growing wine grapes and raising "blue ribbon" Golden Retrievers in St. Helena, California.[9]

He had two children, Pattie and Mark, with former wife Rosalie Reed.

After selling his St Helena, California, vineyard and home to Gene and Cody Kirkham, who transformed the property into Casa Nuestra Winery, Blackburn lived in Jacksonville, Florida with his second wife, Jamie Brashears,[9] and died there.[10] He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

A replica of his F4U Corsair, with the Jolly Roger insignia and "Big Hog" written on the vertical stabilizer and the number one on the fuselage, was installed at the Washington Navy Yard in 1985.[5]


  • 1989: The Jolly Rogers: The story of Tom Blackburn and Navy Fighting Squadron VF-17. – New York: Orion Books. – ISBN 978-0-517-57075-3.
  • Blackburn, Tom with Eric M. Hammel (1997). The Jolly Rogers : the story of Tom Blackburn and Navy Fighting Squadron VF-17. Pacifica, CA: Pacifica Press. ISBN 0-935553-19-3. LCCN 96042244. 
  • Styling, Mark (1995). Corsair Aces of World War 2. Osprey Publishing. 
  • Cook, Lee. The Skull & Crossbones Squadron: VF-17 in World War II. 


  1. ^ a b c d e Sherman, Stephen E. (September 1999. Updated July 1, 2011). "JTom Blackburn – C.O. of Jolly Rogers, Fighting Squadron 17 (VF-17) in WW2". – World War Two & Aviation History. Retrieved 2012-02-12.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  2. ^ "Appendix 22, U.S. Navy and Marine Corps Aces". United States Naval Aviation 1910–1995 (PDF). U.S. Navy. p. 677. Retrieved 2012-02-12. 
  3. ^ a b "USS MIDWAY (CVB-41), (later CVA-41 and CV-41)". NavSource Online: Aircraft Carrier Photo Archive. Retrieved 2012-02-12. CAPT John Thomas Blackburn USNA '33, 2 June 1958 – 19 May 1959 
  4. ^ Sherman, Stephen E. (September 1999. Updated July 1, 2011.). Hedrick "USNavy Corsair Pilots in WW2 – Ira Kepford and Roger Hedrick" Check |url= value (help). – World War Two & Aviation History. Retrieved 2012-02-12.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  5. ^ a b Christmann, JO2 Timothy J. (November–December 1985). "Restored F4U Rekindles Memories of VF-17" (PDF). Naval Aviation News, The Voice of Naval Aviation. U.S. Navy. p. 16. ISSN 0028-1417. Retrieved 2012-02-12. 
  6. ^ The Jolly Rogers by Tom Blackburn & Eric Hammel 1989, p124, p127, p142, p161, p224, p247, p261
  7. ^ "United States Naval Aviation 1910–1995" (PDF). U.S. Navy. p. 748. Retrieved 2012-02-12. 120 Blackburn, John T. CDR 13 May 46 YP-59A Patuxent  |chapter= ignored (help)
  8. ^ "Part 8: The New Navy, 1954–1959". United States Naval Aviation 1910–1995 (PDF). U.S. Navy. p. 213. Retrieved 2012-02-12. 
  9. ^ a b The Jolly Rogers: The Story of Tom Blackburn and Navy Fighting Squadron VF-17 by Tom Blackburn p. 260
  10. ^ "John Thomas Blackburn, Captain, United States Navy". Arlington National Cemetery. Retrieved 2012-02-12. From a contemporary press report: John Thomas Blackburn, 81, decorated World War II fighter pilot and air squadron Commander, died of cancer March 21, 1994 in Jacksonville, Florida. The son and younger brother of Naval officers, he was born and grew up in the District. He attended the old Western High School and graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1933. In 1943, took command of fighter squadron VF-17, the first to fly an F-4U Corsair fighter plane in combat. Known as the Jolly Rogers, squadron was among the most famous of the war. Under his command, the squadron downed 155 Japanese airplanes in 76 days and produced 13 aces in the process. He himself shot down 13 enemy planes. He was awarded Navy Cross and the Distinguished Flying Cross for his war service. He served at Pentagon after the war and commanded the aircraft carrier Midway in 1958 and 1959. He retired from the Navy in 1962. In 1989, he published "The Jolly Rogers," an account of his squadron's exploits during its campaign in the Solomon Islands. His marriage to Rosalie Reed of the District ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife, James Brashears of Jacksonville; a daughter, a son, and 5 grandchildren. Services will be held at Arlington National Cemetery.