by Charles G. Summers and Marilyn S. Diamond1
men and women who fought World War II have been
called “America’s greatest generation”.
They rallied to the cause without a moments thought
of their own safety. Many of these brave souls now
rest on foreign soil, or their remains, having never
been recovered, are remembered by inscriptions on
cemetery walls. For most, their personal story of
heroic action in the face of almost certain death
has never been told. Such is the case of 1st Lieutenant
Robert Simpson Blakeley.
Bob was born in Ogden, Utah on August 29, 1915
to Matthew and Artie Blakeley. Bob enjoyed hunting
and fishing in the Wasatch mountains that formed
the backdrop of their home. It was while exploring
these mountains that he developed his love of forestry,
a field that he had hoped to make his career. Bob
graduated from Ogden High School and then from Weber
College and the Utah State Agricultural College
(now Utah State University) with a degree in forestry.
Following the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl
Harbor, Bob’s sense of duty compelled him
to enter the fray and he joined the United States
Army on January 12, 19422. Following
basic training, Bob was sent to Luke Field, Phoenix,
Arizona as an Aviation Cadet-Pilot, and following
student pilot training was approved for transfer
to the Air Corps for fighter pilot training on May
29, 19423. He completed his initial training
in July of 1942 and was commissioned a 2nd
Lieutenant. While on furlough, he married Leah Geddes
on July 31, 1942 in the Logan L.D.S. temple. Immediately
following their wedding, Bob was transferred in
August to Dale Mabry Field, Tallahassee, Florida
and in September to Sarasota Army Air Base, Sarasota,
Florida4. At Dale Mabry, Bob received
extensive training in aerial combat in a P-40 ‘Warhawk’,
the aircraft he would fly in battle. Leah was by
his side until he was transferred overseas in early
October. Bob was assigned to the 57th Fighter Group
(FG), 65th Fighter Squadron (FS) as one of their
first group of replacement pilots since their arrival
in North Africa in July, 1942. Bob joined the 65th
FS on November 12, 1942 in Gambut, Libya (Bill Hahn,
personal communication), and was soon promoted to
Here we digress a moment to acquaint you with the
Fighter Group and Squadron with which Bob would
become comrades in arms. The 57th Fighter Group
was constituted on November 20, 1940 as the 57th
Pursuit Group and redesignated the 57th Fighter
Group May 15, 19425. On July 1, 1942,
pilots and aircraft (P-40s) left Quonset Point,
RI aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ranger. On board
were three squadrons, the 64th, The Black
Scorpions; the 65th, The Fighting Cocks; and the
66th, the Exterminators. When the Ranger was 100
miles off the African Coast, the pilots took off
and flew to Accra, Gold Coast. This was the first
fighter group to takeoff from a carrier in land
based fighter planes, and the entire group took
off successfully, the only such group to do so5.
They arrived in the Mediterranean Theatre of Operations
(MTO) on July 30, 1942, the first American fighter
group in African and the MTO, and the first American
Fighter Group to see action Europe5.
While space does not permit a more lengthy discussion,
the reader is referred to two excellent histories5,
6. For those interested in World War II history,
both are a must read. Since Bob’s military
records were lost in a fire at the National Personnel
Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri, little is
known of his exploits until the fateful day of April
18, 1943 when he participated in one of the greatest
aerial battles of World War II, the Palm Sunday
Massacre, aka Cape Bon Massacre. We do know that
Bob received the Air Medal, given to airman who
flew at least 50 missions of one hour or more. The
following excerpts are provided to give you some
idea of what life was like while serving in the
North African Desert. The importance of the North
African Campaign was summarized in the writings
of M/SGT Bill Hahn,6 “. . . if
we were not to overcome the Nazi drive to the Suez
Canal” and “should the canal have fallen,
and the Germans captured the oil fields of the Middle
East, we would never have recovered to defeat this
enemy.” Sgt. Hahn writes further, that life
in the desert consisted of “fighting flies,
heat, dust, disease, maggots, bloated bodies, and
lack or water. Ed (Duke) Ellington7,
a member of the 65th Squadron, writes, “It
is a really miracle that so many of us lived to
come home . . . The uncounted episodes regarding
the way we build heaters using 100 octane (fuel)
in a number 10 can filled with sand to heat food
or coffee. Washing clothes in 100 octane and hanging
them out to air dry. We were young, daring and disparate.
We did it all and lived to tell about it. The days
we ate from our mess kits and sand blew so hard
a crust formed over our food and we would tunnel
under the crust to get to the food.” These
excerpts barely scratch the surface of what our
men endured during that time (see reference5).
We now return to Lt. Blakeley and a fateful day
in April, 1943. The morning of April 18, 1943 (Palm
Sunday) dawned uneventfully over the desert. By
this time, the 57th had moved its operations westward
from Gambut, Libya to El Djem, Tunisia. Early in
the morning of April 18, the 57th flew a reconnaissance
mission over the Mediterranean and saw nothing8.
Later, the English and South Africans took their
turn and again reported no contact 8.
At 5:00 p. m., a final patrol by the 57th FG, consisting
of the 64th, 65th, and 66th, squadrons
left El Diem6, 8. Bob was one of 12 members
of the 65th to fly the mission that afternoon. Their
orders were, “Pick up Spitfire cover to be
provided by the 244 Wing RAF. Proceed to the Gulf
of Tunis and patrol easterly and westerly off Cape
Bon. Come back when gas supplies dictates”8.
They climbed out and leveled off at 16,000 feet.
They flew west along the coast line of Tunisia and
then turned out over the Mediterranean. They received
orders from Captain Jim Curl, Group Commander, and
executed a formation that now spaced them into the
sky like a flight of stairs8. They continued
patrolling, flying first to the east and then back
to the west. No enemy was sighted. As daylight turned
to dusk and gas ran low, they executed their final
turn to return to base when someone spotted a large
armada of aircraft below, barely 1,000 feet of the
surface of the water. It was composed of JU-52s,
a large tri-motored German transport, Me 109s and
Me 110s, both German fighter aircraft (Messerschmitts)
flying cover. The Germans were flying supplies and
reinforcements into North Africa. After sizing up
the situation, Curl gave the order to attack. “A
squadron leader somewhere in the formation said,
‘stay in pairs, boys,’ somebody gave
a yelp and there was a high-pitched howl as the
first line of four Warhawks split into pairs and
went down in a long sweeping turn to the right.
The second element followed. The German fighters,
turning into the attack from all directions, came
at the Warhawks. The Palm Sunday Massacre was on”
8. What happened next was a fierce, wild
battle, too confusing, too lengthy and too complex
for this treatise to describe. You are referred
to the excellent discussion presented by Dodds5
and Thruelsen and Arnold8. “Ten
minutes after the first shot was fired, the air
over the Gulf of Tunis was clear”8.
The Palm Sunday Massacre was over as quickly as
it had begun. During that ten minute battle, the
57th, and their top cover of spitfires, destroyed
59 JU-52s, 14 Me-109s, 2 Me 110s. In addition, one
JU-53 and one Me-109 were listed as probably destroyed,
and 17 JU-53s nine Me109s and two Me 110s were damaged.
The pilots who participated in the battle referred
to it as “the Goose Shoot”5.
At some time during that ten minute period, Bob’s
P-40 was hit by enemy fire and plunged toward the
Mediterranean. The following is the only known account
of what happened next. “One Warhawk pilot,
believed to be Lt. Blakeley of 65th squadron, bailed
out at K-6885 (map coordinate) and his a/c (aircraft)
hit the water at K-6284 (map coordinate).”
“A pilot (possibly Lt. Blakeley) was seen
swimming in the water. Sky conditions overcast,
visibility poor9”. In addition,
five other pilots from the 57th were listed as missing
in action9. “Air and ground searches
were conducted during the months of June, July and
October, but no evidence was found which would aid
in the locating and recovering of the remains of
the subject deceased (Lt. Blakeley)10”.
“ The coastal area has been searched for isolated
burial and sites of crashed planes with negative
results and QMG Form 371 for the subject deceased
(Lt. Blakeley) has been compared with the Reports
of Findings of Identification Processing Teams on
all unknowns washed ashore in that area, with negative
of captured German documents failed to reveal any
information relative to the subject deceased (Lt.
Little did Bob realize that he had participated
in what would become know as one of the greatest
aerial battles of World War II5. The
destruction of the supply planes that day broke
the back of the Germans in North Africa and they
surrendered 25 days later8.
Bob is listed in Wayne Dodds book 8 as belonging
to the “Late Arrivals Club” (LAC). This
applied to pilots who failed to return to base following
a mission. Some returned days or even weeks later.
Unfortunately, such was not the case for Bob. The
names of all members of the 65th squadron are listed
on the wing of a Me-109 in the 65th “bar”8
which now resides in the New England Air Museum,
Windsor Locks, Conn., where an entire section is
devoted to the 57th Fighter Group. As was the custom,
Bob was listed as Missing in Action for one year
and one day then declared Killed in Action on April
19, 194411. He was posthumously awarded
the Purple Heart which was presented to his wife,
Leah. Bob is officially listed as Buried at Sea
on the Tablets of the Missing in North Africa, at
the American Cemetery in Carthage, Tunisia8.
As a modest man, Bob would be embarrassed by this.
He would say he was just doing his job, but to us,
he is a Hero.
We greatly appreciate the assistance of members
of the 65th Squadron for providing us
with information and leads: Bill Hahn, Ed Ellington,
Jim Hare, Ed Silks, and Lyle Custer. We also thank
Robert Johnston, Leon Jansen, and Dick Hewitt, all
WW II veterans.
1 The authors are the nephew
and niece of Robert S. Blakeley. Addresses: Department
of Entomology, University of California, Davis, CA
95616 and Honors Program, Weber State University,
Ogden, UT 84408, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
respectively. 2 National Archives and Records
Administration. United States Military Records Section.
3 Form 79 — US Army Medical Department.
4 Form AGRAC I-130, Identification Section,
Memorial Division, Army Air-Corps. 5 Dodds,
Wayne, S. [editor]. 1985. The Fabulous Fifty-Seventh
Fighter Group of World Was II. Walsworth Publishing
Co. Marceline, Missouri. 6 Hahn, W. 1959.
57th Fighter Group, 65th Fighter Squadron. Published
by the Author 7 Ellington, E. 2001. Uncle
Bud Newsletter. Vol. 4, No. 1. 8 Thruelsen,
R., and E. Arnold. Mediterranean Sweep. Duell, Sloan
& Pierce. New York. 9 Operational &
Intelligence Summary No. 96. Headquarters, Fifty Seventh
Fighter Group (AAF). Operations for April 18, 1943.
El Djem North L.G. 10 Lawing, W. F. Statement
of Investigation. 26 November 1948. US Army Air Corps.
11 Finding of Death of Missing Person.
War Department. The Adjutant General’s Office
Form No. 0353. 12 www.americanwardead.com/detailww.asp.