first person war stories

remarkable stories of war told by those who fought for a proud nation. their words. their voices. our first episodes tell riveting stories from world war ii, then we move on to the vietnam war and other dramatic conflicts.

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maj. gen. frederick “boots” blesse (part iii): his heroes

| s:2 e:44
maj. gen. frederick “boots” blesse (part iii): his heroes

major general frederick “boots” blesse served two tours as a fighter pilot during the korean war, flying the p-51, the f-80, and the f-86. when he returned to the united states in october of 1952, he was america’s leading jet ace, and was credited with shooting down nine mig-15s and one la-9.

blesse’s motto and doctrine, “no guts, no glory” became famous after he returned from his second tour in korea. he was asked to travel throughout the air force to teach it, and he eventually authored the textbook, “no guts, no glory”, that became a part of standard air force curriculum for years to come.

in this, the final episode of a three part series, blesse talks about what inspired him to join the air force, what makes a good pilot, and the heartwarming story behind how he met his childhood hero, the famous wwi pilot, eddie rickenbacker

maj. gen. frederick “boots” blesse

origins of the fighter pilot

dogfighting kind of happened. there are a number of different examples or theories as to exactly when it started. i can only tell you the one that i've always accepted and that i thought made the most sense. and that was at first they had all the flying over germany and over the part of france was done by observation airplanes. and these were not armed. they were flown by individuals and may or may not initially have had a second guy in the back. but some did and some didn't. and that even got to the point where occasionally a french or one of the airplanes from one nation would go by and the two of them would go by and they'd wave at each other. the guy in the back cockpit would wave at him. and then that went on a little while. and then one day, one of the guys in the back cockpit pulled out a pistol and started firing at the other airplane. and that's what really started it. i mean that ripped it.

and then there was a little more of that. then the single engine aircraft arrived on the scene in our world with armaments. it's not very lethal, but it was significant. it was a hell of a lot better than punch in the belly. 30 caliber machine guns that would fire about 600 rounds. and you had to be within probably 600 feet of the guy to hit him. you couldn't be firing... it would be no use at all, trying to fire at him. but the 30 caliber out at a thousand feet or 2000 feet like you could do with a 20 millimeter gun or something like that. so the fighters arrived on the scene because the guy up in the back was firing. and then the fighters themselves decided that they would get the observation plane. and then the next step was they had to have somebody to keep the fighter off. so the other nation brought air fighters out and would give fighter protection to the observation plane. and so pretty soon one group of fighters is fighting the other group of fighters. and most of the time the observation plane would go home when the other guys were fighting it out.

what makes a great pilot?

i think there are a number of things that all go into the makeup of a good fighter pilot. the things that would maybe make him become an ace. and i think the... in my book, the most important thing is the desire to engage the enemy. the desire to do it, not just willing to do it, but the desire to do it. and if you stop and think about it, of all the fighter pilots that were trained, i read this just recently, of all of them that were trained, i think as only 5% of them got into combat. and of those that got into combat only 5/10,000ths of them became aces. so your chances of becoming an ace, of having the qualities and the things that were necessary to become an ace were apparently very rare indeed, just to compare to the whole shebang. you'd be surprised how many guys really didn't want to...

when i got in the squadron, i'll digress for just a moment. but when i got in that squadron in korea, i thought every guy is going to... he's going to be there. he wants to get up there and get... it didn't work out that way. and after i'd been there in about a month, i'd had all the pilots categorized and we had, i think there were 32 pilots in the squadron. and there were about six of them that amounted to about 90% of all the kills, about six of us. and then there were about another, there were about another 15, maybe 15 or 18 that were all in the process. and one of these days would become one of the sixth. when we go home, the other guys are, they get more aggressive as they get more experience and they get it, they become one of the six. but the other... now you got about 10 left. and out of those 10, you aren't going to get those guys in a fight. i don't care what you do. if they're up there with the migs, they'll always have a fuel tank that won't drop or there something's vibrating. something's not right. and i was amazed at this, every man of tiger business is really not true. there are a lot of pussycats up there.

praising bud anderson

bud anderson, in my opinion, is probably one of the few really elite fighter pilots. he knew what he was doing. he was careful, he was aggressive without being careless. he was just as good a fighter pilot, as you could ever want to know.

blesse’s idol, eddie rickenbacker

rickenbacker was my idol. so i read a lot of things about him and what he did and how he got into combat and what he was flying and that sort of thing. as an individual captain eddie rickenbacker was really a very, very unusual guy. he pulled himself up totally by his own bootstraps time after time after time. he was able to maneuver himself into a better job, a better position, more money and this sort of thing. and that was out of a very, very austere beginning. his family, his father did not make a lot of money, had a good father and a good mother. although his father was very hard on him. he and his brother. and he was not what you'd call the ideal young kid. i mean, he was caught stealing stuff a couple times. and you would've thought looking at his first 10 or 12 or 13 years, he was heading in the wrong direction. his father got in a fight with a guy and the guy killed him and his mother didn't work. and his older brother was not really the quality to jump in and take over things. and eddie, who was 14, quit school, got himself a job. there's no way to keep the house or to keep things going if he didn't do it. so he got himself a job. he was working 12 hours a day, six days a week, trying to keep his house and his family and everything all fed and keep him together.

he finally began.... he finally got a better job. and eventually, because his father had taught him about tools and things like that, he turned out to be a master mechanic. and he was then hired as a mechanic, as a driver's assistant, the driver's mechanic in the race cars. and of course his objective was to move over. he wanted to do the racing. and he began doing that. by the time, 1916 came along and the war was gone. and our people were eventually starting to go over there to fly. he was making $60,000, which is equivalent to over a million these days. and that was in 1916. he was making over 60,000 a year. he quit that. took a job as a sergeant in the air force. and as his driver, because they told him he couldn't get in the air service. he felt if i get over there somehow or another, i can work my way into it. and that's the way he did everything. he just continued to work his way all the way up. he was a remarkable guy.

he got over there was ended up being the personal driver for general billy mitchell. and through billy mitchell... billy mitchell thought he was great that he did good. he did a lot of minor things that were good and all that. and one day mitchell was going to a very, very important meeting and they gave him a car, gave him an old hudson. and mitchell didn't like that, but that was the only thing they had. and eddie was driving it. captain eddie... and sure enough, they got part way down there and the car broke down and mitchell was through the roof. he was going to miss this important meeting. he had to be there and captain eddie went in there and he took a few things apart, substituted a couple things. and then about 30 minutes, he had the car ready to go again and got him to the meeting. and that really impressed colonel mitchell. so mitchell agreed to give him a try in the air service, even though he was... well, he lied about his age, said he was 25. he was really 27. and that was two years too late. but he got into the air service and they spent a long time trying to get trained. and they went to a french airfield that didn't have any facilities. and all these american pilots had come in thinking they were going to have pilot training and they ended up building hangars and they ended up being construction people. and they finally got the thing squared away. and then they began getting airplanes. and then the guys didn't like eddie because in his squadron, because they were all aristocrats. the final name of it was the lafayette escadrille. and it was full of millionaire sons and people like that. and he had a kind of a funny accent and was a little gruff and didn't use the proper english all the time. and he was not very well liked. until he finally he started getting kills. and the next thing you know, he got to be squadron commander and he moved on up just by his own bootstraps from about august, i think it was. in august or early september of 1918. he still only had about seven or eight kills. and then in october, he got about 14 kills in october when he was a squadron commander. he revamped how everybody was going to do it and what they were... what the jobs were in the squadron and how they were going to fly. he totally worked him over.

he wanted desperately to be the best ace, to be the leading ace, and to be the ace of aces in the american air service. that drove him from dropping off a million dollar income, in these days, a drop of $60,000 a year income then taking a sergeant's job and going over thinking all the time. if i get over there and get close to it somehow or another i'll work myself into it. that's the thing that made him great. he had a tremendous desire to be the leading ace and to fly fighters. and he knew he could do it. and god, the airplanes, when i read about the kind of airplanes that those guys went into service with... i mean, you wouldn't believe it. it's just a... initially he was flying a newport-28 and it didn't have a throttle in it. it had a little thing that you could set. it was a rotary, had a rotary engine so you could pull a thing back and several cylinders would quit, pull it back further and several more would quit. and that's the way you reduce speed by stopping part of the engine. and they could put it all the way back in the whole damn thing and quit, but it was a... they went in to fight in those things. and he did it, he got kills. he did a good job of it. and then finally they put him over in the sped 13 and he got most of his kills there in late september, late october of 1918.

he was a good dog fighter because he believed in the airplane that he flew, in spite of the fact that it wasn't good and he knew it. you could pull the wing fabric off of that newport that he had. it had all kinds of things wrong with it. things that we would never think of going... and he knew, he got in and he learned the airplane, he got with the mechanics, he learned what things were good and bad about the airplane so that he knew what he could do with the airplane without getting in a lot of trouble.

he got the medal of honor, about 10 years after he did it, but he got the medal of honor for attacking a seven ship flight. five of which were the fokker d.viis. fokker d.viiis. they were fokker d.viiis. it was the best fighter the germans had and he shot down one of them and then got in between the two that had... by this time, the observation airplanes had machine guns and he got in between them and it looked like he was going to get hammered so he took this one and the guy started to turn away from him. he took him and took a big lead on him and fired him and shot him down and then took off and went home. got two kills out of the thing without getting hit himself. he was quite a guy.

meeting his idol

i met him. like i said, i knew something about him when i was eight years old. i was born in 1921. in 1929/1930 my father was in the army and he was stationed at fort leavenworth, kansas. there was an airfield there, army airfield, and the guy that lived down the hall, a captain, took me up in an airplane down there and i really loved it. i thought it was great. i knew that i wanted to be like him and he was my knight in shining armor from the time i was about eight years old. nothing ever happened... i was delighted to be lucky enough to accomplish that.

in 1953, after i had come home... i was a leading ace and they tabbed to me, i was on speaking tours and they gave me an f-86 and i was doing air shows at some place, and i was putting on an air show in richmond, virginia. they didn't have any fuel for me so i had to... i had no drop tanks. i had to go up, put on the air show and then go over to langley 40 miles away, land and get fuel, then come back and get ready for the next show.i had just done that. i'd put on a show, went over and got gas at lang ley, and came back and landed. i hadn't even gotten away from the airplane and some guy drove up in a car. looked like one of these oddball cars, i don't know. expensive cars. he came over and he said, "listen, we've got a captain eddie rickenbacker from eastern airlines coming in, in about 20 minutes and we were wondering... we want to tow his spad over and put it under the wing of your f-86 and we'll get him to come over and get a picture of the two of you like that." and he said, "would you mind if we did that?" and i said, "would i mind?" i said, "if you want somebody to push that airplane of his over with his nose, i'll do it." i was so enthusiastic about it i couldn't wait. he came over and they still hadn't quite gotten the airplanes in shape yet and captain eddie and i stood there on the ramp beside the two airplanes and we talked about... he was extremely interested in the terrific speeds we had in the jets and the fact that i had gotten some kills in jets, and of course i was questioning him on everything i could think about. it was really great. they took a nice picture of the two of us and i'll tell you, i got copies of that picture from all over the world from friends of mine. i got them that had nothing but german written under them or nothing but japanese. there was the same picture. all the writing under it is in japanese or it's german or it's french or something. that picture really got a lot of publicity.

we had this talk, as i say. we talked back and forth for, i would guess, at least 30 minutes. maybe 30 to 40 minutes. and then he went back and got back in his airplane and i took off and was ready to go on another show. about a week later, 10 days later maybe, i got a nice letter from him. he said how much he enjoyed meeting me and talking with me and talking about the new things in jet aviation and jet fighters, and he sent me this 8 by 10 picture that was going all around the world. they had sent him copies of it. i didn't have one. and he said, he wondered if i would sign this for him so he could put it in his den and i said, "me?" i can't believe this. of course i autographed it, sent it back to him and said, "i'm only doing this under the provision that you will send me one back too." about a week or 10 days later, i got another nice one from him and had signed it, “to my good friend major blesse”, something at the bottom i've got front and side at captain eddie rickenbacker. that's my, probably of 40 pictures and stuff that i got hanging around my den, that's my most prized possession in there. if i was in a hurry and the house was on fire and the roof had blown off and i could only get one picture, that's the one i'd go get before i left.

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