Local Military News

Hilton Head veteran and witness to Normandy is honored at ceremony

John Blakeslee, 90, a World War II D-Day veteran and hospice care recipient, receives a red, white and blue flag blanket from hospice volunteer and Bluffton High School JROTC cadet Jose Guerra during a ceremony honoring Blakeslee's service conducted by Hospice Care of the Lowcountry on Thursday at Shelter Cove Veterans Memorial Park on Hilton Head Island. Looking on is one of Blakeslee's hospice care nurses, Debi Malool.
John Blakeslee, 90, a World War II D-Day veteran and hospice care recipient, receives a red, white and blue flag blanket from hospice volunteer and Bluffton High School JROTC cadet Jose Guerra during a ceremony honoring Blakeslee's service conducted by Hospice Care of the Lowcountry on Thursday at Shelter Cove Veterans Memorial Park on Hilton Head Island. Looking on is one of Blakeslee's hospice care nurses, Debi Malool. Jay Karr

For two days in June 1944, Dwight Blakeslee's ship floated at sea just off the beaches of Normandy.

He led a crew of 35 men inside the main engine room as other troops fought and fell against enemies in the cold and wind.

To Blakeslee, 90, that makes him a mere spectator to the most critical invasion of World War II.

His other memories of D-Day tell another story.

Blakeslee, a longtime Hilton Head Island resident and now patient at Hospice Care of the Lowcountry, recounted his memories of the operation to liberate France from German occupation and his life during the Veterans Memorial at Shelter Cove Community Park on Thursday. The former board president of Hilton Head Harbor RV Resort and Marina received a certificate from We Honor Veterans, a program of the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization.

Blakeslee remembers the deafening, mechanical whine of the spur gears inside Landing Ship, Tank 491's engine room and the ominous nickname for the LST ships -- Long Slow Target.

A few dozen friends and Sea Island Chapel church members laughed at that name during Thursday's ceremony.

But the moniker held true in 1944.

One night, an LST floating yards from 491 drifted over a mine and exploded.

In another close call, German planes bombed a neighboring LST at Nice, France.

Once Blakeslee and his crew came ashore in the third wave, they carried injured troops back to the relative safety of their ship, which was converted into a trauma center.

Still, the role that stands out in Blakeslee's mind is witness -- he watched the battleship USS Texas open fire with 14-inch guns as a Navy band played on deck.

"The fireworks display (this weekend) is nothing compared to the fireworks display on D-Day," Blakeslee said. "It was a spectacular view."

On Thursday, Blakeslee was also given a pin and a blanket, presented by four Bluffton High School JROTC cadets and one Citadel cadet.

"I feel like this is Christmas," he said, holding his certificate and gifts.

When he arrived at Shelter Cove, Blakeslee set the students at ease, greeting them, "Good morning, crew," before each thanked him for his service.

After the ceremony, a female cadet told him he was an inspiration.

Blakeslee had joined the Navy at 17, after convincing his father to sign a waiver for him. He'd been invited to attend MIT the next year, but said he couldn't wait.

"The Navy saw something in me that I didn't see in myself," he added.

To hear him tell it, though, Blakeslee's life began after he was honorably discharged from the Navy and rejoined his wife, Magie

He'd met her at 18 -- a beautiful girl 14 months his senior -- and proposed within the year, asking her to come down from New Haven, Conn., to elope at his post at Mobile, Ala.

"In typical fashion for her, she said, 'Call me back tomorrow, you're drunk,'" Blakeslee recalled as his friends laughed.

The next morning, though, on the eve of Blakeslee's departure for the Pacific, he made the call.

The pair wed that day, May 3, 1945.

After the war, their romance grew beyond the boxes of love letters they'd accumulated during his travels.

They made their own adventures, too, including covering 35,000 miles by bicycle.

They cycled through every state in the Union together.

Magie Blakeslee died in 2010 and was buried at Beaufort National Cemetery, along with one of their two daughters.

"I had 65 years of wonderful life," he said. "If you ever find a woman who's older than you -- and better -- hold on to her."

Blakeslee may have been thinking of her when he joined hospice nurse and music therapist Jenna Watkins as she sang Anchors Aweigh.

"Until we meet once more," he crooned, "here's wishing you a happy voyage home."

Follow reporter Rebecca Lurye on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Rebecca.

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