Wednesday, November 11, 2015

U.S. Air Force Col. Bassel Blakesmith


These photographs, companions to others now in the Lucas County Historical Society collection, are among the few remaining physical reminders of U.S. Air Force Col. Bassel Blakesmith, a native Lucas Countyan whose distinguished career spanned three decades and three wars.

Although more than entitled to honor on Veterans Day, or any other, in the end few were left to tell his story.

My acquaintance with the colonel and his wife, Dorothey, is indirect --- through my parents, who had known both since high school. My mother's connection with Dorothey goes back a little farther, to Sunday school at Central Christian Church in Williamson.

This means my qualifications are a little shaky, but I'll try to piece together some of his story here today, set aside to honor all U.S. military veterans on the 97th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I.

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Col. Blakesmith was born in Chariton on March 12, 1914, the year after his parents, Uriah T. and Isabella Blakesmith, had moved here from Bussey. Uriah was a coal miner who worked at that trade until he retired in 1946. There were seven Blakesmith children.

Educated in Chariton schools, Blakesmith was a 1933 graduate of Chariton High School. Although he enrolled in Chariton Junior College after that, he did not complete the program.

What he did do was join with other young men fascinated by flying to become one of Chariton's aviation pioneers. 

The late John A. Callahan, now at rest in the Chariton Cemetery, too, after a distinguished Air Force career, recalled during 2000 that he had been the youngest member of a group consisting of Lloyd Moore, Bassel Blakesmith, Al Smith and Paul Show who traveled together to Ottumwa and Des Moines for flight instruction during the late 1930s, all chipping in to cover the cost of gas.

During August of 1940, Blakesmith and Al Smith --- named Homer Lewis Smith by his parents --- formed a partnership and purchased George Blanchard's Jack Spratt Grocery on the east side of the square. Bassel operated the grocery and vegetable departments; Al, the meat department. Al's sister, Dorothey Smith, signed on as chief clerk.

The two men also invested jointly in an American Eagle Biplane, which they kept at the Des Moines Airport. That plane was heavily damaged during a wind storm at the airport during April of 1941, but the two pilots soon were airborne again.

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The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, propelled the United States into war in both Pacific and European theaters --- and both Smith and Blakesmith, into the service of their country.

The men were determined to be pilots and set their sights on the U.S. Army Air Corps.


At the time, two years of college or successful completion of a challenging academic test were required of all potential Air Corps pilots. Since neither man had met the college requirement, both took the test --- and passed with flying colors. They enlisted together on Feb. 24, 1942, and left Chariton together for training in Texas on March 23.

Dorothey Smith agreed to operate the grocery store for the duration of the war and, somewhat more importantly, to marry Bassel, although the ceremony would not take place until November. The friends then became brothers-in-law, too.

The two men completed basic training together and both were assigned to the Waco Army Basic Flying School, Waco, Texas --- but then their paths diverged. Al was assigned to advanced fighter pilot school (known as the "Satan's Angels school") at Foster Field, Victoria, Texas; and Bassel, to bomber pilot training school at Kelly Field, Texas.

Both were commissioned second lieutenants and awarded their silver wings during early November.


Dorothey Smith traveled to Texas for Bassel's graduation ceremony. He received his wings on the morning of  Nov. 10, 1942, at Kelly Field  and that afternoon, they were married in the post chapel.

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Blakesmith made it safely through the next three years, logging more than 4,000 flight hours at the controls of bombers and transport aircraft.


Discharged into the reserves in 1945 with the rank of captain, he picked up the threads of his business in Chariton and began to farm on the side. There were no plans to continue a military career.

U.S. Army Air Corps Maj. Al Smith, 1914-1945

Al Smith was not so fortunate. He had survived the war, too, and now a U.S. Army Air Corps major, was assigned during late 1945 to ferry P-51 Fighters "over the hump" from Andal, India, to Shanghai. On Nov. 19, 1945, his plane went down somewhere in the vicinity of Hankow, China, most likely because of severe weather. Smith and his plane remain unaccounted for to this day, 70 years later.

In 1948, Bassel and Dorothey Blakesmith's only child, John William, was born at Iowa Lutheran Hospital in Des Moines.

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Eight years after the end of World War II, during April of 1953, Blakesmith --- now an Air Force Reserve major --- was recalled to active duty. Also recalled was Air Force Reserve Capt. Leo Edwards, who had purchased Bates Studio on the west side of the square seven years earlier.

Both men were assigned as the first pilots of massive new 10-engine (six prop, four jet) B-36 Peacemaker bombers. Only 17 Air Force pilots and reserve pilots in the United States at the time, including Blakesmith and Edwards, were qualified to pilot these giant aircraft, according to newspaper reports.

Upon completion of refresher training, both were assigned to the Strategic Air Command base, Rapid City, S.D. The grocery store was sold and Dorothey and young John packed their belongings and accompanied Blakesmith to South Dakota.

This assignment launched the second phase of Blakesmith's military career, one that would last for 17 years.

Relatively early in the second phase of his career, Blakesmith was named operations officer at Ellsworth Air Force base, Rapid City, and after that completed a variety of assignments that took him and his family from one end of the United States to the other and around the world --- Japan for a year, Germany, Egypt, elsewhere.

Many of his assignments as the years passed were with the joint Navy-Air Force globe-circling Military Air Transport Service, in operation from 1948 until deactivated in 1966.

Assigned to Savannah, Georgia, during 1963, the Blakesmiths established a home there. John attended and graduated with honors from Savannah High School, then enrolled at the University of Georgia before enlisting in the Air Force himself.

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Blakesmith, now a lieutenant colonel, served his final combat-related missions during 1966 and 1967 in Vietnam, flying Caribou cargo planes. Visiting family in Chariton during April of 1968, after returning stateside, he told the editor of The Herald-Patriot a little about his experiences there.

"In Vietnam, I flew 1,300 missions," he said, "mostly in the Central Highlands area, where there are few roads and those are unsafe. We flew supplies to the special forces camps near the Laotian border, landing on short runways, or supplying by air drop, and various missions over South Vietnam.

"Probably our most unusual cargo consisted of livestock for the Montagnard tribal forces who will not eat meat from any animal that they have not slaughtered. So we led cows and other livestock into the plane just as if it were a truck and off we went.

"In supplying ground forces in contact with the enemy, there was often a lot of ground fire, but my plane was only hit once, when the landing gear was knocked out. Recently, however, the introduction of a new ground-to-air rocket has been taking a heavier toll on transport planes."

Asked his opinion of the war in general, Blakesmith replied, "It's a tough war and it is my feeling that we are confronted with a situation where we are not winning, and might be losing, or a virtual stalemate."



Upon Col. Blakesmith's return to the United States, he and Dorothey moved from Savannah to Charleston, S.C., where his final two years until retirement were served. He retired on March 31, 1971, with the rank of full colonel.

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Although Col. Blakesmith had considered a private-sector job in the aviation industry, the couple decided that what they really wanted to do was return to Iowa --- and farm.

By May of 1971, they were living in what then was known as the Ilion Acres subdivision, but moved not long after to a farm along Highway 14 in southern Lucas County. They then acquired land just over the line into Wayne County and built their dream home there --- calling in Sugar Creek Farm.

Son John, who had inherited his parents' good looks and worked for a time as a model in New York City, followed his parents to Lucas County and began to farm with them, helping to develop a showcase purebred Simmental operation.

Approaching 90, Col. Blakesmith died on Dec. 8, 2003. Dorothey followed on July 17, 2004, six months later. On Jan. 5, 2011, John Blakesmith died at age 62 in the hospital where he had been born, Iowa Lutheran. Then, no one was left to tell their collective story.

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