Lieutenant Commander John T. Blackburn (VGF-29) Transferred Via Breeches Buoy To USS Santee (ACV-29)

United States Navy Lieutenant Commander (later Captain) John Thomas "Tommy" Blackburn (June 24, 1942 - March 21, 1994) is transferred via breaches buoy from destroyer USS Rodman (DD-456) to a fleet oiler (probably USS Housatonic AO-35) back to escort carrier USS Santee (ACV-29, later CVE-29). A breeches buoy was a coal sack strung on a pulley rigged between two ships at sea. Blackburn, a 1933 Naval Academy graduate, was in command of VGF-29, fourteen Grumman F4F Wildcat fighters tasked with covering the Western Force landings at Safi during Operation Torch. Taking off as the first of six Wildcats, Blackburn threaded through the parked fighters, Douglas SBD dive bombers and Grumman TBF Avengers to build up speed for takeoff. On station over Safi Blackburn's flight encountered no hostile aircraft and did not engage ground targets. One Wildcat piloted by George N. Trumpeter developed an oil leak; the pilot crashed in the sea 100 miles (160 kilometers) North of Safi and was killed. Depending on Santee's YE "hayrake" radio-direction finder homing gear to navigate back to the carrier, Blackburn was unaware it was damaged by a misfired aircraft depth charge dumped over the side on November 2 and not properly functioning. Flying blind in a storm, Blackburn's flight was misidentified and given incorrect coordinates, preventing the Wildcats from landing on Santee. Out of fuel early because of a faulty landing gear, Blackburn ditched and spent sixty hours in his life raft; the other four pilots (Ensigns R.W. Peterson, W.P. Taylor, U.L. Fretwell, and E. Van Vranken) crash landed at Mazagan and were interned for a short time before rejoining the Americans and sent home. Embarrassed by the loss of his flight, Blackburn later wrote, "I was thus transferred back aboard Santee by high line, riding in a coal sack. Having made such an ass of myself, I arrived feeling very hangdog. To my delight and amazement, the ship's exec (Executive Officer) was on hand to warmly greet me and present the skipper's apology for not being able to do so himself, what with the press of business on the bridge. However, I was invited to see the captain on the bridge as soon as I felt up to it. All this as well as the large welcoming committee of cheering shipmates which turned out to greet me." Blackburn's enthusiasm was somewhat tempered by the worry over his missing pilots. He was hospitalized for severe cold water immersion of his feet, which were close to gangrene. In 1943 he became the commanding officer of VF-17, the "Jolly Rogers," based in the Solomons. VF-17 claimed 155 Japanese aircraft. Blackburn became an ace, with thirteen Japanese kills to his credit. He later commanded the aircraft carrier USS Midway (CV-41) from 1958 to 1959. He retired from the Navy in 1962. His memoirs were published in 1983 and are still in print as of 2008.
Caption Written By: 
Jason McDonald
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Archival Identifier: 
Date Photographed: 
Wednesday, November 11, 1942
Off the Coast of Safi